Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Found in Translation: Pro Tips for Translating and Transcribing Multilingual Content


You may recall the old joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

Two languages? Bilingual.

One language? American.

The study of world languages among Americans lags far behind that of many other countries, with less than seven percent of American college students enrolled in language courses. Among adults who studied a second language in school, less than one percent claim to be proficient.

Despite the sad state of world language education in the US, that old joke applies less and less all the time.  The American Community Survey of 2013 study found that one in five US residents—almost 62 million people—speaks a language other than English at home, with 41% speaking English “less than very well”.

When research brings you to multilingual communities—whether in the US or globally—it’s essential to consider the linguistic and cultural preferences of your target audience.  Assuming you’re doing work in their language of choice, you’ll likely have content that needs to be translated or audio that needs to be transcribed.  If that’s the case, here are some points to consider.

Wait! Isn’t Google Translate Enough?

With improvements in machine translation (MT), you might wonder when it makes sense to use a machine—and when only a human will do.  The answer? It depends.  MT is significantly more reliable than it used to be, and it continues to improve. However, a machine is not a human and therefore doesn’t understand nuance, cultural references, sensitivity and humor (of course, not all humans do either, but that’s another topic).

Take, for example, the word “resilience”: a person’s ability to bounce back in the face of change, adversity or illness.  Now consider the following statement from a school administration to parents and its Spanish translation provided by online machine translation:

We want to honor the strength and resilience of our undocumented students and families, and reinforce our commitment to being a safe and welcoming place for all. 

Queremos honrar la fuerza y ​​la resistencia de nuestros estudiantes y familias indocumentados y reforzar nuestro compromiso de ser un lugar seguro y acogedor para todos.

The machine did a pretty good job here, with one important exception: rather than translate resilience as “resiliencia”, the machine algorithm opted for “resistencia”. The outcome?  The reader takes away from this that the school honors their undocumented students’ “strength and resistance”.  Resilience and resistance, especially in a sensitive political environment, are two very different things.

In a pinch, machine translation is great. For informal communication, machine translation often works fine. But when it matters, it’s essential to have a human involved in the process—at least for PEMT (post-editing machine translation).  This role is more involved than a proofreader, who just polishes a document.  An editor in this context does a side-by-side comparison of the original and the machine output, anticipates common MT errors, corrects mistranslations, ensures linguistic and cultural accuracy and only then applies the polish.

Preparing for Translation

My great-grandmother used to tell my father, “You put in good, you get out good”.  She was referring to the creation of children, but the same applies to translation: the better the original, the better the translation. Start with a well-written, reader-friendly document that considers the readability level, pays attention to the presence (or hopefully, the absence) of sports metaphors and cultural-specific references, etc.

It’s essential when embarking on translation to know who your target audience is and to convey essential information to your translators: What region are they from? What’s their education level?  Is there a glossary or style guide of previously-translated material? What’s the desired tone and degree of formality? Will they require conversion of measurements, such as feet to meters? Will they be familiar with acronyms, or will you want them translated?  All of these points should be communicated to your translator beforehand.

When you’re ready to get started, be sure to provide an original, editable version of your document (whether in MS Word, Illustrator, InDesign), including images and graphs. Let your translator know what software was used to create the original, and check to make sure they can work within that. For complex layouts, you may require desktop publishing after translation. And in particular when working with right-to-left languages (e.g. Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, Farsi) and character-based languages, it’s important to consider that copying and pasting into other formats may cause problems with the way the content is rendered.

Translator Selection

Not all native speakers can be translators, but all translators should be native speakers of the target language.  As a native speaker of English, I should never translate into Spanish, but depending on the text, I could translate from Spanish into English.

Someone may grow up speaking a language at home and therefore technically be a native speaker, but if they weren’t educated in the language, they may not know professional terminology, and their understanding of advanced grammar and orthographic norms may be lacking. If you’re having someone who isn’t an experienced translator translate your content, be sure to have someone you trust evaluate their skills beforehand and have an editor review the translation prior to printing or publishing.

