Questionnaire Translation

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Careful translation of all survey instruments into the local language(s) is an essential step in conducting a high quality survey. All the hard work put into questionnaire design can be for naught if the translation is poor quality.

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It is very important to translate all survey instruments into all local languages spoken in the study area, and have agreed-upon written translations for all questions. Take the time for back translation, and discuss translations in Enumerator Training. Poor translation at best loses the nuance intended by the research team in carefully worded questions, and at worst can completely change the meaning of a question. Having enumerators translate on the fly is never recommended, as consistency and accuracy of translation will vary across enumerators in ways that can influence responses. Pay careful attention to version control, especially when multiple translations are involved.

This section assumes that the working language of the research team is different than the local language(s) in the study area.


Why translate?

You should have full, back-checked, translations for all questions in the survey instrument. This is important to guarantee consistency. If enumerators translate on the fly, it is difficult to ensure that each question is asked the same way to each respondent, and increases the likelihood of significant Enumerator Effects.

Translation Process

Poor-quality translation will cause delays, confusion, field errors, and potentially inaccurate data. Good translation takes time - budget at least two weeks, and expect to made edits and corrections for significantly longer.

Once the content of the questionnaire is finalized (after content-based pilot), follow these steps for translation:

  1. Forward translation : from the language of the research team to the local language(s). This process that could take a few days to a few weeks, depending entirely on the complexity of the survey instrument.
  2. Back translation: when you receive the first translation, send the local language version only to a second translator, and have it translated back to the language the questionnaire was originally written in.
  3. Reconciliation: compare the original questionnaire to the back-translated questionnaire. Highlight any discrepancies. It is a good idea to categorize these as either minor wording issues, or significant content concerns. Organize a meeting with the two translators, to discuss all discrepancies and agree on a final translation. Keep track of all questions where significant content concerns were noted, and discuss with local counterparts to ensure the final wording reflects the original intent.

Example: a questionnaire to be fielded in Malawi to a Chichewa-speaking population. The research team finalizes an English version of the questionnaire. It is then forward translated from English to Chichewa. The Chichewa version is then provided to a second translator for back translation from Chichewa to English. The two English versions are compared, and the Chichewa is discussed and refined, to reconcile all discrepancies between the back translation and the original version.

Who should translate?

Good translation requires significant time and skill. Best practice is to work with a professional translator with sector-specific knowledge, and experience translating surveys. Double-check all technical terminology with local counterparts well-versed in the area of the project (for example, for agricultural surveys, double-check translations of specific technologies of interest with agricultural extension officers or other trainers).

The mother tongue of the forward translator should be the local language. The mother tongue of the back translation should be the language of the research team.

Commonly suggested, but problematic, options for translators:

  • the survey firm manager: unlikely to have sufficient time / attention / sectoral knowledge to dedicate to the task
  • government counterparts: likely to have the right sectoral knowledge, but unless released from other duties, unusual to be able to devote sufficient time
  • local consultant without translation experience: translation is challenging; fluency in the relevant languages is not always sufficient (and do not assume that oral fluency implies written fluency, which is necessary for this translation task)

The back translator should have no relation to the first translator. Beware of power dynamics between the two translators, that could affect decisions made during the reconciliation (e.g. if one translator is an employee of the other, or significantly lower in government hierarchy).

Version Control

Expect to make lots of corrections and refinements to translations through the data-focused pilot and Enumerator Training. It is a good idea to discuss all questions with discrepancies during Enumerator Training as a triple-check of the final translation. Throughout this process, it is essential to have at least one bilingual staff member that can carefully record all translation corrections.

To avoid version control issues, we recommend that the paper version of the questionnaire used for Enumerator Training includes the original language and all translations, side-by-side. Notes on all needed corrections or refinements can then be easily incorporated into all languages, without worries of different versions.

What about cases when oral translation is required, i.e. no written language?

Enumerator Training will need to be extended to spend significant time on translation. During training, have several people suggest translations for each question, then discuss and agree as a group. Leave space on the paper version of the questionnaire for enumerators to write the transliterated versions of the questions. Spend extra time doing mock interviews, with focused feedback on the translation.

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This article is part of the topic Questionnaire Translation

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