|Issue 31||Winter 2000|
Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU7 5XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply to SRU subscriptions at the address above, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translating from one language to another
Maria Birbili is currently a lecturer in Educational Research Methodology at the department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford. After finishing her DPhil on Greek higher education, she worked as a research officer for 18 months. Her research interests include issues involved in the socialization of academics and institutional differentiation, and the training of researchers.
Moving between languages can take different forms. For example (taking English as the language in which the research is to be reported): an English-speaking researcher might conduct an interview in a language other than English; a researcher interviews in her primary language which in not English; researcher and participants are fully and fluently bilingual - they slip between the two languages during the interview (Rossman and Rallis, 1998:161). In cases of international assessments or cross-cultural research test items, questionnaires or interview schedules are translated from English into the language of different countries and vice versa.
Although not all studies which involve different languages are equally dependent on the precision of linguistic data (for instance, in studies that are predominantly observational), researchers need to be aware that the translation process usually requires both time and effort on their part and can present various types of problems, some of which may not be completely overcome (Phillips, 1960; Lewin, 1990; Broadfoot and Osborn, 1993; Ercikan, 1998). More importantly, however, researchers need to keep in mind that translation-related decisions have a direct impact on the validity of the research and its report.
On those occasions where two languages do not offer direct lexical equivalence several researchers and linguists suggest that ones efforts should be directed towards obtaining conceptual equivalence without concern for lexical comparability (Deutscher, 1968:337; Whyte and Braun, 1968:121; Bassnett-McGuire, 1980; Overing, 1987; Broadfoot and Osborn, 1993; Temple, 1997:610). For many researchers (Sechrest et al., 1972; Brislin et al., 1973; Warwick and Osherson, 1973) the process of gaining comparability of meanings is greatly facilitated by the researcher (or the translator) having not only a proficient understanding of a language but also, as Frey (1970) puts it, an intimate knowledge of the culture. Only then can the researcher pick up the full implications that a term carries for the people under study and make sure that the cultural connotations of a word are made explicit to the readers of the research report.
Although obtaining grammatical and syntactical equivalence is not something that can be taken lightly, it does appear that the more important aim of researchers-translators should be to achieve conceptual equivalence.
One of the first decisions that researchers are asked to make when translating participants words is whether to go for literal versus free translation of their text. A literal translation (i.e. translating word-by-word) could perhaps be seen as doing more justice to what participants have said and make ones readers understand the foreign mentality better (Honig, 1997:17). At the same time, however, such practice can reduce the readability of the text, which in turn can test readers patience and even ability to understand whats going on.
Researchers who decide to go for the more elegant free translation, on the other hand, need to think of the implications of creating quotations that read well. Even in ones own language, editing quotations always involves the risk of misrepresenting the meaning of the conversational partner (Rubin and Rubin, 1995:273). In translated quotations the risk of losing information from the original is greater.
As Temple (1997:614) points out, the use of translators and interpreters is not merely a technical matter that has little bearing on the outcome. It is of epistemological consequence as it influences what is found. Kluckhohn (1945) suggests that there are three basic problems which arise from the use of interpreters: a) the interpreters effect on the informant; b) the interpreters effect on the communicative process; and c) the interpreters effect on the translation (quoted in Phillips, 1960:297). Focusing on the latter, Temple (1997:608) argues that researchers who use translators need to acknowledge their dependence on them not just for words but to a certain extent for perspective. In doing so, researchers need to constantly discuss and debate conceptual issues with their translators in order to ensure that conceptual equivalence has been achieved (Temple, 1997:616).
Back translation, one of the most common techniques used in cross-cultural research, involves looking for equivalents through a) the translation of items from the source language to the target language, b) independent translation of these back into the source language, and c) the comparison of the two versions of items in the source language until ambiguities or discrepancies in meaning are clarified or removed (Ercikan, 1998:545; Warwick and Osherson, 1973:30). Although it can be helpful, as Deutscher (1968:321) points out, in identifying semantic errors in translations, some researchers (Phillips, 1960; Sechrest et al., 1972; Broadfoot and Osborn, 1993) argue that back translation is far from the ideal solution and can create new problems. For example, it can ... instil a false sense of security in the investigator by demonstrating a spurious lexical equivalence (Deutscher, 1968:322). Back translation can also be a very time-consuming procedure, and might require more than one person (or a dictionary) involved in order to achieve good results.
Consultation with other people, on the other hand, involves discussions about the use and meaning of words identified as problematic with people who are bilingual (Whyte and Braun, 1968; Brislin et al., 1973) or having a number of people sitting around a table jointly making decisions about the best terms to use (Brislin et al., 1973:46). Collaboration with other people can also take the form of researchers from all countries involved in a study, jointly producing the research design and instrument.
Whether interviews or questionnaires or any kind of test are to be used, another way of eliminating translation-related problems is to pre-test or pilot the research instrument in the local culture. When pretesting a research instrument, Warwick and Osherson (1973:33) see it as particularly important to ask respondents not only for their answer but also for their interpretation of the items meaning. Once a questionnaire or assessment instrument has been constructed, another way of identifying problems is the application of statistical methods (Hambleton, 1993; Ercikan, 1998).
For many researchers, combining some or all of the above-mentioned techniques is seen as the best and most efficient way to deal with translation-related problems. When using multiple methods, as Brislin et al. (1973:51) argue, the weakness of one method could be offset by the strengths of the other.
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Winter 2000 © University of Surrey
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