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From "lost in translation" to "found in translation"

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Translation—the conversion of meaning across mediums— is an essential part of ethnography. Ethnography requires us to interpret meaning across different worlds: gaining and losing insights as we move away from the field, across analysis, and into writing. But while we sometimes treat translation as an issue of finding “the right word” or metaphor, less attention is given to the multiple layers— problems and opportunities— that translating the field involves.

For field workers conducting research in languages other than English, translating meaning to English-speaking audiences and collaborators can prove particularly challenging. In our workshop on Translating the field: qualitative research across languages, the aim was to identify challenges and strategies people have while collecting, analyzing, writing, and presenting data across two or more languages. We invited Professor Maria do Mar Pereira from University of Warwick to help us think through some of our challenges like translating idioms, informal language, or tone of voice, and preserving the integrity of our settings as we strive to make theoretical contributions.

While most participants expressed fear of “losing” meaning in translation, Maria proposed that we switch our approach from a deficit model to a generative model. The deficit model is characterized by a feeling of loss. When we translate across languages, we may feel we are losing our connection to local meanings. Some researchers might be fearful of “betraying” the people they studied while others might experience frustration at having to simplify complex observations to make our setting amenable to the Anglo context. The realization is that “finding the right word” is not a one-size-fits-all solution to these complex issues and that we might in fact not have a solution. Maria believes that translation becomes “less problematic” when we reconcile with loss and focus on what can be gained during translation.

Maria suggested adopting a generative model of translation. The generative model uses the process of translation to inform and enrich research, from data collection to presenting our findings. Writing field notes or conducting interviews in the local language has the benefit of familiarization and the freedom to capture original concepts and expressions. As these data are analyzed and discussed in another language, the researcher can access a space in which the familiarity of the language becomes strange. This sets the stage for a generative conversation about translation issues that turn the translation process into an analytical process:

What is the rationale behind specific idioms or jargon? What do people mean when they say that? Is there a difference between the intended meaning and the literal meaning of words? In which situations are these expressions used? Are there other types of non-verbal communications that are meant to complement certain expressions? Can similar expressions be found in other contexts or is this unique? Where do these expressions come from?

This approach breaks the act of translation open and turns it into a productive and informative process that can help to reveal assumptions or beliefs. As we work to formulate findings, translation issues can become research issues— revealing meaning we took for granted. Thinking about translation as a generative process does not mean getting caught up in dissecting every word or expression. Sometimes, settling for a simple “close-enough” translation can help us avoid getting side-tracked from our research questions.

What can be gained from translation? The generative approach offers kaleidoscopic possibilities. Accepting the loss of some meaning means that in other aspects of the research we can gain more than what we expected. Translation implies a trade-off. For instance, writing field notes in the local language is good for capturing original words and idioms but writing in English or a different language can also help us gain an outsider perspective in our observations. We need to be sensitive to these issues and tradeoffs and decide what is best for our projects— or experiment to get different perspectives. The generative model encourages researchers not to gloss over questions of translation.

Rather than covering up or ignoring the challenges in translating research across languages, Maria encouraged us to respond to what comes up from the (im-)possibilities of translation. You can learn more about this perspective by watching the clip from our workshop and reading Pereira, MDM, Scharff, C and Marhia, N (2009).


Professor Maria do Mar Pereira (bio)

Professor Pereira is an Associate Professor, Director of Teaching and Learning and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at University of Warwick. She is a feminist ethnographer and sociologist. Maria do Mar’s research focuses broadly on gender inequality in Academia, the construction of gender and sexuality in schools, and feminist activism. Besides numerous academic articles, she has published two books, one in portuguese called “Doing Gender in the Playground: the Negotiation of Gender in Schools” and a more recent one on “Power, Knowledge and Feminist Scholarship: an Ethnography of Academia”. For each of these books she was awarded—respectively— the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry's Worldwide Award for Best Qualitative Book in Spanish or Portuguese and the FWSA Book Prize. Maria do Mar has also been recognized for her excellent teaching through the LSE Teaching Award and the Award for Most Inspirational Teaching of the Year at the University of Leeds.

Suggested readings:

  • Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press. Chapter 1: Fieldnotes in ethnographic research

  • Churchill, C. J. (2005). Ethnography as translation. Qualitative Sociology, 28(1), 3-24.

  • Phillips, H. P. (1959). Problems of translation and meaning in field work. Human Organization, 18(4), 184-192.

  • Pereira, MDM, Scharff, C and Marhia, N (2009) Interrogating Language Difference and Translation in Social Science Research: Towards a Critical and Interdisciplinary Approach. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 6 (3). 1 - 12 . ISSN 1572-3763

  • Sturge, K. (1997). Translation strategies in ethnography. The Translator, 3(1), 21-38.

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