One thing I enjoy so much about working at Sylver is the ability to work on projects around the world. Learning about other cultures and comparing those learnings to my U.S.-centric mindset is always an enjoyable and insight-rich experience. What may surprise you is that I have gotten so much out of these projects without even leaving my desk here in Evanston!
There are so many moving parts to conducting global research that we found a need for someone back at our home office to serve as “mission control” for the projects. I have been lucky to serve as Mission Control Commander on 3 global projects in the past year. While there are many important parts to this position, perhaps the most critical is to collect all of the research coming in and begin analysis, often before the field teams return home. I enjoy this part of the process tremendously, but one part that always proves challenging is translation of research into English from other languages.
In this tech-advanced day and age, we are lucky to have many options when it comes to translating our research from other languages. We have used online services as well as human translation. Both of these methods have strengths, but both have drawbacks as well. Let me share a recent example that will highlight both sides of the coin.
While conducting an online study in Brazil, we opted to use the automatic machine translation service provided by the study platform so that we could moderate in real time. However, it soon became clear that the translations were so wrought with errors that they were unusable, and we decided to send the Portuguese responses to an actual person for translation. My favorite example of the difference in machine vs. human translation is when we asked the participants to imagine that their products were people at a party and explain each person to us.
Machine translation: “People dying.”
Human translation: “They are calm people.”
I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure there is a big difference between being a calm person and a dead person. And that difference will have a big impact on the findings and insights of our research. Our research process relies so heavily on the exact words our participants use to get to the heart of their individual experiences and how they think about the world around them. We definitely could not risk losing out on quality learnings by relying solely on the machine translations.
But that doesn’t mean that we have sworn off the automatic machine translations. When you are moderating a study that is taking place in a language you don’t know, it doesn’t really work if you can’t communicate with your participants. So although I couldn’t (and wouldn’t!) use the machine translations to perform analysis, they still added value to help me get a basic understanding of what a participant was trying to say in their response, and from there I was able to successfully moderate the study.
My story also doesn’t mean that human translations are fail-proof either. Particularly when dealing with short time frames, it is necessary to use more than one translator. Enter a whole new set of issues – different people interpret things differently, some participants use a lot of slang terms that only a native of that region would understand, some translators paraphrase while others translate verbatim. So now I have a data set that has been interpreted by 3 different people and I have to figure out what it’s telling me. While this definitely adds a layer of complexity, it is not impossible and can even make the work more exciting.
The bottom line is that when it comes to language translation and qualitative research, there is no one right answer. Each project has unique needs and will likely require a different combination of translation techniques. But no matter the challenge, Mission Control has got you covered!