25. Tips for Masters Students Using a Translator for Fieldwork

Overseas fieldwork at Masters level can be enduring enough, particularly in unfamiliar environments and unrecognised cultures. Incorporate the necessity for a translator and this can amplify fieldwork challenges. However, manage and utilise your translator appropriately and you can produce a quality piece of research whilst enjoying the experience of conducting overseas fieldwork, remember not a lot of students get this opportunity. In this post, I shall detail 10 tips on how to manage your translator to enable you the best chance to produce an effective piece of research, drawing on my experience from using a translator in Tanzania for my MSc thesis.

“I didn’t realise how good friends I would become with Zawadi. On the last day the other students presented their translators with gifts and clothes from the Sheffield University Union shop as a thank you…. we bought ours a chicken from the local market”

1.   Acquaint them with the necessary research guidelines. It is fundamental your translator is acquainted with research guidelines, particularly if like me you are interviewing local community members. The main guidelines you should align your translator with include:

  • Maintaining participant confidentially
  • Upholding eye contact with participants
  • Sitting closely and comfortably (this generates intimacy which facilitates a greater sharing of perceptions of experiences)
  • Avoid standing, or peering over study participants (in some cultures this can be interpreted as a vertical hierarchical feel, thereby exacerbating the positionality issues that subsist within qualitative research)
  •  Ensuring that important ethical procedures are followed

Although there are other guidelines within research method literature, these are the main ones for ensuring that a strong researcher – participant relationship develops, imperative to gaining high quality research.

Fortunately, my translator had been debriefed by the host organisation NGO prior to my arrival. However, this can be done informally, perhaps over a coffee before the fieldwork commences. Or, if necessary, frequently remind them during fieldwork if you feel that they are not following them adequately.

2.  Clarify payment details prior to conducting the research. This should be explained transparently at the very beginning, as to the translator this is perhaps the most important element for partaking. Details you may wish to explain:

  • Whose responsibility it is to pay for travel, refreshments, meals etc
  • When payment instalments are (if they are in instalments)
  • Who is paying? Is it you? Your University? Your host organisation (if you have one)
  • What the payment rate is (you may need to be prepared to justify it)
  • Are translators paid only when in the field? Is travel included? Is it a daily rate?

 In my case it was the NGO’s responsibility, but myself and fellow students were not informed of this until the 3rd week due to miscommunications. Implications stemming from this didn’t necessarily directly impact the fieldwork, but my translator recurrently expressed his apprehensions that he wouldn’t receive payment or he would be underpaid. Thus, at times I would wonder whether his full attention was on the interviews, or would he turn up if he was under the impression there was no wage. Ultimately, we all sat down to clarify payment details and vindicated the wage by referencing similar roles payrolls in the area, from which my translator cooperated fully. This was a weight off my mind and likely his too. I really emphasise to you that this should have been done immediately, learn from my mistake.

3.  Be clear what is expected of them. This ensures the translator will be prepared for whatever you have planned, and that they will be well equipped so the day runs smoothly. This was necessary in my own research as days ranged from hiking through Kilimanjaro’s forests, to inform meetings with governments and NGOs. Thereby, practicality and dress codes had to be considered. Furthermore, I was visiting extremely poor farmers, so I had to remember to remind my translator not to wear anything flashy that could seem inappropriate.

4.  Ensure every word is translated. This may seem simple, but often translators may try to summarise a large piece of verbal information provided to them. Additionally, due simplicities in some languages terms maybe untranslatable into English, or vice-versa.

I experienced both issues. I detected long responses to my interview questions, but shorter translations given. This could appear useful from an efficiency perspective, but later when you come to coding transcripts you realise the essentiality of every detail. Therefore, recapping with your translator to translate every word should address this. To tackle the simplicity of the Swahili language I checked my interview questions with my translator beforehand to ensure they were comprehensible, whilst any terms encountered untranslatable into English were recorded and investigated later to determine meanings.

5.  Try to establish the best working relationship, ideally ASAP. It is important that you both enjoy the work, thereby you should make the effort to get along. However, as I found, it is paramount you ensure in your approach you have the optimum balance between friendly and authoritative. Mistakenly, I was guilty of being too lenient, which impacted my research as I felt that my translator perceived me as more of a friend than boss. We would arrange to meet 9 am every morning, yet, my translator would always be casually late (sometimes over an hour) which hampered our daily productivity. Eventually, this required me to have a firm but fair word, and thus, our productivity increased from 2 to 3 interviews a day. Nonetheless, I wish that I had done this immediately when I recognised there was an issue so that there was more stability to our relationship.

