Gary Allen and Mark Israel
Much human research is conducted in languages that are not the same as that used by the research ethics review body or the chief investigators. This can manifest in a number of ways including:
- Recruitment and consent materials;
- Data collection tools (surveys, interview instruments and observation matrices), and
- Collected data.
- return of results to participants
There is literature on the ethics of interpreting and translation (Drugan, 2017) as well as on the ethics of research in those fields (Tiselius, 2019). However, for our purposes, we want to focus on the first two situations.
The Australian National Statement (5.2.17) states that information needs to be provided to participants in ways that enable them to make good decisions about whether to participate, and that the way in which this is done considers ‘the need for accurate and reliable translation (written and/or oral) into a participant’s first language or dialect’ (5.2.17b) and ‘culture and its effects on how language (English or other) is understood’ (5.2.17c). This, in itself, does not offer much help to a research ethics committee seeking to assess the appropriateness of recruitment, consent and data collection instruments.
A review body will need to use a variety of approaches in this situation. Any approach should be proportional to the following factors. The:
- level of risk associated with the proposed research project;
- ethical sensitivity of the proposed research project;
- nature of the potential participant pool;
- research topic; and
So, where a particular linguistic group is not being specifically targeted by researchers, but participants might include people who are more comfortable in languages other than the main language or languages being used for the research, the cost of translating all materials may be prohibitive. As a result, it may be appropriate to just provide a short summary of the materials in participants’ preferred language and expand on the rest of the materials orally. This approach is explicitly allowed by the Common Rule in the United States, for example (45 C.F.R. 117(b)(2)).
The strategies a research team might use to inform the research ethics committee include:
- A bilingual member of the research team conducting the translation;
- A bilingual volunteer from the school/department/centre conducting the translation;
- Using a gig-based online service (e.g. fiverr.com); or
- A commercial translation service.
Of course, someone fluent in several languages may not be a good translator. Translation requires not a mechanical word-for-word conversation, but also an appreciation of social and cultural influences on how participants might understand meaning. Where the accuracy of the translation is critical, the translated text could be translated back into the first language and compared with the original text (Brelsford et al., 2018). This might be particularly important if data collection tools are standardised across different language groups or dialects, or where there are concerns that one of the languages does not have the technical language to convey the nuanced meaning required.
If (2)-(4), the useful and relevant ethical questions are:
- Does the person doing the translation understand their ethical obligations with regard to the information/data with which they are working;
- During the process where will any information/data be located, how secure is this and will access be controlled/logged;
- How will the translation be returned to you; and
- Do the participants know that you will be working with a translator?
These matters become especially critical if the information should be classified as sensitive under your jurisdiction (e.g. the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988) or if the information falls within the scope of the General Data Protection Regulation (for data from the EU).
Consequently, review bodies should see themselves as having a continuum of options available to them. It is good practice for a review body to invite an applicant to share their reflections on selecting an appropriate translator. An applicant’s response might be considered by the Chair or an experienced ethics officer.
If an applicant proposes using a commercial service, the Chair/Ethics officer should undertake some due diligence to confirm the bono fides of the potential service provider. Where an institution is likely to make repeated use of particular translators, a pool of approved providers could be created.
We should also distinguish between the work of a translator and an interpreter. Interpreters may be involved in negotiating consent with research participants in ways akin to fieldworkers. They may pick up nuances of comprehension and autonomy that may be invisible to researchers from outside the culture. As a result, some institutions and ethics statements (including the New Zealand National Ethical Standards for Health and Disability Research and Quality Improvement 7.6.a) require interpreters to co-sign consent documentation and attest to the voluntary and informed nature of that consent;
In the United States, problems have emerged for research teams when an interpreter has refused to do so (Barwise et al., 2019). While an interpreter who refuses to sign may be acting to protect the interest of participants, they may also be excluding particular linguistic groups from a study.
The ways in which a review body works through these matters are a great way to show that it is taking a proportional and project-specific approach.
Barwise, A., Sharp, R. and Hirsch, J. (2019) Ethical Tensions Resulting from Interpreter Involvement in the Consent Process, Ethics & Human Research, 41: 31-35. https://doi.org/10.1002/eahr.500025
Brelsford, K. M., Ruiz, E. and Beskow, L. M. (2018) Developing informed consent materials for non-English-speaking participants: An analysis of four professional firm translations from English to Spanish, Clinical Trials, 15(6): 557–566. DOI: 10.1177/1740774518801591
Drugan, J. (2017) Ethics and social responsibility in practice: interpreters and translators engaging with and beyond the professions, The Translator, 23:2, 126-142, DOI: 10.1080/13556509.2017.1281204
Tiselius, E. (2019) The (un-) ethical interpreting researcher: ethics, voice and discretionary power in interpreting research, Perspectives, 27:5, 747-760, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2018.1544263
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. & Israel, M (23 February 2021) The Tower of Babel and Human Research Ethics. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/the-tower-of-babel-and-human-research-ethics/