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Veröffentlicht von am in CS Science
Case study- scientific translations


Translation is a hard problem.

There is nothing that a person could know, or feel, or dream, that could not be crucial for getting a good translation of some text or other. To be a translator, therefore, one cannot just have some parts of humanity; one must be a complete human being.

-- Martin Kay

In social scientific research the translation problem is even more pronounced. Traditional questionnaire research is in itself affected by the problem that language is not exact and the degree to which different people have a similar understanding of a specific concept varies. When gathering data in several language contexts with the aim of treating the dataset as one, non-regarding the language, exact translation is needed. Exact translation however, is an oxymoron. Researchers keep pointing out how different the understanding of emotions, personality concepts, and other social constructs are between cultures. 

This is a problem all cross-cultural questionnaire research has to tackle as best as possible. In March we posted about such a project, the Sustainable Workforce study for which we built the study software. In addition we were also tasked with coordinating the scientific translation of the questionnaires into 7 languages. 

To make this whole matter even more complicated, translating an online questionnaire also means translating parts of a software. Software translation in itself is yet another complex problem. 



In most cases the obvious choice for translations are professional translators. They have studied the complexity of their trade and have experience in how to maintain meaning despite contextual differences. There are of course also specialists in various professions and sciences such as medical translators, legal translators or technical translators.  

But what about translating psychological constructs? Can we trust people without social scientific background to translate these? Doesn’t it take a certain degree of knowledge about how measurement scales are built and validated? With scientific translations it is often necessary to have everything translated back into the original language and then evaluate the differences and adjust the translation accordingly. 

Regardless of the answers to the previous questions, what if the budget for the study doesn’t allow for paying translations and maybe back translations made by professionals? Master or Doctoral students in psychology or sociology with the respective mother tongue can be less expensive than professional translators and they have the right background. What they may lack is actual expertise in translation.


The solution we offered in the past as well as for this project was based on our extensive network of social scientists across Europe. For cost reasons and because the project was already under time pressure when we came on board, we suggested to replace back translations with proof reading by a second translator. This seemed justified on the background that the surveys largely consisted of questions of demographic nature rather than actual psychodiagnostics. 

For each language we recruited two people from our network, all of them with either a Master’s Degree or a PhD in Psychology. The only exception was Portuguese, where one of the two was a professional translator. 

images.jpgWe then prepared the materials, briefed the translators and coordinated work between the translators and the proof readers as well as the continuous updates coming from the project side. We also gave translators access to the system where they could verify their own translations in the final context they would be shown in. The result of this whole process was then to be verified by people of the respective languages within the research project.


Managing translations split into many small parts due to being used in software and at the same time dealing with constant increments and small changes is a very challenging task. Additionally, being at the interface between all parties without actually being able to judge the quality of neither the translators’ work nor the validity or accuracy of the customer’s feedback is uncomfortable to say the least.

At a point in the project the state of some translations didn’t meet the expectations of the research team at all. A small project crisis ensued which was then collaboratively solved. The interesting thing about it all is the analysis of the factors that may have contributed to the situation:

  • Translations are hard, scientific software translations are very hard.
  • There is more than one possible solution for any sufficiently complex translation problem, the perfect translation often doesn’t exist.
  • Due to the tight schedule of the whole project, the texts already in translation were still in change.
  • It is easy to underestimated the verification and testing effort such translations work takes from the side of the customer. In this case, it was heavily underestimated. In other words, the implicit customer expectation was that the delivered translations would be as good as final. Our implicit assumption was that only the customer would be able to finalize the product in cycles of acceptance testing. Such different assumptions unavoidably lead to misunderstandings.
  • Involvement of the project team in the translation process is crucial for two reasons. For one, only the creators of a questionnaire can verify its translation. Secondly, involvement creates commitment to and satisfaction with the created solution. This isn’t a trivial point, given the fact that many correct translations of a given text exist.
  • A degree in psychology doesn’t guarantee good translation outcomes due to a potential lack of experience and expertise.
  • A degree in translation doesn’t guarantee an outcome that is acceptable for researchers but it should guarantee linguistic correctness.

How to do it better

Despite the fact that after all the additional rounds of reviews and corrections, the study went online as planned and no serious problems with the questionnaires were reported since, we definitely think that there are a few things that could be improved for future projects of a similar nature.

