Spectral phase conjugation with short pump pulses in a third-order nonlinear material is analyzed in depth. It is shown that if signal amplification is considered, the conversion efficiency can be significantly higher than previously considered, while the spectral phase conjugation operation remains accurate. A novel method of compensating for cross-phase modulation, the main parasitic effect, is also proposed. The validity of our theory and the performance of the spectral phase conjugation scheme are studied numerically. © 2004 Optical Society of America.