What do we mean? Reflections on interviewing with interpreters

For the Housing through Social Enterprise research (CommonHealth Project 7), we are attempting to interview new tenants of three different social enterprises working in the housing sector. The first interview, conducted around the time when tenants move in to their new tenancy, is done over the phone, whilst follow-up interviews at 2-3 months and 9-12 months are undertaken face-to-face.

Because we’re trying to engage all new tenants in the project, this involves interviewing a wide range of people – all ages and all backgrounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the substantial increase in Glasgow’s ethnic diversity over the last couple of decades, some of the tenants we have been interviewing are relatively recent arrivals who are not yet fluent English speakers. So we’ve recently conducted a number of telephone interviews using interpreters, which led me to reflect a little on what we had learned through this process.

Firstly, working through an interpreter has been  challenging, but also very useful in terms of thinking through how I describe the research. After dozens of interviews and many more initial contacts with potential research participants, it is easy to get into bad habits, rattling through the introductory spiel because I’ve said it so many times – forgetting that this is the first time that the tenant on the other end of the phone has heard it. And they’re probably thinking about something else anyway, because I’ve just interrupted their day. Breaking down the well-practiced pitch into bite-sized sections for interpretation has not been easy, but it’s really helped me to think about which points are really necessary and which are just academic waffle. For example, from our perspective it’s absolutely key that the research is about social enterprise, but for tenants this really doesn’t matter – given the challenges of defining social enterprise across countries, the last thing we need to do is confuse interpreters and tenants with terms that are really a kind of jargon. And this doesn’t just apply to speakers of other languages – if things don’t translate very easily into other languages, they probably don’t make much sense in everyday English either.

Secondly, we’ve also had to think hard about how things are translated in writing. As well as the telephone interviews, we are asking research participants to complete a short questionnaire about their health and wellbeing. Again, living in the world of social research it’s easy to assume that everyone is happy ticking boxes and understanding multiple choice question formats. In the 21st century world of endless online feedback surveys, that may be true to some extent, but we still need to think carefully about how questionnaires are worded and structured to ensure that they make sense to the respondent. As an example, I realised rather late in the day that one of the languages we were translating into is written right-to-left. The translation service did a great job of translating the questions and the answer options, but only after the fact did I realise that I would need to check that the tickboxes were also now running right-to-left.

Finally, reflecting on my own experience of working through interpreters, I was reminded just how challenging things can be for those involved in our research. The social enterprises themselves have to ensure that they can provide a service to tenants no matter which language they speak. And, more critically, tenants themselves have to navigate through a complex housing system at times when they are under considerable stress, so I am infinitely impressed at those who can manage to survive the journey when their first language is not English, let along the unique lingo of housing jargon. The next time I am getting frustrated at the number of tenants who don’t want to pick up my call or who aren’t instantly keen to participate in the research, I’ll remind myself just how hard life can be for those in desperate housing need.

Steve Rolfe