  • Clarify expectations very carefully. True for every project.
  • Don’t start the translation process before the source is absolutely final. This means that the online questionnaire has to be adequately tested and language changes implemented, before the translation process starts.
  • Use professional translators for the translation, use scientists for proof-reading. 
  • If possible, the actual research team should do the back translation or proof-reading.
  • At the very least, the final editing and quality review can not be outsourced and takes a significant amount of time. This has to be taken into account when planning the project.
  • Use a software environment were translations can be made in context from the start.
  • Use some kind of change tracking if possible.

In unserem Jahreseröffnungspost vom Januar haben wir bereits eins unseren neuen Projekte erwähnt, Sustainable Workforce.


Sustainable Workforce ist ein einzigartiges wissenschaftliches Forschungsprojekt über betriebliche Investitionen in Human- und Sozialkapital, Work-Life Balance Management, Arbeitsflexibilität, langfristige Beschäftigungsfähigkeit älterer Mitarbeiter und Flexicurity in neun europäischen Ländern. Mit online Befragungen werden Längschnittdaten (zwei Wellen im Abstand von einem Jahr) von über hundert Organisationen, hunderten Vorgesetzten sowie zehntausenden Mitarbeitenden in Bulgarien, Finland, Deutschland, Ungarn, den Niederlanden, Portugal, Spanien, Schweden und England gesammelt. Neben den drei Hauptfragebogen mit relativ komplexen Routingabläufen, welche auch als PDF zum offline ausfüllen zu Verfügung gestellt werden müssen, gilt es zudem eine Reihe von Vignetten-Experimenten mit mehrdimensionaler Randomisierung zu entwickeln.

Der Multilevel-Charakter des Designs sowie die Darbietung von Befragungen dieser Komplexität in neun Sprachen, bietet willkommene Ausbaumöglichkeiten für unser Framework SurveyLab. Wir sind stolz darauf, für die Umsetzung dieses Projekts das Rennen gemacht zu haben und freuen uns, einem weiteren grossen EU-Forschungsprojekt als technischer Research Support Partner zu Verfügung stehen zu können!

Veröffentlicht von am in CS Science
How the internet changes us and our science

In recent years web-based scientific research is expanding and reinventing itself constantly. Publications and research articles in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted via web-based tools have relatively increased by about 543% from 2008 to 2009 (Denissen, Neumann, van Zalk, 2010).

With almost near-universal internet access in most of the developed world (e.g. 90 % of Sweden's population has daily access to the internet as the Internet World Stats report 2001 to 2009 shows), the newest technology does not only affect us on a daily basis, but also shapes our daily social interactions and the way in which we conduct research. In addition to psychological offline data collection via questionnaires and experiments for instance, web-based research through online surveys, apps and special web applications is able to facilitate and amplify our scientific data collection.

Therefore, making use of these new technological opportunities, research in psychology and other humanity sciences has become more virtual and online based. We collect data about us and the world around us online, answer questionnaires on our phones while traveling home or participate in diary studies before going to bed.

Online web-based data collection offers many advantages to scientific research. Most importantly:

  1. Data can be collected more easily and economically.
  2. Entered data can be validated in real time and the user can be prompted for correction.
  3. Data anonymity can be guaranteed if researchers assure the anonymous and separate storage of participants' answers and their ID codes.
  4. Researchers can reach a more representative sample much easier, especially if distributing their surveys via various social media platforms.

In their brilliant article on "How the internet is changing the implementation of traditional research methods, people’s daily lives, and the way in which developmental scientists conduct research" Denissen, Neumann and van Zalk (2010) explain chances and challenges the new generation of online research provides. They explain why web-based research has risen to such popularity in the past decade and what is needed to conduct it.

The authors do not avoid the challenges of these new possibilities either. Challenges that range from secure storage of participants' data, secure data transmission, online communication and the need for extensive testing and debugging of online tools.

Hand in hand with these opportunities comes a change. A change in how we interact with other people in our offline world. The frequent use of technology and internet does shape our interpersonal communication and interactions as many researchers of the field of cyberpsychology underline. The massive wealth of data individuals leave on the internet, particularly on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Google+ are used to investigate personality factors and their impact on various outcomes. The existence of this data enables scientists to investigate all kinds of hypotheses, ranging from how personality affects consumer behavior to how the use of social media is associated with depression and loneliness.

For those interested in more information on the advantages and pitfalls of online data collection, we highly recommend reading Dennissen, Neumann and van Zalk's (2010) article.

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Günter Ackermann
Projektleiter Qualität Evaluation, Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz

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