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Molly Hamm on Translation in Cross-Cultural Research

Greetings! I’m Molly Hamm, the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Coordinator at The DREAM Project, an educational non-profit organization in the Dominican Republic.

Working in a multilingual environment, I must continuously switch back and forth between languages as I complete my daily tasks. From elaborating evaluation plans and designing research instruments to facilitating focus groups and presenting results, I am constantly employing either English or Spanish based on the needs of specific audiences. This process often creates double the work on any one project, as most documents need to be designed in both English and Spanish. Additionally, translating information into multiple languages can present significant challenges when it comes to validity, reliability, accuracy, and comprehension. This post focuses on challenges related to written translations for instrument design.

Lessons Learned: Because evaluators painstakingly select wording when they are designing instruments, it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to achieve word for word translations. However, it’s most important to focus on translating meaning. Besides the fact that there are simply no translations between languages for some ideas, you want to make certain that your tools are measuring the same constructs across translations. Wording may need to be adapted significantly to elicit desired responses from participants.

Hot Tip: Use back translation. Once you have an initial draft in the original (source) language, translate into the target language.  Clean up the target language translation, and then “retranslate” into the source language. This process enables you to see how well the meaning is retained through translation. If the back translation results in a question that is measuring something different than originally intended, continue the process until satisfied with the results.

Hot Tip: Be sure to pilot translated instruments, as these should be validated in both the source and target languages. Watch for variation in the target language across countries. Due to significant regional differences in vocabulary and even grammar, having an instrument successfully translated into a language such as Spanish for use in one country does not mean it will be well understood in another country. Always adapt your translations as necessary in a new cultural context, even when using the same language.

Resources: Check out translation tips from the University of Michigan’s Cross Cultural Survey Guidelines, Duke University’s Tip Sheet on Cross-Cultural Surveys, and University of California-San Francisco’s Annotated Bibliography for Translating Surveys in Cross-Cultural Research.

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