Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Why does Nuance Matter when Translating and Transcribing Multilingual Content?


Languages are alive—vibrant and eloquent expressions of who we are. During my doctoral fieldwork I looked at how people used language to enact and express their identity, how connections and community were created through speech and how forms of talk, particular phrases or words, could transport people across time and space. Words matter. So when contemplating translation, how can you ensure a focus on each word while not losing sight of the broader cultural considerations?

When research brings you to multilingual communities—whether globally or in your own backyard—it’s essential to consider the linguistic and cultural practices 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 to analyze the data you’ve collected.

In either case, nuance matters. Choices of words, phrases or metaphors—yours or theirs—signify by conveying meaning about ideas, assumptions about the world, relationships among those present, or local contexts. For ethnographic analysis, these forms of nuance are data. So how do you ensure that nuance is not lost in translation, and what do you look for in a translation partner?

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 a human is a must. 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 doesn’t understand nuance, cultural references, sensitivity and humor (of course, not all humans do either, but that’s another topic). It doesn’t know what to do with typos, and sometimes it just misses the point. You will have to determine whether or not MT is right for your needs and, if so, how to create a solution that pairs the best of machine and human capabilities.

We recently completed a research project for a client that involved assessing the performance of various MT engines. Here’s an example of a question put through MT that we evaluated:
How about taking on the medical world, and how few doctors know anything about nutrition?
The MT output was as follows:
¿Qué tal si tomamos el mundo médico, y cuántos médicos saben algo sobre nutrición?
While the translation is remarkably close to the original, there are two key mistakes that shift the intended meaning of the original:

  1. “take on” is a phrasal verb, which is an idiomatic expression that combines two or three words to create a meaning different from the original verb. However, the machine only translated “take”, yielding the translation “How about we take (= to take physical possession) the medical world…”

  3. “how few doctors”, which implies a judgement on part of the speaker that the quantity is less than ideal, was rendered as “how many”—an open question merely asking about quantity

While the machine translation output here is impressive, it leaves nuance behind. In a pinch, MT can be great. For internal communication or to get a quick gist of things, it often works fine. But for outgoing survey questions, ethnographic interviews, marketing copy, and documents where the little things matter, it’s essential to have a human involved in the process, at least on a post-editing machine translation (PEMT) level.

Preparing for Translation

When translating a document—whether surveys, discussion guides or legal content—the better the original, the better the translation. Start with a well-written original that’s reader-friendly and proofread, and pay special attention to the presence (or hopefully, the absence) of sports metaphors and cultural-specific references that are challenging to translate.

You also need to know your target audience when embarking on translation: What region are they from? What’s their education level? What’s the desired tone and degree of formality? Is there a glossary or style guide? Do you have past translation samples to share? Will they require conversion of measurements, such as feet to meters? Will they be familiar with acronyms, or will you want them translated?

In one recent research project, our client was conducting a gender, religion and life survey and wanted to include a Spanish version to reach a broad US audience. Given the gendered nature of Spanish, it was important to discuss with the client the complexity and options around inclusive language in Spanish, especially around their requirement for the most precise translations for male/female vs. man/woman.

Original Translation
Do you describe yourself as a man, a woman, or in some other way?
1.    A man
2.    A woman
3.    In some other way
¿Se describe como un varón, una mujer o de otra forma?
1.    Un varón
2.    Una mujer
3.    De otra forma

When our clients have internal team members who are native speakers, we always welcome their questions and input. So, when a question came back to us as to why we chose the word “varón” rather than “hombre”, we were happy to discuss in more detail. Our linguists explained that while “hombre” is very often a synonym for “varón”, “hombre” refers to a rational being—man or woman—whereas “varón” refers to a male human. Despite the fact that “hombre” would have been understood in this context, it was important to use the most appropriate term rather than most common term, especially in a survey focusing explicitly on gender.

Translator Selection

Not all native speakers can be translators, but all translators should be native speakers of the language into which they are translating, also known as the target language. Someone may grow up speaking a language at home and therefore technically be a native speaker, but if they weren’t formally educated in the study of the language, they may not know professional terminology, and their understanding of advanced grammar and orthographic norms may be lacking. Professional translators specialize in certain industries based on their educational background and work experience, and many 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. And regional variations matter: it’s essential that a translator have regional expertise as well, so a French document for France vs. a French document for Canada will require different translators to capture the cultural and linguistic nuances of each region.

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, some key points to ensure quality transcription: good input = good output, so 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 language partner in advance, the better.

When working in languages other than English, budget more money than you otherwise would, pad more time into your timeline, and decide in advance 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)

  3. 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)

  5. 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 skill set and highly trained language professionals, so assume that it will be significantly more expensive than monolingual transcription. 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 could take a transcriptionist up to 8 hours for just one hour of audio. Given the time involved in transcribing audio, it’s also important to think about the people doing the transcription. There are quite a few cheap transcription services available that are tempting for tight budgets, but when you calculate out how little is paid to the transcriptionist, you realize that many don’t pay a living wage. Agencies like ours charge our clients more than the bargain, crowd-sourced agencies, but the result is a higher quality output, a relationship, and the comfort knowing that we pay a living wage.

As an owner of a translation and transcription agency, I 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 survey is written or before the focus group is recorded—can help ensure accuracy, cultural sensitivity and nuance and ensure that your research in multilingual communities will be successful.

I look forward to seeing you at EPIC2020!

Featured image: “letters” by V via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Jill Kushner Bishop, Multilingual Connections

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. Multilingual Connections is 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.