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Is poor translation skewing your research data?

Is poor translation skewing your research data?

Home to over 200 different nationalities, the UAE is often described as being “multicultural” or a “melting pot of cultures”. Indeed, its rich demographic makeup contributes in large part to the country’s success. However, for individuals or firms that are seeking to gain insight into this diverse consumer base, underestimating language barriers and cultural nuances can significantly hinder the gathering of reliable data. 

It is important to remember that translation is by no means an easy or straightforward process, whether for educational, marketing, research purposes, etc. Considering the number of expatriates that make up the UAE’s population, individuals and firms should take into consideration some of the following points:

Language Choice

Whilst Arabic remains the UAE’s official language, a large portion of expatriates have limited/no knowledge of the language. Instead, English has assumed the role of the lingua franca and it is not uncommon to hear other languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Tagalog, Russian, etc. Whilst majority of surveys or research materials tend to be written in English, this may not always be appropriate depending on the target segment and location.


Direct equivalents do not always exist across different languages, and so efforts must be made to ensure that the terms used accurately reflect the original meaning. For instance, translating a text or even a brand name word-for-word may result in some embarrassing or even insulting faux pas. For instance, Jolly Green Giant (the brand selling frozen and canned vegetables) discovered that their name had been translated into Arabic for the Saudi market as “Intimidating Green Ogre”.

In a bid to reduce the chances of such poor translations, it is often recommended that individuals or firms opt for reverse translation. In other words, having one person translate a text from English to Arabic and having another translate it back from Arabic to English. Whilst this is undoubtedly a costlier option, it helps to ensure nothing was lost or misconstrued in translation.

Measurement Scales

“On a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being strongly agree…”

Whilst the sentence would appear to be self-explanatory, it is interesting to note that sliding scales can be interpreted differently by different nationalities. For instance, whereas higher numbers are typically associated with more positive responses in Anglo-Saxon countries, the reverse is true in a number of countries such as Germany. The inability to correctly manage these potential pitfalls can create considerable inaccuracies in the results.

In addition to the above points, businesses looking to conduct research must take into consideration cultural sensitivities as well as governmental restrictions regarding research on certain topics. Despite unprecedented levels of globalization, the world will never be as flat as Thomas Friedman anticipated. As such, individuals or businesses seeking to conduct research must bear in mind some of the aforementioned factors. After all, the value of the data gathered is largely grounded in the reliability of its data gathering process.