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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Beyond a shared language

by Saba Aslam



World War I era poster in Yiddish to encourage food conservation. Caption (translated) "Food will win the war - You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it - Wheat is needed for the allies - waste nothing."
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

As social science researchers, we have to routinely work across language barriers with our respondents.

It is highly likely that the native language of a researcher (Urdu in my case) may be different from the respondents’. Great care is taken to simplify questionnaires so that they can be translated into the local language with minimal difficulty. The hiring of translators is also considered to be a high priority task in the research process and their proficiency in the local language is a deciding factor. Effective translation can play an important role in mitigating the language barrier between a researcher and a respondent. For this to happen, a translator should be well trained in the research process. Some people might argue that it is not necessary to train translators, and that their job is to simply ‘translate.’ But well trained translators not only understand the value of questions in the overall research process, they also experiment with different ways to get the respondent to understand the questions. The ownership and motivation of translators arise only when they are fully immersed into the research process. In my own involvement in the design and translation of an anthropometric training for a LANSA study on women’s work and nutrition in Sindh, I leveraged on my understanding of the study while translating some key concepts to the participants.

The nature of research also plays a critical role in the interplay between the interview and translation processes. For instance, in qualitative research our reliance on the translator increases and the process seems complex at first. As researchers, we not only need to identify the subtle nuances which are being voiced out by the respondent, but also need to ensure that objectivity is being maintained throughout the interview. In quantitative surveys in which answers are mostly binary, or the questions deal with numeric responses, we tend to get familiar with the local terminologies being used in the questions and this barrier tends to fade away as the frequency of interviews increases.

How the community responds to the language barrier between a researcher and a respondent is perhaps worthy to note. Often male relatives consider it as an opportunity to step in when females are being interviewed. During my attempt to interview women in rural Sindh, men would say, ‘Our women don’t speak your language. You can converse with us. We will answer on their behalf since we know Urdu very well.’ Knowing Urdu is often perceived as a source of pride and most of the men attribute it to their mobility to the cities where they interact with people who speak multiple languages, especially Urdu.

The close relationship between caste and language is quite pronounced in rural communities. Throughout my fieldwork in Sindh, I have learnt that it is not a question of class; rather it is the affiliation with a particular caste that determines the language(s) spoken by communities. The Solangis and Mir Bahars for example, speak a common language – Sindhi - whereas the Lunds and Rinds speak Balochi. Upon learning that I do not belong to a particular caste, a respondent’s relative said, ‘You will never be able to speak Sindhi!’

For a researcher, it is much more convenient to interview respondents in the same language that the researcher speaks. The challenge, then, is building connections with a community beyond the basis of a shared language. Drawing out valuable insights from the conversation and talking about them with the respondent can create a meaningful field experience for a researcher who is not so well versed in a local language.

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