Finding Meaning: A Cross-Language Mixed-Methods Research Strategy

  • Catrina A. MacKenzieEmail author
Reference work entry


The literature devoted to methodological issues arising from working through an interpreter is surprisingly sparse. References that exist tend to be dated anthropological works or tend to focus on interviews in social work and medicine. The older literature tends to focus on the mechanics of translation and how to conduct an interview with an interpreter, while more recent works start to address the issues of whether the interpreter should be “invisible” or whether the changing dynamics of the interview with an interpreter present merits the rigorous treatment of the role and influence of the interpreter with respect to power and subjectivity. Interpreters are fundamental to the research process when a foreign researcher is conducting research with an indigenous culture, and when the researcher is not fluent in the local language. In this chapter, an experientially developed cross-language research strategy is discussed, including choosing and assessing the linguistic skill of interpreters, the influence of interpreter social position and subjectivity on transcript data, and the challenges encountered when translating and conducting a household survey, including questions about self-reported illness. The chapter ends with a summary of the components needed for a successful cross-language strategy, including the need to acknowledge the limitations introduced as a result of working through an interpreter, and the need to make the role, credentials, social position, and subjectivity of the interpreter explicit in published results.


Language interpretation Translation Social position Subjectivity Cross-language research 


  1. Bailey C, White C, Pain R. Evaluating qualitative research: dealing with the tension between ‘science’ and ‘creativity’. Area. 1999;31(2):169–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baxter J, Eyles J. Evaluating qualitative research in social geography: establishing rigour in interview analysis. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 1997;22(4):505–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bookwalter JT, Fuller BS, Dalenberg DR. Do household heads speak for the household? A research note. Soc Indic Res. 2006;79:405–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bryman A. Social research methods. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2016.Google Scholar
  5. Caretta MA. Situated knowledge in cross-cultural, cross-language research: a collaborative reflexive analysis of researcher, assistant and participant subjectivities. Qual Res. 2015;15(4): 489–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chapman CA, van Bavel B, Boodman C, Ghai RR, Gogarten JF, Hartter J, et al. Providing health care to improve community perceptions of protected areas. Oryx. 2015;49(4):636–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chilisa B. Indigenous research methodologies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE; 2012.Google Scholar
  8. Clifford J. On ethnographic authority. Representations. 1983;1(2):118–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dowling R. Power, subjectivity, and ethics in qualitative research. In: Hay I, editor. Qualitative research methods in human geography. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press; 2005. p. 19–29.Google Scholar
  10. Edwards R. A critical examination of the use of interpreters in the qualitative research process. J Ethn Migr Stud. 1998;24:197–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. England KVL. Getting personal: reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. Prof Geogr. 1994;46(1):80–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Esposito N. From meaning to meaning: the influence of translation techniques on non-English focus groups. Qual Health Res. 2001;11:568–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Frederickson K, Rivas Acuna V, Whetsell M. Cross-cultural analysis for conceptual understanding: English and Spanish perspectives. Nurs Sci Q. 2005;18(4):286–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Freed AO. Interviewing through an interpreter. Soc Work. 1988;33:315–9.Google Scholar
  15. Goldberg TL, Paige S, Chapman CA. The Kibale EcoHealth project: exploring connections among human health, animal health, and landscape dynamics in western Uganda. In: Aguirre AA, Ostfeld RS, Daszak P, editors. New directions in conservation medicine: applied cases of ecological health. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012. p. 452–65.Google Scholar
  16. Gondwe N, Marcotty T, Vanwambeke SO, De Pus C, Mulumba M, Van de Bossche P. Distribution and density of tsetse flies (Glossinidae: Diptera) at the game/people/livestock interface of the Nkhotakota game reserve human sleeping sickness focus in Malawi. EcoHealth. 2009;6(2): 260–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hartter J, Southworth J. Dwindling resources and fragmentation of landscapes around parks: wetlands and forest patches around Kibale National Park, Uganda. Landsc Ecol. 2009;24: 643–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hartter J, Ryan SJ, MacKenzie CA, Goldman A, Dowhaniuk N, Palace M, et al. Now there is no land: a story of ethnic migration in a protected area landscape in western Uganda. Popul Environ. 