*It is important to note however, that in some cultures, especially across East Africa, that there is a less rushed and more laid-back approach to working as opposed to what the majority of us are accustomed to in Europe and North America. Thereby, when stated a meeting time locals may perceive this as an imprecise time for beginning work, and allow themselves a short while after (although I stand by believing that over an hour was excessive). I was unaware of this before, and I guess it could be regarded as a form of culture shock for myself – something that a lot of emerging researchers experience. Therefore, you should do a bit of general background reading on the area you’re travelling to, perhaps in one of those country specific traveller guides that all bookshops appear to sell.

6.  Utilise their knowledge and network. If they have lived within the area long, they can indeed offer useful and practical insight. My translator lived in the study district all his life, and was extremely useful for knowing travel routes and contacts for arranging key informant and institution interviews. Therefore, advantageous from a time perspective.

Furthermore, they may provide study relevant knowledge. For instance, my study centred around climate change and my translator was able to explain how regional climate had progressively changed, and the ramifications for agricultural livelihoods. Although not necessarily in-depth, such information can enable theoretical foundations to develop, whilst simultaneously this can help the translator feel engaged and involved more with the research.

7.  Make time for weekly one to one meetings/debriefs. During this time, your translator can inform you of any issues, either with you or the research. There may additionally be something they do not fully understand that is important in your project, so it would need addressing urgently.

This proved beneficial in my case. My translator informed me how I would walk too fast and he would tire himself out attempting to keep up with me (in Tanzanian culture people do not rush, and walk steadily), leaving him short-breathed when it came to interviewing time. Due to the isolation of some communities, fieldwork generally entailed significant foot travelling, sometimes up steep muddy terrain. Following the meeting, I realised that something as minute as walking pace had taken a large toll on him. Therefore, considering this I was able to adapt my pace in the field to certify it suited both of us.

Note, debriefs are also an ideal opportunity for yourself to tackle any problems with your translator. Preferably, this should be conducted in an informally, so that your translator may feel more relaxed to open up to you about how they may be feeling and take on your feedback (over a drink in a bar could suffice).

8. REMEMBER you are in charge of your own research. Some of you may be unfamiliar in a type of management position (I was), so do not let your translator dictate agendas. For example, a fellow student’s translator was determining which villages to visit, which contrasted to her preliminary plans. Although they may just be trying to help it is YOUR research. If your translator really feels that you should visit a particular area or person then you should perhaps discuss it during debriefs, and then act accordingly.

My experience differed somewhat, as my translator would sometimes ask to finish early on short notice, or try and let him shop during working hours. It may appear harsh to put your foot down but this can extensively hinder fieldwork productivity. If not addressed quickly your translator may assume this type of behaviour is fine. This is also an ideal opportunity to develop your people management skills, a key ability that some employers seek in an ambitious worker. So, ensure you practice them with your translator!

Identical to the point articulated in tip #5, in some job roles workers may be permitted to do this in Tanzanian culture. Again, this is why I emphasise the significance of also doing non-academic general background reading on your study area/country prior to travelling to acquaint yourselves with potential culture shock.

9.  Show them that they are appreciated. Buy them lunch perhaps whilst you are out, or tip them at the end of the day, or just frequently thank them for their work and effort (particularly if you have had a long gruelling fieldwork day). It is probably a good idea to get them something on their last shift to show your appreciation. Picture it as your last day at work, sometimes employees pull together to provide you with gifts. Gift ideas could be:

  • Bringing them something from home that they may struggle to get in their country (seems more special).
  • Your university merchandise i.e. university hoodies or tops.
  • Or in my case, buy them a chicken! (apparently, he is named after me and lives in my translator’s mother’s garden)

10.  Stay in contact

  • You never know when you might be back. I am going back for my PhD fieldwork in 2019, and it would be good if I could obtain the same translator again.
  • If they have enjoyed their time with you and value the opportunity you have provided them with they will likely want to remain friends. It is always nice to know that you have friends across different parts of the world, so add them on Facebook or take an email etc.
  • Take some photos together before you leave, they may wish to show their friends how they were part of an important piece of research that may go to furthering knowledge, informing policy or enhancing their community – my translator took plenty of me with his family!

Of course, there are plenty more useful tips to consider before venturing out into fieldwork, these were just the predominant ones that stood out to me from my own experience.

Martin Watts ACTS Co-ordinator (University of Southampton)