equivalence in translation

equivalence in translation

A challenge in multinational research is establishing equivalence of meaning for a concept. Some words may be easily transliterated, but transliteration may not do justice to the idea behind the word. For example, “purpose” in English is “propósito” in Spanish. But “propósito” may not capture the nuances of meaning, intention, and beyond-the-self impact that research on youth purpose focuses on (Moran, 2015).

Rather, the English equivalent of the words expressing the concept of purpose would be “ideal life” in China, “life project” in Brazil, “hopeful future” in Finland, “ultimate achievement” in Korea, and “objective” in Spain (Moran, 2015). These other terms carry metaphorical connotations originating from each country’s nuances and development over time.            

Cultural or linguistic differences can be adjusted with “decentering.” Researchers collaborate to agree on the meaning of the concept, then to modify the language appropriately rather than using verbatim words (Larkin, Dierckx de Casterlé, & Schotsmans, 2007; Su & Parham, 2002).

Another example from our collaborative study of how service-learning influences youth purpose around the world occurred with the phrasing asking about students’ experiences doing work in their communities. The English version asked respondents to answer several questions about their “most recent fieldwork.”

However, “fieldwork” in Spanish transliterates to “trabajo de campo,” which could also mean working in the countryside. So instead, researchers chose “sevicio y aprendizaje” (service-learning) to be clearer.

In Finnish, the reference to “most recent fieldwork” could not be addressed in a preliminary paragraph before the questions. It was important that this phrase be included in each question.

The challenge of equivalence is compounded when trying to translate across more than two countries. A word, item, or concept may be relevant in some countries but not others, or directly translatable across some languages but not others. For example, while a life purpose focused on job/career may be applicable across all countries, owning a business may not be a relevant option in all.

Although there are guidelines, there are no absolute rules in translating a research survey into multiple languages. The process requires patience, collaboration, and empathy. However, these “difficulties” may be opportunities in disguise (Moran, 2015). The variability of meanings across countries are intriguing and deserve further investigation in their own right.

 By Cori Palermo, Clark University       


Read also Variability in Translation.


Larkin, P. J., Dierckx de Casterlé, B., & Schotsmans, P. (2007). Multilingual translation issues in qualitative research: Reflections on a metaphorical process. Qualitative Health Research, 17(4), 468-476. doi:10.1177/1049732307299258

Moran, S. (2015, November). Cultural and historical roots of purpose. Talk given at the annual meeting of the Association for Moral Education, Santos, Brazil.

Su, C.-T., & Parham, L. D. (2002). Case Report – Generating a valid questionnaire translation for cross-cultural use. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 581-585. doi:10.5014/ajot.56.5.581