Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Great Interpreters Inspire Insights: The Gifts around Language Dialogues


International research is exciting but often daunting. Ethnographers are trained to understand cultural difference and nuance, but without the right cultural guides, excellent translation and local research support, we can easily mis-interpret what we observe and hear. An interpreter can be key to understanding deeper impressions and meaning.

Frequently interpreters are loosely referred to as “translators”, but their role goes far beyond converting words from one language to another. These days it’s tempting to just reach for Google Translate (and research sponsors may wonder why they need to fund anything else), but your translator may be your nuanced “ear to the ground” and end up providing some of the best stories.

Interpretation/translation challenges frequently emerge in “concept and positioning” exercises as well as research more focused on UX/usability experiences. We offer some examples of why finding the right interpreters is critical to a successful international project, and then tips for working successfully with interpreters on your research team.

Easily Lost in Translation

In these examples from our fieldwork,an interpreter contributed to our ability to make significant breakthroughs. We always use simultaneous interpreters because the quality and nuances in what they say will make a great deal of difference to a project. Working with the interpreter and local moderator together often generates exceptional value, particularly when you help them work as part of the research team.

We use simultaneous interpreters for all of our multilingual projects and always work with native speakers who can understand the deeper cultural nuances. They must also be near flawless with the group’s language (most often we need English); in some cases the interpreter must be able to instantly go across three languages. 

  1. A group of Japanese executives is visiting India for the first time. They want both urban and rural exposure, including visits with experts to help them design future products for the Indian market. They have some concepts they want tested. The language around the concepts is not easily nuanced in English or the local language (Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, etc.). The country and diverse behaviors of people in India are completely foreign to them.In this situation interpreters can do essential work to bridge cultural barriers, build team dynamics and encourage discussions. And they may be your best judge of how the project is actually going. We asked our interpreter to pay attention to phrases and the nuances of the language the team was using to try and reconcile what they were seeing and hearing. Frequently interpreters can help you facilitate a debrief session, or design workshops where together you can cross-pollinate ideas between respondents and research team.
  1. A team building global software cannot understand why their mobile UX registration process in India is failing to reach success levels achieved in other countries. There was a myriad of reasons why this was happening, however a key element here is how users work across language (example, the transition from thinking in Hindi to inputting information in English)Working with an interpreter to understand the nuances of language and meaning, we sought out specific words and collectively work to unpack them. Even a seemingly simple word like “password” may not be understood by someone coming online for the first time. I’ve watched people ask, “what is your good name sir?” and then struggle with first name and last name when completing an online form. Often the term “gender” is not understood. These words may seem rudimentary, and yet the real lesson for researchers is that we cannot ignore even the most basic words and processes. Mobile devices are often sold with English as the default language and many don’t even have keyboard support for local languages. In this context new forms of language are emerging all the time—many people now type in “hinglish”. How are people interpreting forms and the terms they’re approving? These are great places to dialogue with interpreters and moderators about what is actually going on.
  1. An International multi-national group is visiting Japan. Their advertising has not been effective, and their products are losing share despite technical superiority. Their message works everywhere else in the world – why not here? As the researcher, you know some crucial cultural dynamics have been missed.In this project, we used local moderators and interpreters. As it turned out, our interpreter was in a cultural and professional position to help uncover information that the moderator was not able to address. For local moderators, some topics can feel inappropriate or culturally embarrassing to talk about. But our interpreter helped us ask those questions—the situation changed when the questions were coming from us as we were curious foreigners, simply interested in people’s lives and not expected to conform to the same social etiquette. With empathy, appropriate cultural sensitivity, and our interpreter’s help, we could reveal stories or understandings that we might have missed otherwise.

Interpreters on your research team

When planning research with an interpreter, start at the beginning: the success of your trip may trace back to the first in-person briefing.

Initial Field Briefing

When you meet your Interpreter for the first time, share your curiosity. Ask them if they have worked on research projects before. Let them know how important you think they are likely to be. Get their insights on cultural issues you may come up against. This seems obvious – it’s also too often skipped over.

Familiarize the interpreter with your project, and in particular what to look out for. Examples include teasing out concept definitions (be skeptical about simple or one-word translations – push them to build out the nuances around it), or more simply find what the local vernacular is for an action, state of mind, or being. Examples might include unpacking “timepass” in India or “sara sara” in Japan. Literal translations can easily miss the underlying implications. Make it clear to them what you are looking for. If you are working on UX related content, make sure they have a clear view (eg, an extra screen).

