Back translation best practices

Back translation: best practices and important use cases

Back translation is a quality assurance technique that can add clarity to and control over your translated content. But it can also drain your budget without adding much value! Not to worry though: in this article, we’ll cover virtually all the use cases, so pick yours and find out whether back translation can help you level up your localization game.

What is back (or reverse) translation?

Back translation is a localization quality control method where content is translated back to its original language and then compared to the source text. The goal is to find discrepancies and evaluate the accuracy of the translation. It is used to check the translation and ensure high quality. Usually, there are several steps, for instance:

  1. Translate the content to the target language.
  2. Ask another linguist to perform a literal—very precise—translation of this content back to the original language. See below for best practice instructions.
  3. Compare the back translation to the original text to make sure the back translation is accurate and complete.

When to use back translation and why

Reverse translation comes in handy if:

  • It is crucial to translate your content in the most accurate way possible
  • Your content is very creative and highly important for the business

Highly sensitive and regulated content

In some industries, regulations require back translation to be a part of the translation process, and even if not, there are many types of content you’ll want to make sure is translated correctly to avoid serious negative consequences. Some such fields include:

  • Medical: protocols, pharmaceutical guidelines, clinical research and trials, medical instruments, and devices
  • Legal: contracts, taxation and customs documents, insurance, laws
  • Finance: reports, regulatory documents
  • Technical and manufacturing: safety manuals, operation guidelines, food and beverage packaging, etc.

It’s hard to provide a comprehensive list of all the relevant content types, but the main criteria here is the potential to harm health and business. It’s always easier to mitigate that risk by double-checking the most important parts of your translations!

Creative and impactful content

So, you are going to release a new product on multiple markets and you’re creating a lot of content to do it. Or you plan to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into your new global online ad campaign. You’ve brainstormed the ideas and messages for months with the best creative minds and the copy is truly genius. But how can you be sure it will work well in other markets? It might need transcreation instead of just translation, so you want to understand what exactly your ads say in Hungarian, for example. Time for back translation!

Creative back translation examples

Let’s look at the iPhone12 slogan in different languages.

Original copy in English: Blast past fast.

LanguageTranslationBack translation
PortugueseMais rápido do que rápido.Faster than fast.
SpanishMás allá de la velocidad.Beyond speed.
GermanFast zu schnell, um wahr zu sein.Almost too fast to be true.
FrenchVers la vitesse et au-delà.Towards speed and beyond.
UkrainianШвидкість в усій красі.Speed in all its beauty.
RussianВо-первых, это быстро.First, it’s fast.

Disclaimer: These links are being provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement or affiliation of Lokalise with any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual.

As you can see, there are numerous ways of translating such a creative slogan as “Blast past fast.”

Another example: there are many cases in which you need to set a character limit to help ensure translations are kept to a certain length. This could be related to limited space where the translated content will be placed (buttons, app notifications, email subject lines, etc.) or the specific requirements of advertising platforms (Google search ads for example). Oftentimes, translators would subsequently have to adapt the original copy to make sure the new translation fits in. However, as above, back translation will help you understand whether or not the adapted copy is accurate. 

Back translation as QA tool

Example: To fit within the limit (Google callout – 25 characters), the French translator conveyed “Less work for developers” as “Reduced development,” which is misleading in this instance. A great case for back translation as a QA tool!

Best practices and recommendations for using back translation

Before we get into the actionable tips you can start using today, let’s start by clarifying when you should not use back translation. 

When not to use back translation

Adding back translation to your localization process means involving a second or even a third translator, which means it can double or triple the project costs. So, use it only when the price of delivering an inaccurate translation is much higher than spending 2-3x more on the project, or if your content belongs to a highly regulated field.

If it is not required but you still want to go for it, be smart about the scope of content to be back translated. Some documents or even parts of the text may not need to be double-checked at all.

For less critical projects that don’t require reverse translation, assure quality with less costly methods like review of the translations by a second linguist and using QA checks to spot errors that are hard to find by simply reading the text.

Back translation workflow

Here’s what the back translation workflow looks like in three steps:

  1. Translate your content from source to target.
  2. Ask another translator to do a back translation.
  3. Compare the back translation to the original text while looking for meaningful differences.

Now, here’s an example of a back translation task that you can use as a template. 

Back translation instructions – an example

In this back translation task, the text was originally translated from English into Hungarian, and now we ask you to translate it back to English.

The final purpose is to compare the two English texts, looking for possible accuracy, completeness, and consistency issues. Please translate this document as close to the Hungarian as possible, without violating English grammatical rules. Try to convey the meaning in the most accurate way possible. Please don’t strive to improve the translation by fixing accuracy or consistency issues in the translation.

The goal is not to obtain a good English translation, but to spot possible mistakes in Hungarian. Thank you!

Back translation checklist

Use this checklist that covers the most important back translation steps to help you and your team implement these best practices. 

  • Use a different vendor for back translation to avoid conflicts of interest
  • Don’t show this vendor the original content to eliminate bias
  • Provide clear instructions: tell them it is a back translation, give the context, explain what is important to you. E.g., for a medical document, you want to spot possible accuracy, terminology, consistency, and completeness issues. For creative copy, ask them to pay attention to style, images, metaphors, and connotations.
  • Ask your back translator to be as precise as possible, but not to violate the original language’s grammatical rules for the sake of a 100% word-for-word rendering.
  • Compare the back translation to the original text yourself or invite a third-party linguist to do it.

How to use Lokalise for back translations

  1. Create separate projects for each language you translate into.
  2. Have the content translated into target languages.
  3. In every original project, select the keys you want to back translate.
  4. In Bulk actions at the bottom of the page, select Copy/move to project…New project…, check Include all languages, and click Copy.
  5. In the pop-up window, name your new project (e.g., BT_Hungarian) and choose your target language as the Base language.
  6. Open this new project, select all the keys, and in Bulk actions select Clear translations… and choose the original source language (e.g., English). Now you have your Hungarian into English back translation project.
  7. In project settings, remove checkmarks from Translation Memories so that the translator won’t see the original text in the inline suggestions. Create a new Translation Memory for these projects instead.
  8. Open any key for translation to make sure there are no inline TM suggestions.
  9. Create the tasks and assign them to back translators.
  10. When the back translation is ready, download the final files from the back translation projects and compare the texts to the original.

Where to look for back translators

Finally, if you don’t have any independent vendors within easy reach, try assigning back translations to professional translators using Lokalise Translation Orders or choose a reliable company from our partners list.

Add clarity and control over your translated content with Lokalise

Grab a free Lokalise trial so you can put the back translation best practices to test and improve your translation quality.

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