Is bias skewing survey translations?

A common perception in survey writing is that the more languages the survey is required to be translated into, the more opportunity there is for human bias. In more cases than not, this is found to be true.

Think about the time it takes for an author to write a survey in English. First, they must understand what the survey is trying to learn and the audience it is trying to learn from. Is the audience well educated on the subject matter? Are there environmental considerations that could affect their feelings toward a topic? Only after considering these things can the author even begin to think of the number, flow, and specificity of questions. This process is extremely time consuming, and for good reason — you want good results. Now think about how long it would take to translate something that has been so thoughtfully written into yet another language, within a completely different culture.

If you consider these two simple things before translating your survey, you’ll not only reduce the opportunity for bias, you’ll also reduce the number of headaches you would have undoubtedly suffered throughout the process.

1. Does your linguist have a strong understanding of both languages and cultures?

It’s one thing to firmly grasp two languages. It’s a completely different thing to understand two different cultures. Consider, for example, how common it is to include questions about income in surveys. The U.S. generally measures income annually. In Germany, however, the cultural norm is to measure income monthly. A question as simple as, “What is your household income?” could be translated accurately, but the responses could completely miss the mark. This would lead to errors, and ultimately the need to re-survey. You want a linguist who will not only translate your questions accurately, but be sure to note cultural nuances such as these, keeping you on-time and within budget. The best linguists are those who have spent substantial time living in each audience’s country.

2. Are you utilizing technology at the correct times?

Given the previous example, you might not think there is ever a good time to use technology in survey translations, but that’s simply not true. You can benefit from the speed and savings afforded by technology, while simultaneously avoiding bias, if it is used at the right time. Let’s say you need to measure brand awareness over time. To truly understand if brand perception is improving or declining, you need to have consistency in questions. Translation memory tools can memorize key terms and phrases. If human translators are put to the task, their translations may vary slightly depending on many factors, whereas a translation memory tool would not.

If you take these factors into consideration before you begin, you will save yourself time, money, and headaches in the long run. If you’re not managing the translations yourself, be sure to ask your language service provider how they would handle these two issues when translating surveys before getting started.

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