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Found in Translation

21 August

old school phoneVery shortly after September 11th, 2001 I had the option to go to Tel Aviv, or to get up in the middle of the night and listen by phone to the focus groups being conducted there. I opted to listen by phone given the jittery airport scenes I was seeing. They placed the old school landline telephone receiver near the woman translating. She sat behind the one-way glass doing her best to relay everything, but it was a challenge. About 20 minutes in, I realized the Israeli moderator was heading down the wrong path of questioning. He was asking which version of the descriptive copy they preferred when he should have been asking what it communicated to them. I needed to interrupt and correct him, but all I could do was yell into the telephone. Eventually she heard my muffled voice yelling “stop, stop, pick up the phone” and, thankfully, she picked it up.

Fast forward to 2018. A client in Southeast Asia emails a discussion guide for in-person focus groups in San Francisco. I stop when I see the question: “What is your mood while you are doing this activity?” I know from the background materials that they want to understand the person’s state of mind during the activity. Are they excited, nervous, bored, frustrated, in a hurry — or what? On our call to review the discussion guide, I explain that in American English using the word “mood” for that question will not yield the information they seek.

While her English is extremely good, the subtleties of contemporary American English would be impossible for her to know. She would not know about “mood rings” from the 1970’s, or the sarcastic tone in the wise crack “someone’s in a mood,” or the notion of “mood disorders” which are part of the American lexicon. So, I explain this to her and suggest we use “state of mind” instead. She quickly understood, agreed, and thanked me.

Both stories illustrate the challenges of translation that don’t really change with the passage of time. My client in Singapore and I spoke on cell phones and I didn’t have to yell into an old school landline receiver to be heard. But the problem and its solution were basically the same: translation in qualitative research requires knowledge of the local culture.

At SayWhat we’ve seen an uptick in projects that originate outside of the U.S. and are fielded among American consumers. Back in 2001 it was more common for projects to originate with American companies and be fielded internationally. We rely on local translators to take our American English versions and hopefully to translate them in a way that captures the nuances of local culture as reflected in its language.

One big difference is that most people at companies outside the U.S. speak English well enough to write the first draft of the discussion guide in English. As a person who speaks only one language, I am humbled by this fluency in multiple languages among my international clients, and by the spirit of cooperation that I have found in translation.

Let us know if we can help you with translation or any other qualitative research needs.

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One Response to “Found in Translation”

  1. Ditto August 23, 2018 at 6:27 pm #

    Thank you for this window into one of the many nuanced and complex aspects of understanding one another!
    It is thanks to the tech penchant for quantifying that we have this new practice of locating and naming ourselves at all hours of the day. Every time I find another example of the astounding complexity of our many cultures and styles, I rejoice. Diversity is. Technology will be forced, like all of us, to be slow, be particular, be mindful.
    Like Virgos.

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