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Pitfalls of survey translation and how to avoid them

June is Pride Month, and this year we happened to have the chance to work on an interesting and appropriate project: we translated a survey on transgender identity. Translation of a survey itself requires special care, technical skills and linguistic awareness, and this is especially so when dealing with such a sensitive topic. So what is so challenging about surveys and questionnaires?

Technical challenges

Usually an online survey is written in HTML, where placeholders and other non-translatable units abound, and the file is exported to an .xls format. The preparation of such files can be time-consuming and requires some knowledge of coding and HTML itself. With cutting-edge software technologies and an experienced team this is not a problem for us. As always, it is essential to ask the client for detailed instructions about non-translatable items (e.g. abbreviations, programme titles, organisation names), character limits and the context in which the survey will be published.

Linguistic challenges

Surveys and questionnaires have a relatively well-defined structure, and the linguistic differences are also more striking and immediate than in the case of a general text. Grammatical gender, for instance, especially in Romance languages, such as French or Spanish, can pose a dilemma for translators, as the gender of the noun actively affects other elements of a given noun phrase. This can result in unusual solutions – for example, in the case of shorter answers where the translation follows a linguistic structure different from English, and translators sometimes have no other option but to use four forms (sing. masc./sing. fem./plur. masc./plur. fem.) of a word or expression. When the target audience and the subject of the survey is the LGBTQ+ community – whose grammatical gender representation is part of an ongoing social debate – this requires greater care on the part of the entire translation team.

In surveys even repetitions do not work the same way. Responses in rating scales (e.g. Good/Fair/Poor) can be translated one way in one context and another way in another context, depending on the question.

Numbers replaced with placeholders can also pose added complications. In some languages, like Polish, the number itself can modify the gender and the number of the noun phrase which means, again, that several forms of the same noun have to be included.

At the same time, questions discussing present/previous experiences of the respondent often need to be completely rephrased when a grammatical tense simply does not exist in the target language.

In English, you is a general pronoun, but in many languages, there is an informal (tutoiement) and formal (vouvoiement) way of addressing others. Another problem to deal with. This is where background documents (screenshots or additional information) can help the translator, while taking the target audience into consideration, and communication with the client can also provide further reference points to ensure an accurate translation.

To sum up, survey translations provide a platform for us to show our technical and linguistic expertise and ability while requiring flexibility and creativity in translation. The management of such projects is time-consuming and complex: it needs an experienced and proactive team and continuous communication with the client. If your translator does not ask questions, it’s time to get suspicious!

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