Most of the questions I get asked about modern translation work involve the hot new tool known as back translation.
The funny thing about life, I think, is that while I feel more or less the same way I felt ten years ago – an ache or twinge here there aside. In other words, I don’t wake up and think, gosh, I’ve evolved and matured and grown as a person and a professional! No, I feel basically like the same man who started down this road of translation services all those years ago. The only difference is experience and confidence, really.
So it’s strange to me when younger translation professionals want my opinion on things, and ask me a lot of the same questions over and over again as if I was some sort of expert. Just because I’ve been around longer doesn’t mean I know everything – though I am reminded of that great line from the film Groundhog Day: “Maybe [God’s] not omnipotent. He's just been around so long he knows everything.”
The Question of Back Translation
One of the questions I get asked constantly concerns back translation and its value.
Back translation, in case you haven’t encountered it, is a quality-control mechanism wherein your translation is then translated back into the source language by another translation professional, and the original and the back translation are compared. It’s gaining traction around the world as a way to monitor how well your translators are doing.
My answer: It’s a terrible idea. The problem is simple to grasp: Translation is an art, not a science. There are infinite correct ways for me to take a text into another language. Thus there are infinite correct ways for someone else to reverse the process. The end result are two correct, vastly different texts – so different, usually, as to make comparison useless.
I know the follow-up question, too: Does that mean there’s no time back translation is useful? The answer is, of course there are exceptions to the above where back translation is a good tool.
Mainly, what I’m thinking of are highly technical and constrained documents – documents that have a very formal language and very specific structure – and as a result very narrowly defined meanings. For example, legal documents or technical documents. There are much fewer acceptable variations for such documents, and thus back translation should compare much more closely with the original if the translation work was done correctly.
So yes, there are workflows where back translation can be a useful tool. But not, I still don’t think, a necessary one. Because it still always comes down to the skill of the translation professional themselves – while back translation can help you test work, in the end your client will let you know when the translation work slips – believe me. And trying to avoid that awkward moment is laudable – but ultimately impossible.
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