Fun with back translation

Reverse translation refers to translating out of your native language into a foreign language, an activity that many interpreters do but not many professional translators. An excellent active knowledge of the foreign language is required, no doubt. Professional interpreters do this more than written text translators, and this is acceptable for a variety of reasons. In part, because interpreting is context driven and, usually, single use. Also because oral errors somehow seem less serious than written ones.

But this is not to say that reverse translation or writing in a foreign language is impossible, just that it is difficult. Previously, in Tradiling, we have mentioned eminent writers that published directly in a second or third language.

Back translation in the title of this article does not necessarily refer to writing or translating into a second language. What I am referring to here is re-translating any translated text back into its original language (without knowledge of the original). This activity is sometimes used in professional contexts as a quality indicator in translation processes, as described here:

Back translation and reconciliation services give you additional quality and accuracy assurance for your most sensitive translation and localization projects. Both back translation and reconciliation become important when you have high value content that you need translated across languages with as much certainty as possible that the exact meaning is conveyed.

From The What And Why Of Back Translation And Reconciliation, Language Scientific

Back-translation has also occasionally been proposed as an awareness-raising activity in translator training. See for example, Backtranslation: How faithful can you be?, p.123, in González Davies, M. (2004). Multiple voices in the translation classroom: Activities, tasks and projects.

Back translation can also be used in a game format or as a classroom activity, as I describe below for the Spanish-English language pair. An example will make this clearer.

  • Translated text:
    Esto que hago ahora es mejor, mucho mejor que cuanto hice en la vida, y el descanso que voy a lograr es mucho más agradable que cuanto conocí anteriormente.
  • Back-translated text:
    What I’m doing now is much, much better than anything I did before, and the peace I’ll find will be deeper than any I have known.
  • Original text:
    It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
  • Original context:
    This text comes at the end of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities. They are the thoughts of Sydney Carton as he willingly goes to the guillotine, sacrificing himself to save another man.

The challenge in this activity is to come up with a convincing back-translation and identify the source of the original text. Points can be awarded for the best back-translation and for identifying the original author and work.

The idea for this group activity focusing on translation came to me some time ago, on reading a article titled Quotes From Spanish Authors That Will Inspire You To Take A Language Lesson.

Here are some other translated quotes you could use to play the game.

  1. In one kiss, you’ll know all I haven’t said.
  2. A man only has the right to look down at another when he helps him to lift himself up.
  3. There is no book so bad…that it does not have something good in it.
  4. I’ve often lost myself, in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake.
  5. Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.
  6. I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.
  7. Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.
  8. Men shout to avoid listening to one another.
  9. I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I am going is what inspires me to travel it.

If you want to play the game by yourself, have a go before consulting the key below.

This back-translation game can be played with any kind of text. It doesn’t have to be literary. It could be technical or religious, for example. Or why not try it with the lyrics of pop songs?

Answer key

  1. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
    En un beso, sabrás todo lo que he callado.
    Amor | Besos
  2. Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)
    Un hombre sólo tiene derecho a mirar a otro hacia abajo, cuando ha de ayudarle a levantarse.
  3. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616),
    —No hay libro tan malo —dijo el bachiller—, que no tenga algo bueno.
    El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.
    This expression was a well-known saying in the Renaissance period and can be traced back to Pliny the Younger.
  4. Federico García-Lorca (1898-1936)
    A menudo me he perdido a mí mismo para encontrar la quemadura que mantiene todo despierto.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafón (1964- )
    Los libros son espejos: sólo se ve en ellos lo que uno ya lleva dentro.
    La sombra del viento.
  6. Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
    No estoy seguro de que yo exista, en realidad. Soy todos los autores que he leído, toda la gente que he conocido, todas las mujeres que he amado. Todas las ciudades que he visitado, todos mis antepasados.
  7. Isabel Allende (1942- )
    Escribir es un proceso, un viaje en la memoria y el alma.
  8. Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)
    Los hombres gritan para evitar escucharse el uno al otro.
  9. Rosalia de Castro (1837-1885)
    Veo mi camino, pero no sé hacia dónde conduce. No saber hacia dónde voy es lo que me inspira a recorrer el camino.
Richard Samson

About Richard Samson

I’m a teacher living in Osona, Spain. I'm into tennis, dogs, and chickens. I’m also interested in translation and Moodle (well, digital tools for teaching, in general).
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