Famous Translations in History: Mark Twain Back-Translates His Own Story

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, far better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, is one of the great authors of American history; to be sure, one of the most brilliant authors ever to write in the English language. He is best known for the iconic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he published nearly 30 books during his lifetime, as well as numerous short stories, articles, and other works. As great a writer as he was, Twain is not necessarily best remembered for his contributions to the art of translation. But there is one famous instance in which he did just that.

Twain’s first work to gain widespread popularity was a humorous short story published in 1865, entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story was inspired by Twain’s travels in the American West.

Upon discovering a French translation of the story, Twain decided to back-translate the French translation back into English. Back translation is a technique often used in the translation industry, as a way to check the accuracy of the translation: a document, after being translated from its source language into a given target language, is then translated back into the original source language, and this back-translation is compared with the original. However, Twain’s motives for his back translation were different: his aim was to make fun of back translation and expose its limitations, by producing a hilariously nonsensical final product. In his back translation, Twain chose to translate the French version of the work word-for-word back into English, keeping the French word order and grammatical structure intact, even when they made no sense in English. The result reads something like what you might get if you used Google Translate to translate a whole short story.

While Twain’s back translation was intentionally ridiculous, the points that it made are still respected in the translation agency today. While back translation is a technique still employed in many cases, and can be a useful tool to ensure translation accuracy, its limitations are important to understand and remember.