Language and Comprehension

The most universal survey research problem in foreign countries is the language barrier. Differences in idioms and the difficulty of exact translation create problems in eliciting information desired and in interpreting the respondents’ answers. Types of scales appropriate in some cultures, such as reverse worded items, are problematic in other cultures. Equivalent concepts may not exist in all languages. Family for example, has different connotations in different countries. In the United States it generally means only the parents and children. In Italy and many Latin countries it could mean the parents, children, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth. The meaning of names for family members can differ depending on the context within which they are used. In the Italian culture, the words for aunt and uncle are different for the maternal and paternal sides of the family. The concept of affection is a universal idea, but the manner in which it is manifested in each culture may differ. Kissing, an expression of affection in the West is alien to many Eastern cultures and even taboo in some.

Literacy posse yet another problem. In some less developed countries with low literacy rates, written questionnaires are completely useless. Within countries, too, the problem of dialects and different languages can make a national questionnaire survey impractical. In India, there are 14 official languages and considerably more unofficial ones. One researcher has used pictures of products as stimuli and pictures of faces as response criteria in a study of eastern German brand preferences to avoid some of the difficulties associated with language differences and literacy in international research. Still others have used other non verbal kinds of response elicitation techniques such as pictures and collages.

Furthermore, researcher cannot assume that a translation into one language will suffice in all areas where that language is spoken. For example one of authors was in Mexico and requested a translation of the word outlet as in retail outlet to be used in Venezuela. It was read by Venezuelans to mean an electrical outlet, an outlet of a river into an ocean, and the passageway into a patio. Of course the responses were useless — although interesting. Thus, it will always be necessary for a native speaker of the target country’s language to take the final cut of any translated material.

All marketing communications, including research questionnaires must be written perfectly. If not, consumers prepared or reviewed by native speaker of the language of the country is frequently overlooked. Even excellent companies such as American airlines bring errors into their measurement of customer satisfaction by using the same questionnaire in Spanish for their surveys of passengers on routes to Spain and Mexico. To a Spaniard orange juice is zumo de naranja; a Mexican it would be orer jugo de naranja. These apparently subtle differences are no such things to Spanish speakers. In another case, a German respondent was asked the number of washers (washing machines) produced in Germany for a particular year; the reply reflected the production of the flat metal disk. Marketers use three different techniques translation, parallel translation, and decentering to help ferret out translation errors ahead of time.

Back Translation; In back translation the questionnaire is translated from one language to another, and then a second party translates it back into the original. This process pinpoints misinterpretations and misunderstandings before they reach the public. A soft drink company wanted to use a very successful Australian advertising theme, Baby, it’s cold inside, in Hong Kong. It had theme translated from English into Cantonese by one translator and then retranslated by another from Cantonese into English, in which the statement came out as Small mosquito on the inside it is very cold. Although small mosquito is the colloquial expression for small child in Hong Kong the intended meaning was lost in translation.

Parallel Translation: Back translations may not always ensure an accurate translation because of commonly used idioms in both languages. Parallel translation is used to overcome this problem. In this process, more than two translators are used for the back translation the results are compared differences discussed and the most appropriate translation selected.

De-centering A third alternative, known as de-centering, is a hybrid of back translation. It is a successive process of translation and retranslation of a questionnaire, each time by a different translator.