How Simultaneous Interpreting Can Best Communicate Meaning and Nuance in Foreign-Language Focus Groups
by Anibal Marrón
If viewing your foreign focus groups is important to you or your clients, you may have wondered: How can we deliver the messages across the one- way mirror in the way they emerge from the focus groups? This is where simultaneous interpreting (also called simultaneous translating) comes in.
If viewing your foreign focus groups is important to you or your clients, you may have wondered: How can we deliver the messages across the one-way mirror in the way they emerge from the focus groups?
This is where simultaneous interpreting (also called simultaneous translating) comes in. As research practi- tioners, we know the impact that interpreting can have on our work. Poor interpretations can give clients (who are watching the groups) the wrong impression as to what they are hearing and its significance. More importantly, if the QRC is not acting as the moderator nor speaks the group’s language (which is common when American QRCs must carry out focus groups outside the U.S.), he or she can also be misled by inaccurate interpreting, which can skew the QRC’s final report. Thus, it is worthwhile to explore the nature of focus group interpreting and examine the benefits derived from using professional moderator-interpreter dyads to avoid the pitfalls of standard translation services.
Interpreting and translating can be used interchangeably. In this article, I often refer to interpreters, rather than translators, to highlight the added complexity that comes when attempting to communicate not just the words a respondent says but the fullness of meaning that can be lost on those who do not speak the language and understand the cultural references.
Before exploring how to improve the interpreting itself, we must first be aware that the message received is directly influenced both by the inter- preter and by how the focus group viewers process what they see and hear. In reality, simultaneous interpreting is a complex process that occurs in the interpreters’ minds and is thus limited to their own comprehension of the group discussion and its subject matter.
We should also acknowledge that cultural barriers and the pace of simultaneous interpreting may sometimes confuse foreign viewers. The seconds in between one statement and its translation can present an obstacle to getting the message through to the back room. Likewise, it may lead to the misinterpretation of body language or cause a viewer to lose track of which speaker the interpreter is referring to.
In fact, we cannot control the way speech is processed by the relevant parties, but we can minimize misunderstandings by helping ensure that the message is conveyed correctly. This highlights the importance of transmitting the message in its entirety, with its cultural load, feeling and intention.
In a successful simultaneous translation, the interpreter’s speech flows naturally at the pace set by the group discussion. It appears to be the result of a rare ability based primarily on intuition, instead of what it really is: the culmination of a long process in which instinct, skills and preparation converge.
Indeed, we can minimize the problems that hinder the flow of communication towards the viewing room when we acknowledge that simultaneous interpreting for focus groups is quite different from any other form of translation. To prepare for a successful interpretation experience, consider the following.
Simultaneous interpreting for focus groups requires additional preparation.
Conference and focus group interpreting demand adequate preparation. Simultaneous translators/interpreters need to study the background material and ascertain whether or not their subject knowledge is sufficient or should be brushed up in time for the event.
Preparation for a focus group, however, requires additional efforts, as the interpreter needs to thoroughly study the discussion guide (aside from other materials) so as to understand its rationale from a marketing perspective. The interpreter needs to be ready to convey the information that is of interest to the client, even if the moderator jumps from one subject to another, following the flow of ideas. Clearly, this can only be possible through conscientious preparation and two-way communication between the moderator and the project leader.
The briefing should include the interpreter.
Successful interpreting at a conference or during a focus group session must take the viewing client - and the QRC, if he or she is in the back room, rather than moderating the group - into account. Even if interpreters are properly prepared for the event, they will require briefing on the day it occurs.
During the briefing, the project leader and the moderator update the simultaneous interpreter on the latest considerations (special requirements, timetables, etc.) and offer suggestions to help the interpreter fine- tune the translation to the audience’s level of expertise. A focus group briefing runs much longer than a briefing for a conference, since it focuses on study objectives and identifies different considerations for each section of the questionnaire.
This is the time for interpreters to raise questions and clear up any doubts. Only in this way will the interpreter be able to capture the participants’ relevant reactions.
The interpreter’s role
When working at a conference, simul- taneous interpreters aim to deliver a coherent, clean and accurate speech. For market research purposes, the emphasis falls on the ability to convey a message that is richer than the words themselves.
In this respect, simultaneous interpreting for a focus group may be much more challenging, as the interpreter must communicate not only the verbal content, but also the respondents’ impressions, their doubts and feelings, their body language and their reactions to the ideas discussed.