Professional translators are just that: professionals.  Many specialize in certain industries based on their educational background and work experience and have certifications by the American Translators Association or other certifying bodies to validate their skills.  An increasing number of professional translators also work with CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools, which allow a translator to work more quickly, efficiently and consistently both throughout a document and across projects over time by creating translation memory and terminology databases.  Even when working with a professional translator, however, it always makes sense to have a second set of eyes to edit and proofread their work.

As for pricing, industry standard for translation is to charge per word rather than per hour.  If you’re working with an agency, be sure to ask if the service includes editing and if there are any additional formatting, file preparation or project management fees.  You should always be able to get a quote upfront once your document is reviewed, so there should never be any surprises after the fact. As for timing, a typical translator can translate about 2500 per day, but if you’re leaving time for editing, assume approximately 1500 words per day.


When you’re working with audio rather than text, my great-grandma’s wisdom still applies: good input, good output. In the case of transcription, a high-quality mic goes a long way, as does a quiet location. Whether your audio is in English or in another language, it’s helpful to have speakers identify themselves and spell out their names, and when doing focus groups, ask participants to introduce themselves every time they speak.

Let your transcriptionist know the context for the recording, and when possible, include terminology and spelling of proper nouns (companies, places, names, etc.) that are mentioned frequently. If you have a particular template, formatting or timecoding requirements, share that information prior to starting a project. Also think about verbatim: do you need strict verbatim, where every “uh”, “um” and “like” is included in the transcript, or will a lightly edited, clean verbatim transcript suit your purposes? Or maybe you just need a summary?  The more you’re able to tell your transcriptionist in advance, the better.

When working in languages other than English, budget more money than you otherwise would (and give yourself some extra time if you can), and decide which service best suits your needs:

  1. Monolingual transcription: when you only need a transcript of the source language (e.g. Russian audio to Russian text)
  2. Double column transcription: when you need both the source language transcript AND the translation of the transcript (e.g. Russian audio to Russian text, then English translation of Russian text)
  3. Interpretive transcription: when you only need to understand what was said, this option is faster and more economical than double column, as the transcriptionist goes directly from the source to English (e.g. Russian audio to English text)

Keep in mind that interpretive transcription requires a particular skillset and highly trained language professionals, so assume that it will be significantly more expensive than monolingual. Whereas a monolingual transcriptionist can often transcribe an hour of clear audio in 2-3 hours (depending on quality, number of speakers and formatting requirements), when transcribing directly from one language to another, it can take a transcriptionist up to 8 hours for just one hour of audio.

Just as there should be no price surprises with translation, the same goes for transcription. Have your transcriptionist review the audio so they know what to expect in terms of quality, and plan to pay per audio minute, plus any additional formatting or timecoding fees.

As owner of a translation and transcription agency, we often find that clients don’t think about their language needs until after the work’s been done.  Taking some time in advance to think through to the end—before the document’s written or before the audio’s recorded—can help ensure that your work in multilingual communities will be successful.

Multilingual Connections is an EPIC2017 Sponsor.

Image: “Language” by Mark Reese (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr.

Jill Kushner Bishop, PhD was always fascinated by language, and this love brought her to Spain, Argentina and Israel, where she studied Spanish language and culture, taught English to business professionals and conducted ethnographic research among speakers of Judeo-Spanish. While finishing her doctorate in linguistic anthropology at UCLA, she was offered an opportunity back home in Chicago as a user experience researcher with Sapient. After that, a few years developing and implementing language and culture programs for 130 Chipotle restaurants gave her new insight into the role of language in the workplace, and in 2005, Jill launched Multilingual Connections. Initially a workplace language training company, Multilingual Connections is now a full-service translation agency that helps clients engage their multilingual markets and expand their global reach. Based in Evanston, Illinois, Multilingual Connections provides translation, transcription, voiceover, subtitling and interpretation in over 75 languages and across all industries. Jill is passionate about helping her clients strengthen connections with multilingual audiences and about creating a great work environment for her team.


Physical Artifacts for Promoting Bilingual Collaborative Design, Ame Elliott


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Jill Kushner Bishop, Multilingual Connections