So you’ve heard of translation… but have you heard of back translation?

In this Ultimate Guide to Back Translation, we explore what back translation is, how and when it is used and the benefits of adding it to your next translation project.

So, what is it?

As you know, translation moves a text from one language to another, so think of back translation as going ‘backwards’ and moving the text in the opposite direction.

For example, from English to French, and back again.

Why do we do this? To check the accuracy of the translation against the source text.

In a regular translation process, there are three steps — Translation, Editing and Proofreading (TEP).

Whilst these three steps are necessary to create a quality translation, back translation is an additional step that can be added for extra quality assurance.

By completing a back translation, you end up with three versions of the text, as in the example below:

As you can see above, it is unlikely that a back translation will ever be exactly the same as the source text because every translator translates differently.

The back translation process must be completed by an independent translator, rather than the translator who originally translated the source text.

The translator undertaking the back translation should never have seen or worked on the source text so that they are able to complete an unbiased back translation that is as accurate and precise as possible.

When to use back translation

Back translation is not the most common quality assurance process because it does add extra time and cost onto the project however, if your project is not on a tight deadline, it is certainly worth considering.

It should also be said that back translation is also not the solution for every type of translation.

Here are some of the main types of documents that can benefit from back translation:

  • Pharmaceutical texts
  • Forms and surveys
  • Medical and scientific reports
  • Legal texts
  • Other documents containing high risk or sensitive information

Back translation is most important for texts where even a small translation error can have major repercussions.

For example, if you are developing a vaccine and translating the list of ingredients and side-effects into a number of languages, the risk of mistranslation could be extremely high, leading to serious harm to a person, and potential litigation.

In cases such as these, back translation is sometimes also a regulatory and legal requirement to certify accuracy and to protect consumers from false or incorrect information about potentially life-changing products.

Because of the high states that are often involved in translations, back translation is not only an effective quality control method, but a worthwhile investment.

What next?

After a back translation is completed, an analysis of the source text and the back translation is completed to identify any mistranslations or missing information.

When comparing the source text with the back translation, the idea is not to be nit-picky about small differences, but to identify any bigger issues such as ambiguities or mistranslations.

Let’s look back at the example given earlier:

As you can see above, the coloured text shows that there are three differences between the source text and the back translation.

The first and third differences (marked in purple) are stylistic or due to word choice, therefore these differences do not indicate that there were any issues with the accuracy of the translation.

However, the second difference (marked in red) indicates that an error has occurred.



Despite the sentence in the back translation being grammatically correct, the source text meaning has been distorted.

Identifying an error such as this during back translation prompts an investigation into where the error was introduced.

Errors like this could have been introduced during the English to French translation or the French to English back translation.

Back translation therefore proves itself useful in this case because a proofreader may have not picked up this error if reading the translation alone, because the text makes sense despite not accurately reflecting the meaning of the source text.

What are the benefits of back translation?

Back translation is not the only quality assurance process that can be used for translations, however, it is one of the most popular methods used to assess translation quality.

Here are just a few benefits of back translation:

  • Back translation is an extra quality assurance step because you can never be too thorough!
  • Back translation allows another set of eyes to be involved in making sure that important information is not missed or mistranslated
  • Back translations result in a greater chance that errors will be found before your documents are published, saving time, money and red faces
  • After the back translation is completed, you will receive a report explaining the findings of the process, to give you extra peace of mind about your translations.

One of the main advantages of back translation is that it also involves clients in the quality assurance process, as it allows people who aren’t familiar with the target language to assess the translation quality.

When back translation isn’t the best QA option

Back translation certainly has its advantages, but as already mentioned, it is not suitable for every translation project.

Have a look below to see how different quality assurance processes suit different texts.

As you can see above, in some cases, such as when localization or transcreation has been used during the translation process, back translation will not be a useful tool to assess translation accuracy.

This is because localization and transcreation adapt the messaging so that it is more suitable for the target audience, and therefore in this case back translation would result with a very different text to the source — even if the translation was accurate.

You can read more about localization and transcreation in our recent blog post.

In these instances, a better QA process would be to opt for community checking, which involves the translations being read and assessed by members of the community who will actually be engaging with the translated documents.

Thinking about adding back translation onto your next project?

In short, back translation may be a complicated idea to get your head around, however it is one of the more straightforward methods of assessing and ensuring translation quality.

The friendly team at Ethnolink can do all the heavy lifting and organise back translation to be added onto your next project.

So if you don’t want to or can’t afford to compromise on quality when it comes to translations, get in touch with one of our translation strategists today.