Round-trip translation

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Round-trip translation is the process of translating a word, phrase or text into another language, then translating the result at least once more without reference to the original text, until it ends up back in the language it started in. This often results in something substantially different from the original.

Round-trip translations can occur when the translator does not know that an original version in the target language exists, the original version is not available, or the foreign-language version has become so commonplace that the original meaning is not important. It is also deliberately performed with machine translation and computer-assisted translation software to test for the preservation of meaning and the software's accuracy.


In as much as translation between two distinct, living languages is never an exact science, the current state of computer translation tools makes this more evident. Small glitches in the translation can easily be exploited in repetition, becoming more pronounced as errors pass from one language to another. As one website explains it, "translation software is almost good enough to turn grammatically correct, slang-free text from one language into grammatically incorrect, barely readable approximations in another. But the software is not equipped for 10 consecutive translations of the same piece of text. The resulting half-English, half-foreign, and totally non sequitur response bears almost no resemblance to the original. Remember the old game of 'Telephone'? Something is lost, and sometimes something is gained." [1]


Arriving at surprising results with machine translation is not a recent phenomenon, and may date back to the inception of the software in the 1950s and the 1960s. According to Werner R. Loewenstein's The Touchstone of Life,[2] a language translation machine was experimented with for translating the Bible from English to Spanish. It apparently "did quite well until it got to Matthew 26:41: 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.' The translation read: ‍ '​el aguardiente es agradable pero la carne es insipida‍ '​ (the liquor is nice but the meat is bland)." Competing versions of the story have surfaced as far back as 1990. In 2000, a reviewer of the same book mentions an English-Russian-English version he is aware of,[3] as does a 1999 Snopes article.[4]

In Philip K. Dick's 1969 novel Galactic Pot Healer, a character passes the time at his boring job by playing a game involving round-trip translations and a world-wide computer network. A typical instance of the game involves one person translating an English book title into a different language (e.g. Japanese) and back. Then another person tries to guess the original title. It was a remarkably accurate description of games that can be played with online translation tools.

Examples of round-trip translation are not limited to automatic translation tools. Mark Twain published a literal re-translation into English of a French translation of his 1865 short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.[5]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Gaspari, F. (2006) "Look Who's Translating. Impersonations, Chinese Whispers and Fun with Machine Translation on the Internet" in Proceedings of the 11th Annual Conference of the European Association of Machine Translation