Thus, the interpreter conveys the multiple signals that comprise the message: the context, the line of the argu- ment and the degree to which respondents react to a given situation. This kind of performance facilitates comprehension in the back room, allowing viewers to focus on those points that are valuable for the project. That said, however, the role of the interpreter is limited to translating what the participants say, and it is not, in any way, related to explaining or analyzing the meaning, the implications or the impact of what participants say, which is the QRC’s role.
Interpreting for focus groups
Following up and communicating a piece of conversation in a way that is meaningful for the research requires a set of skills and organizational capacity that do not compare with conference interpreters’ usual assignments, in which a single line of speech is followed. Experienced simultaneous inter- preters for focus groups are used to interpreting while discussions take place amongst participants, who under normal circumstances speak simultaneously, overlap and interrupt each others’ lines of argument.
This turns interpretation into a fine art in which the simultaneous interpreter has to perfectly understand the connotative message delivered by the source speaker(s), then reconstitute it and adapt it to the audience, in its own language and in “real time,” while considering the marketing objectives.
Changing needs, changing instructions
Generally speaking, conference inter- preters receive a set of instructions that remain unchanged during the assignment. Conversely, the nature of the instructions addressed to market research interpreters is dynamic and characterized by change and development; in fact, the instructions evolve with the flow of the focus group dialogue.
Furthermore, while conference interpreters normally work in an enclosure and have minimal or no interaction during their shifts, market-research simultaneous interpreters must be open to receiving input from the client or the moderator at any time. In reality, they have to be in sync with both in order to do their job properly.
Having examined the distinctive features of interpreting focus groups, and prior to assessing the improvements brought by using moderator-interpreter dyads, we should look into whether or not it is appropriate to assign all our market-research projects to the same interpreter.
Context Matters. Interpreters with Industry Experience Help.
A couple of months ago, I moderated focus groups with motorcyclists and professional racers. One of my objectives was to trigger a discussion about their motorcycles’ performance, and we expected that participants would engage passionately on the subject of mechanics. As we did not want to miss that information, the approach to the project called for a simultaneous translator who understood the mechanical jargon within the context of the racing world. I gave a clear briefing to the facility, and it hired an interpreter who did a wonderful job.
We can assume that a simultaneous translator who does a good job in one particular field may not be the best alternative to cover another. Previous experience interpreting focus groups and a degree of specialization on the subject matter to be researched are prerequisites to qualify for assignments. Not any professional interpreter will suffice.
The Moderator-Interpreter dyad Improves the Outcome of Interpreters
Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the risk involved in not considering the benefits derived from mutual understanding between the moderator and the interpreter; the importance of their working synergy and alignment behind a goal is obvious when the focus groups begin.
In my view, improving the outcome of simultaneous interpreting requires a comprehensive approach, such as that provided by professional moderator- interpreter dyads. To achieve project success, it is vital that the moderator and the interpreter are acquainted with each other’s needs. Only in this manner would the interpreter be able to capture the participants’ relevant reactions. When the interpreter is familiar with the objectives of each section of the questionnaire and understands the purpose of the qualitative exercises, it is more likely that the recipients will receive meaningful information.
In fact, pairing moderators and interpreters produces an overall better result than if each professional were work- ing toward the same goal individually. When the two prepare the session together, share their knowledge and doubts, work as a team to sharpen their abilities, and are ready to support each other if the opportunity arises, we can expect better results. For instance, the moderator can ask participants to speak louder or more slowly or to speak in turns, showing concern for the interpreter’s task. As for the interpreter, in the midst of the discussion, when everybody overlaps each other, he or she can focus on the lines of speech that are, according to the brief, more relevant to the research objectives.
Therefore, the key advantage of hiring a moderator-interpreter dyad is that two members pair up to reach a common goal: fulfilling the QRC’s designated need. Assuming that both are experienced professionals instinctively alert to their individual roles, their ability to be attuned to each other during the group discussion will result in the richly detailed and organized representation of the focus group experience that we, as practitioners, require.
Of course, moderator-interpreter dyads are not readily available everywhere, but this should not prevent practitioners from using their valuable contribution to their work at every opportunity. Essentially, these dyads are a synergistic response to the real issues posed by interpreting in the context of group discussions.