ICCE TIG Week: Conducting Evaluations in a Foreign Language: Tips for Effective Interlingual Communication by Jessie Tannenbaum

Hello in different languages

I’m Jessie Tannenbaum, Advisor in the Research, Evaluation, and Learning Office at the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative*, here to share tips and ideas for conducting evaluation work in foreign languages.

First Things First: Budget

Having a good interpreter is as important as having a good evaluator, and interpretation (verbal) and translation (written) are expensive. Make sure your evaluation is budgeted at local market rates for interpreters (you may need 2, depending on the length of meetings) and translators, allow for interpreter overtime and translation rush fees, and remember to budget for interpretation equipment. Even if you’re bilingual, unless your entire evaluation team will be working entirely in the foreign language, you’ll probably need some documents translated (usually charged per word in the target language).

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Define Your Terms: Native Speaker =/= Technical Fluency

Unless you are conducting an evaluation on a subject in which you have technical training, in your native language and your native country, you need to sit down with a local expert on the evaluation subject and define commonly-used terms. Even the same term in the same language may have different meanings in different countries. If you’re working with an interpreter, make sure they understand English technical terms you use and how they relate to technical terms in their own language. If you’re a bilingual evaluator, review common technical terms used in that country or make sure you’re accompanied by a technical expert who can help you avoid confusion.

Hot Tip: Treat interpreters as part of your evaluation team. Orient them to your research process and interview/focus group techniques, and debrief afterwards.

Why use a bilingual evaluator? (Not just because it’s cheaper.)

Cultural knowledge is as important as subject-matter expertise. Even working with the best interpreter, evaluators who don’t speak the language of people participating in their evaluation will inevitably miss some cultural context. In most cases, this will cause minor confusion that’s easily smoothed over, but sometimes, it could throw the evaluation completely off course. It’s important to work with someone who understands the community where the evaluation will take place to determine whether it’s appropriate to work through an interpreter, or whether a bilingual evaluator is needed.

Writing for Translation

Chances are, if you’re working for a US-based organization, you’ll write surveys, interview protocols, and your evaluation report in English and have them translated. The way you write in English can affect the quality of the translation.  Translation company Lionbridge has great tips on writing for translation. Write short, clear sentences, avoid humor and idioms, and use the active voice.  Check out Federal plain language guidelines for tips on writing concisely and clearly.

Rad Resource: Poor survey translations can distort findings, and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan has published must-read guidelines on translating surveys. Best practices include planning translation as part of study design, using a team translation approach, and assessing the translation prior to pre-testing.

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.


The American Evaluation Association is celebrating International and Cross-Cultural (ICCE) TIG Week with our colleagues in the International and Cross-Cultural Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our ICCE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “ICCE TIG Week: Conducting Evaluations in a Foreign Language: Tips for Effective Interlingual Communication by Jessie Tannenbaum”

  1. Hi Jessie, thank you for sharing your tips on translation and interpreting. I agree, having native speakers, or in-country translators, is the best way to ensure successful translations. This is why CSOFT has a network of over 10,000+ linguists and in-country translators to ensure the most efficient and effective communication solutions in 250+ languages. Check us out here: https://www.csoftintl.com/

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