Get the feel for your translation equipment in advance. Is it light weight? Is the earphone or headset comfortable and appropriate for the situation? Can you easily switch between languages? How likely is it to get in the way – for example, in intimate or close-quarters, such as in-home interviews or observations?  It is much better to have the interpreter quietly whispering loudly in your headset, than disrupting the discussion (talking over) taking place right in front of you. This is even more important in “intercept” type situations.

In the Field

It’s also easy to go into an interview and just put on a headset to hear the proceedings in your own language, which often happens in groups. You spend the next hour listening to English. Our recommendation is to listen to both the local language and the translation simultaneously. Now you are less reliant on the interpreter’s ability to share the deeper emotions that perhaps underscore the discussion. You can also ask them about your observations later, for example their impressions of words used, or when respondents struggled for examples.

Even though it’s ideal to hear and observe your research participants directly, a great interpreter is one who effectively channels what and how they sharing their thoughts and feelings. Some of our best interpreters are oblivious to background chatter and a quick glance at them will reveal real concentration, focus and emotion as they speak and transmit the conversation to you. They will make you feel you are seamlessly listening to a conversation, including intonations, expressions – as if the language barrier vanishes and you are listening to the moderator and participant directly. A good interpreter will keep the flow of the conversation alive and use the right pauses, pitch and expressions. It is like watching a foreign movie that is so engrossing you forget that you are hearing a language that isn’t your own.

Post Session De-Brief

Be prepared after the first interview to review the experience with the interpreter. Make sure you listened for an accurate expression; for example, in different cultures or even in different situations, ‘ok’ could mean many things, interested” to “let’s skip over this.” See if the tonality of the conversation matches the interpretation of a phrase.

An inexperienced interpreter may say something like “he is saying now” – make sure you discuss and eliminate that immediately. Encourage shifts in voice and tone and keep them focused on exact translation. In the next interview listen for “filler words” an interpreter may use when they are unsure or the conversation takes a twist (for example, “so…,” “ok…,” ). You can sensitively ask your interpreter, does the respondent really use these filler words so often? Few interpreters listen to themselves and may not realize they are doing this. If you are capturing simultaneous video translations that you can watch together, this will also improve the quality of recording and later transcript.

Watch out when the original conversation becomes too rapid and the interpreter offers short, summed up phrase at intervals. This can be quite frustrating, making you feel left out of the conversation and anxious that you are unable to follow and missing important nuggets of information.

Quizzing interpreters about word choices when you hear the same word many times is almost always a good idea. Interpreters can also help afterward ladder down “why is it important” – check out “The Five Whys”. This may deepen your understanding around a concept.

Like all of us, interpreters can tire. Not all want to go into the field, and many have rules about how long they can translate for before a break or switching off with another. Also don’t assume that the interpreter is “processing” or reflecting on what transpired in the interview – some are very much focused on the words and translation in the moment. You may have to bring them back to an expression to get their reflections or insight on it after the session ends.

Unless there is real reason to doubt the quality of the simultaneous translation, create all the transcripts after the event from the Interpreter’s simultaneous English recording. Otherwise, if you use a separate translation service for the original audio you could end up with slightly different transcripts of the same event. Trust your Interpreter. Translation services are usually cheaper, but of lower quality.

Budget for Expertise

Don’t gloss over budget! The best simultaneous interpreters probably cost more per day than your local moderator with limited language skills. Interpreters who are truly effective in three or more languages simultaneously are a significant expense.

In some cases, your interpreter will be key to working with your local moderator, who you may effectively be training. Ethnographic fieldwork, including going in homes, is often beyond their normal scope, and it’s your job to help make that exciting and interesting. All of this has implications for your budget. The best interpreters will be flexible, but recognize that you likely will be asking them for more than the “average translation.” Your appreciation and energy will take you a long way to getting those extra breakthroughs.

True international insights are really a gift and we can only discover them through others. Good luck on your next mission overseas!

Editor’s Note: Convo Research & Strategy Private Limited is an EPIC2018 Sponsor. EPIC is a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization and the support of sponsoring organizations makes the premier international conference on ethnography in business possible. Conference papers, case studies, PechaKucha, ethnographic film, and gallery installations are selected through blind peer review by our conference committee, independent from our board and sponsors.


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Do You See What I See?: Mobile Labs Enrich Ethnographic Nuancing, Aparna Ray, Dina Mehta & Stuart Henshall



Stuart Henshall, Convo Research & Strategy Private Limited