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A consumer holds a bottle of medicine and review instructions for use and warnings, which require careful translation.

Back Translation in Life Sciences Content

A Safety Precaution for High-Risk Translations

Quality in translation is always important, but within the life sciences industry, incorrect translations can literally be life-threatening. Even the most minor mistranslations can put patients at risk, so it’s imperative that translations are performed correctly the first time. The usual translation quality assurance steps—while comprehensive—need to be supplemented with something more: back translation.

What is Back Translation?

Back translation is the process of taking a translated text and rendering it back into its source language in order to check its meaning. During clinical labeling, it is an important step prior to the global launch of any medicine, medical device or accompanying directions and manuals. This quality assurance method doubly ensures the translation’s accuracy.

Those operating in the life sciences field should always request back translation, even if they have their own in-country review support. The aim of the process, which is sometimes referred to as translation validation, is simple: help the client to verify the text’s accuracy.  

 The ideal back translation candidate specializes in the field, has done similar work in the past and has not been involved with the original translation project.

How to Ensure Perfect Execution for Sensitive Documentation

Idiomatic expressions, grammatical twists and turns and unspoken cultural underpinnings are part of the nature of language. Back translated text will never be exactly the same as the original, but it’s exceptionally useful for identifying errors and sources of confusion that might arise.

While standard translations require a comparatively artful approach to capture not only the meaning, but also the feeling of the language, back translations are performed as literally as possible in order to express the exact meaning of the translation. This brings nuances of grammar and culture to the fore, exposing the slightest inaccuracy or possible misinterpretation.

Who Should Perform the Back Translation?

These projects should always be carried out by a subject matter expert (SME) who has native fluency in the target language. The ideal candidate should be someone who specializes in the field and has done similar work in the past, but they must not have been involved with the original translation project. Furthermore, the back translator should complete the task without the use of reference materials or the original source. This guarantees an unbiased, accurate back translation.

A hand holds a bottle of pills in a pharmacy aisle.

Why is Back Translation Still Relevant?

The truth is, even the simplest, most innocuous statements can take on different meanings when translated. For example, translate the phrase “I like turtles,” into Chinese (Mandarin, specfically), using an online translation tool. Now copy the Chinese text and translate it back into English. What comes out? “I like the tortoise.” It’s easy to see how a slight distinction like this in such a simple sentence could mean major dissimilarities in longer texts. Slight differences like this might amount to very little in a casual conversation, but when it comes to the life sciences industry, the devil is in the details.

In the United States, both English and Spanish are widely spoken, but not everyone is bilingual, much less a translator. Take, for example, the word “intoxicado.” It can mean “intoxicated” or “poisoned,” and can include anything from drug or alcohol intoxication to food poisoning or accidental ingestion of arsenic or mercury. With so many meanings, the importance of the correct translation for medical purposes is obvious.

Similarly, the word “impair” interpreted for Spanish speakers could be translated as ‘afectar.’ If this word were then back translated, it would be translated as ‘to affect.’ Literally, ‘to affect’ means ‘to influence, to have an impact on’ whereas ‘to impair’ means ‘to worsen, to damage, to weaken.’ Back translation serves as the ultimate double-check to spot mistakes and rework the original translation.

The Ultimate Safe Step for Medical Localization Projects

But it takes time. Back translation projects increase reviewer workloads and can make deadlines terribly hard to meet. That’s why preparation is so important for translation projects in the medical field. There should be plenty of time allocated for forward- and back translation, reviews and dealing with the unexpected. Products can then be released on time and to necessarily exacting standards, thereby protecting both the life sciences industry and the people they serve.

How the Life Sciences Industry Safeguards its Riskiest Projects

Good translations should always be clear, precise, culturally appropriate and handled correctly for each target language audience. In the medical and healthcare fields, good translations need to go further. It may not be necessary for all content, but clients are strongly advised to perform back translation as an additional step in their usual QA process for high-risk documentation such as texts relating to medications, clinical trials, patient wellbeing and medical devices.

Back translation ensures the highest level of accuracy and thus, safety. It may take more time and money, but in this industry, it is always best to be safe rather than sorry.

That’s why it’s so important to partner with an experienced language services provider like Lionbridge. Our Life Sciences team is well-versed in key industry areas including medical device production and regulation, clinical trial administration and regulatory compliance for the pharmaceutical corporations. Our deep bench of professional translators means we have access to fresh linguists for back translation in any language you need. Speed, quality, scale: that’s the Lionbridge Difference. Reach out to see it for yourself.

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Dan Herron
Dan Herron