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Don't Get Lost in Translation: 4 Simple Rules for Global Researchers

Posted by Carole Hubbard on Tue, Feb 26, 2019

international research

As brands expand into developing markets, the need to gather opinions of local consumers has increased in kind.

To get accurate information and responses, it’s common practice to translate surveys into local languages when conducting international research. However, all too often the quality of the translation can make or break the success (and accuracy) of research results.

Many years ago, at a previous company, one of my clients, a leading athletic apparel company, conducted a seven-country global study to segment their consumers and understand underlying brand perceptions. One of the key perceptions we explored was the notion that the brand had “sold out”, which in the US means no longer being true to oneself or one’s heritage.

During analysis, I couldn’t understand why some of the countries highly agreed with this metric, as expected, while other countries (e.g., Germany and China) completely disagreed. Looking at the translated questionnaire, I quickly realized why.

Our conceptual term “sold out” was literally translated as “sold out”, as in, out-of-stock or not available in stores. A complete disconnect from what we originally meant.

While this was a disappointing discovery, there are some valuable takeaways on best practices for setting up global questionnaires which can easily be applied to any international market research project:

1. Choose your words carefully. A successful translation begins with the chosen English words. Avoid colloquialisms, expressions, and any words or phrases that may have multiple meanings.

For example, idioms and other phrases “cash cow”, “standing engagement”, or “hangout” may seem innocuous, but could have very different meanings if translated literally into other languages.

Read the questionnaire out loud and think critically about what's being said. If anything has the potential to be misconstrued, select different English words to express your meaning.

2. Conduct a conceptual or content translation, not a literal translation. This approach looks beyond the actual written words and instead focuses on the original intent or objective.

3. Encourage your client to ask a local colleague to review the translation. If your client is an international brand, they likely have global colleagues. If so, encourage your client to ask a local colleague in the country where research is being conducted to carefully review the translation. This will also help ensure any messaging or industry-specific terminology has been captured properly.

Be sure to provide the English version along with the translated version so the translation is being reviewed in the English context.

If no local colleague is available, translation services can usually offer an independent translator to review the document or conduct a back-translation (the questionnaire document is translated back to English). The latter is often more expensive but can be well worth the investment as opposed to getting unusable data.

4. Remain engaged throughout the entire translation process. As the researcher, you are most familiar with the project objectives, so it's critical you work closely with the translator to ensure nothing is overlooked or skipped in the translated questionnaire.

Implementing these four simple practices can literally help make your next global research project a success!

Carole Hubbard is a Sr. Project Manager at CMB whose travel bucket list includes Ireland, Austria, Tuscany, Greece, and Switzerland.

Topics: research design, international research