Survey Back-Translation: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Survey back-translation is a service a lot of market researchers request to can make sure they’re using an accurately translated survey before they go to field. A back-translation is everything its name implies: a survey or document first translated from one language into another and then back into the original language.

If you’ve used a survey back-translation service before, you’ve probably done so because you’ve thought it’s a necessary quality assurance step. But are the time and money that go into a survey back-translation really worth it? Or as the title of this blog asks: is the juice worth the squeeze?

If you work for a life science company translating clinical trial documentation, your regulatory department will most likely require a back-translation. No and’s, if’s, or but’s. But if you work for a market research firm and want to know whether the translation of your survey captures all the linguistic and semantic nuances of the original, you may want to consider an alternative method.

The Squeeze of Survey Back-Translation

Back-translation takes place after the standard translation and review steps have already taken place. Without seeing the original English source, a third linguist receives the foreign language version and translates it back to English.

Next, the back-translation is compared to the original to determine whether the original meaning was captured in translation. Depending on approach, what happens next can wind up being a lot like a game of telephone.

The project manager may look at the back-translation and see some deviation between the two English versions. They may then go back to the original translator to ask for clarification.

The translator may or may not update the original translation in an effort to make the back-translation more closely reflect the source. If you really feel so inclined, you can go back and forth between the translator and back-translator until the back-translation and English source match exactly.

Does this mean that you have a really excellent translation? Not necessarily. Knowing the translation is an exact equivalent of the source doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get accurate data.

The Juice of Survey Back-Translation

To fully understand what you’re getting out of this process, it’s also important to understand what you’re not getting out of a back-translation:

  • No indication of how well the translation will work for your target market
  • No indication of how fluently the translation reads in the target language
  • No true measure of translation quality

And what a back-translation can detect (but not correct):

  • Mistranslations: If the translator completely misunderstood the source text, made a serious mistake in their translation choice, used completely incorrect terminology, or blatantly incorrect grammar.
  • Additions or omissions: If the translator forgot to translate a section of the text or for some reason added unnecessary, unrelated text to the translation.
  • Syntax: If the translator mixed up the sentence, paragraph, or page order of a translation.

So, is Back-Translation Worth it?

That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. For life science companies, this step might make sense. Accuracy of the text is likely to be more important than text fluidity and readability.

Terminology in the life sciences is less open for interpretation. Also, if this is a fixed part of the process due to regulatory requirements, there may not be a workaround. But for market research companies, we recommend a different approach. What’s most important is that your translator is fully qualified and experienced with survey content.

An Alternative to Survey Back-Translation

Instead of back-translation, a better quality assurance step may be a third-party review. In this review step, the translation is sent to a third professional linguist. The linguist can then detect all of the same errors that a back-translation would uncover. But this step will also check for fluency of the translation and ensure that it’s appropriate for the target market. Unlike back-translation, this step allows for corrections.

Aside from providing you with more value than a survey back-translation, a third-party review is a much more efficient and cost-effective alternative. Based on an hourly rate rather than per-word, a third party review costs 50–75% less than a back-translation on average.

If you’d like to get more insight into ensuring survey translation quality or into market research translation, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section.