Backing off back translations

Backing off back translations

Over the past few years, the volume of translations in the pharma sector has grown significantly. Drivers for this growth are global regulatory requirements as well as new opportunities that have opened up in new markets, whether for marketing medical products or conducting clinical trials.


A “back-translation” is a translation of a translated text back into the language of the original text, made without reference to the original text.

Comparison of a back-translation with the original text is sometimes used as a check on the accuracy of the original translation.


The introduction of back translation is a safety-check for companies to ensure nothing has been “lost in translation,” but it is also a major cost driver, effectively doubling the cost of any particular translation. Finding qualified back translators is also a challenge. The requirement for a native speaker of the source language, most frequently English, with relevant experience in the given therapeutic area, and high proficiency in the target language, may not be a problem for a major languages. But it will be for some of the emerging or minority languages. For some companies back translation is an integral part of their procedure. If forward translation may introduce errors, so can back translation. Back translations should not be seen as a replacement of the established Quality process or a substitute for inferior quality forward translations. It pays to put maximum efforts into ensuring quality in the forward translation.

When they are assigned to the work, translators should be made aware they are conducting a back translation so that they can adjust their approach accordingly and focus on an accurate, more literal reflection of the content in the source language and the general readability of the text. They should also be able to provide comments to the back translation, which will greatly facilitate the final compilation of translation.


The benefit of processing a back translation is twofold. Firstly, as mentioned above, it can be used as a tool to help validate the quality of a translation. If the quality of a text is in doubt a back translation with give a good understanding of the translation. Secondly, back translations can be used to understand how well a text is suited to a specific market. Writing styles vary greatly from culture to culture, and using text that can be easily followed once translated is important. For example if you have a text translated that is full of colloquial terms and expressions and then the subsequent back translation misses the meaning of these, the problem may not be in the translation but the source material. Back translation can be a useful method for checking the usability of source material in a potential market.