2015;36:452–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Heller E, Christensen J, Long L, MacKenzie CA, Osano PM, Ricker B, et al. Dear diary: early career geographers collectively reflect on their qualitative field research experiences. J Geogr High Educ. 2011;35(1):67–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Irvine FE, Lloyd D, Jones PR, Allsup DM, Kakehashi C, Ogi A, et al. Lost in translation? Undertaking transcultural qualitative research. Nurs Res. 2007;14(3):46–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kapborg I, Bertero C. Using an interpreter in qualitative interviews: does it threaten validity? Nurs Inq. 2002;9(1):52–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kobayashi A. Coloring the field: gender, “race”, and politics of fieldwork. Prof Geogr. 1994;46(1): 73–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Larkin PJ, Dierckx de Casterle B, Schotsmans P. Multilingual translation issues in qualitative research: reflections on a metaphorical process. Qual Health Res. 2007;17:468–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Liamputtong P. Performing qualitative cross-cultural research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. MacKenzie CA. Accruing benefit or loss from a protected area: location matters. Ecol Econ. 2012;76:119–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. MacKenzie CA, Hartter J. Demand and proximity: drivers of illegal forest resource extraction. Oryx. 2013;47(2):288–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. MacKenzie CA, Chapman CA, Sengupta R. Spatial patterns of illegal resource extraction in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Environ Conserv. 2012;39(1):38–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Michalos AC, Thommasen HV, Read R, Anderson N, Zumbo BD. Determinants of health and the quality of life in the Bella Coola Valley. Soc Indic Res. 2005;72:1–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Montgomery MR, Gragnolati M, Burke KA, Paredes E. Measuring living standards with proxy variables. Demography. 2000;37(2):155–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mukama R. Theory and practice in language policy: the case of Uganda. Kiswahili. 2009;72(1). online.Google Scholar
  31. Naughton-Treves L, Kammen DM, Chapman C. Burning biodiversity: woody biomass use by commercial and subsistence groups in western Uganda’s forests. Biol Conserv. 2007;134: 232–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pezalla AE, Pettigrew J, Miller-Day M. Researching the researcher-as-instrument: an exercise in interviewer self-reflexivity. Qual Res. 2012;12(2):165–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Phelan M, Parkman S. How To Do It: Work with an interpreter. BMJ 1995;311(7004):555–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rose G. Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics. Prog Hum Geogr. 1997;21(3):305–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sanjek R. Anthropology’s hidden colonialism: assistants and their ethnographers. Anthropol Today. 1993;9(2):13–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schumaker L. Africanizing anthropology: fieldwork, networks, and the making of cultural knowledge in Central Africa. Durham/London: Duke University Press; 2001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Squires A. Methodological challenges in cross-language qualitative research: a research review. Int J Nurs Stud. 2009;46:277–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Takasaki Y, Barnham BL, Coomes OT. Rapid rural appraisal in humid tropical forests: an asset possession-based approach and validation methods for wealth assessment among forest peasant households. World Dev. 2000;28:1961–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Temple B. Crossed wires: interpreters, translators, and bilingual workers in cross-language research. Qual Health Res. 2002;12(6):844–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Temple B, Edwards R. Interpreters/translators and cross-language research: reflexivity and border crossings. Int J Qual Methods. 2002;1(2):Article 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Temple B, Young A. Qualitative research and translation dilemmas. Qual Res. 2004;4:161–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Turner S. The silenced assistant: reflections of invisible interpreters and research assistants. Asia Pacific Viewpoint. 2010;51(2):206–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Valentine G. People like us: negotiating sameness and difference in the research process. In: Moss P, editor. Feminist geography in practice: research and methods. Oxford: Blackwell; 2002. p. 116–26.Google Scholar
  44. Vyas S, Kumaranayake L. Constructing socio-economic status indices: how to use principle components analysis. Health Policy Plan. 2006;21(6):459–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wallmo K, Jacobson SK. A social and environmental evaluation of fuel-efficient cook-stoves and conservation in Uganda. Environ Conserv. 1998;25:99–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Werner O, Campbell DT. Translating, working through interpreters, and the problem of decentering. In: Naroll R, Cohen R, editors. A handbook of method in cultural anthropology. Irvington-on-Hudson: Columbia University Press; 1973. p. 398–420.Google Scholar
  47. World Health Organization. Uganda: non-communicable disease (NCD) country profiles. (2014). Accessed 2 Aug 2016.
  48. World Health Organization. World malaria report 2015: Uganda. (2015). Accessed 10 Aug 2016.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department of GeographyUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations