Twelve tips to make questions translation ready

Posted by John Kleeman

We all know the perils of mis-translation. My favourite mis-translation is the perhaps apocryphal tale of a laundry in Rome, Italy putting up a sign in English saying “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” With Questionmark having a translation management system to help you translate questions and assessments, here are some good practice tips on writing questions so they will be easy to translate.

1. Avoid questions that assume syntax is the same in all languages, for example fill-in-blank questions that rely on word order. For example, in English, the verb goes in the middle of a sentence but in Turkish and Korean, the verb is usually at the end of a sentence.

2. Also avoid “broken stem questions”, where the stem is an incomplete sentence and the participant must select the most appropriate answer to finish the sentence. That’s likely to be challenging to translate in some languages where the ordering may not make sense.

3. Keep questions simple. Avoid unnecessarily complex text or question stems with redundancy or unnecessary repetition. Such questions are best simplified before you translate them.

4. Avoid metaphors and idiomatic language in general; things like “in small steps” or “disappear into thin air”, could well introduce translation mistakes.

5. Avoid passive voice where you can. Not all languages make it easy to translate this, and it’s usually best to just use active voice.

6. Thoroughly review questions prior to translation to ensure no ambiguity. if the question wording is ambiguous, the translator’s interpretation of the question may not be the same as that of the question author.

7. If you are using a rating scale across many questions, investigate its cultural appropriateness and, if possible, whether it is widely used in the target language.

8. Test items based on nuances of vocabulary, descriptions of emotions or abstract concepts can be hard to translate, as different languages may have different vocabulary connotations.

9. You also need to be aware of the risk that translating a question could cause a question to become obvious due to different words in the target language, like the following Swedish example.

Question that shows a Swedish translation giving the answer to a question by words being the same

10. Avoid using cultural context within question stimulus. If you are presenting a scenario, make it one that is relevant to different cultures and languages. If it is difficult to avoid a culturally marked context, consider preparing good guidelines for translators in which you define what adaptations are encouraged, desirable and ruled out

11. If your question contains a graphic or video, consider if you can remove any text from it and still keep the question meaningful. Otherwise you need to translate the text in the graphic or video in each language.

12. if you are translating items into several languages, it can be cost effective to conduct a translatability assessment on the items before you do the detailed translation. This will alert to possible issues within various language families prior to doing the more substantial work of full translation. A translatability assessment lets you identify and fix issues early and relatively cheaply. See here for a blog from Steve Dept of CApStAn that explains more.

Thanks to Steve Dept for inspiring this blog post with an excellent conference presentation at EATP last year and for helping me write this article. For some more advice on translating and adapting tests, see the International Test Commission Guidelines for Translating and Adapting Tests or the Cross-cultural Survey Guidelines (CCSG), both of which have been recently updated.

I hope this advice helps you be efficient in your translation efforts. For information on Questionmark OnDemand which includes translation management system capabilities, see www.questionmark.com.

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