Translation– the other side of the tapestry

That’s what Cervantes is to have have expressed. And I think it provides a nice mental picture of translation.

A recent story in the Mercury News discusses the need for qualified translators in the Los Angeles court system. At the same time a recent blog posted a reaction to another blog soliciting translation of the Mexican firearms statute presumably by untrained translators. Can bilinguals who have no training in translation accurately translate? Does it matter what they’re translating and who will read it? Is translation really that hard?

Would I be writing about this if the answer was simple? Of course not.

In my research I frequently have a need to translate material. We translate questionnaires, permission forms, interview protocols, and we translate test items. We usually translate from English to the other language (usually Spanish), but for test development projects we translate in both directions. We also need to develop directions that we give to participants in our research. A couple of years ago I wrote an article focusing on challenges involved in translation for use in research protocols. In that article I focused on 4 aspects of translation that are particularly important for consideration in research:

  • linguistic equivalence
  • functional equivalence
  • cultural equivalence
  • metric equivalence

In that piece I argued that linguistic equivalence was important, but by itself could not constitute a sufficient translation depending on the use of the translated material. More specifically, simply translating the words would not ensure that the material would be interpreted in the same way by the target population. That doesn’t mean that the words aren’t the same or that they would not be understood, but that the words may not elicit the behavior that the researcher is looking for.

Let me give you an example. In English to get kids to point to pictures when testing vocabulary we might say, “show me the…” or “where’s the …” or “point to the …” How would these directions translate to Spanish? One might say, “muéstrame…”  or “dónde está…” or “señalame…” Those would be correctly translated. But, will that get the job done? Probably for older children, but maybe not for younger children depending on what THEY are used to hearing. When I examined Spanish transcripts of mother-child interaction of 50 dyads I found that these particular mothers (from Mexico) rarely used these terms when getting their child’s attention. Rather they used the words: “mira” or “busca.” For young children then, it might be better to use terms that are familiar to them. This type of translation focuses on functional equivalence.

What about cultural equivalence? Do words have the same meaning culturally in both languages? Or are the same words filtered through one’s cultural expectations and responded to as such? Here, I think of an interesting study by Ramírez-Esparza and colleagues sheds light on this question. These authors found that on a personality test bilinguals switched between that they call “cultural frames.’ Basically, when completing a personality inventory in each language people tended to respond in ways that matched the cultural expectations represented by that language. This evidence is indirect to the question I pose, but it illustrates the point that words are not culturally neutral.

Finally, metric equivalence has to do with how test items, directions, and procedures work psychometrically. If the goal is to develop a test in two different languages that function the same way then the items may well need to be different. Translated items are likely to have different levels of difficulty in different languages. Some words or concepts may be more frequent in one language compared to another language and this could impact difficulty. The kinds of test items that are difficult for children learning one language may not be as difficult for children learning another language. So, for test development these issues are particularly important.

In all, translation is not as straightforward as one might like it to be. But, that’s what makes the study of language and languages interesting. When you do translate keep these issues in mind and think about when accurate translation makes a difference– contract professional translators when needed, they really can make your life easier.


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