The “interpreter factor” in ethnographic fieldwork

La première mission by Benoît Cliquet.
Drawing by Benoît Cliquet.**

“Anthropologists are normally expected to ‘learn the language’, and while most try to do so, many of us feel we fail. Since this means failure to measure up to a publicly required occupational definition, anthropologists have often taken refuge in silence.”
(Tonkin, 1984, 178)

Learning the language spoken by their research participants and in the location where they carry out their field research is a point of pride for many anthropologists. However, there are many reasons why it is often not possible for anthropologists and ethnographers from other disciplines to enter their research field having full mastery of their languages:

  • the time allocated for fieldwork in research grants is often very limited,
  • the location of a study might have to change at the last moment because political turmoil or natural disasters render the original destination inaccessible
  • finally, learning a language takes far longer than the time allocated to this endeavor even in the most generous research projects!

It is simply not very realistic for anthropologists to achieve sufficient mastery of their participants’ language in six months to one year – not to the point where they can discuss complex and often intimate issues with their participants.

Indeed, according to Mudimbé “most anthropologists only speak pidgin” (1988, 66), and numerous publications acknowledge the presence of a “research assistant” during fieldwork, although one sometimes has to read between the lines to understand that this assistant is also an interpreter (Mandel, 2003; Molony and Hammett, 2007).

When interpreters are explicitly mentioned in papers (Ficklin and Jones, 2009; Turner, 2010; Temple and Edwards, 2002), we get an idea of the complexity of the “interpreter factor” and the challenges researchers face when collaborating with bilinguals who simultaneous take on the role of research assistants, fixers and interpreters.

What is rarely questioned, however, is the capacity of these ad hoc interpreters to adequately perform their task. To my knowledge, only two papers dwell on this “detail” in some length, namely Borchgrevink (2003) and Gibb and Danero Iglesias (2017). Their authors highlight the complexity of language mastery, and emphasize on an aspect that, in my experience, is very relevant during fieldwork interactions: language mastery comes in degrees. The two articles are really worth reading for practicing or aspiring field researchers!

The fact that language mastery is not something that, like a bit, comes only as either “1” or “0” might seem completely obvious but it is nevertheless often neglected. Knowing a language is not just useful to “do” research: even a very basic mastery can allow a researcher to establish a trust relationship with her participants or understand the basic ideas of a conversation overheard in public transport. More importantly, basic language mastery paired with a few tricks can also allow a researcher to check on the work of her research-assistant-cum-interpreter.

The “interpreters” found in ethnographic fieldwork are rarely trained in this task and perform it to the best of their judgement and ability. Although their presence undeniably has an impact on the research process, the data collected and the results obtained, their influence is rarely acknowledge in anthropological publications.

Based on my research into interpreter positionality and non-professional interpreting in a variety of settings, I have developed a list of questions that each anthropologist should ask himself or herself when working with an interpreter. These questions will allow the researcher to make the interpreter visible in her research, think about the influence of this person during fieldwork, and account for this factor in publications:

1. Positionality and role of the interpreter:

Who chooses the interpreter and according to what criteria?

What role does the interpreter have during different stages of the research project?

What non-interpreting tasks does the interpreter take on during the research project?

2. Language skills:

What level of mastery does the interpreter/the researcher have in each of the languages used in the study?

How did the interpreter/the researcher acquire her language skills?

3. Relationships and ethical aspects:

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants?

Is the study likely to change the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants? If yes, how is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What participants might not be accessible to the interpreter/the researcher?

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the researcher? How is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What information does an academic readership require in order to understand the role of the interpreter during different stages of the research project (research design, data collection, data analysis, write-up)?

Can you answer all these questions for your interpreters? Have you thought of all these elements before writing up your interpreter-mediated research project? If not, this list of questions might be worth keeping in mind during fieldwork.

*The ideas in this post follow from a research paper on the use of interpreters in anthropological fieldwork that I recently submitted in collaboration with Dr. Yvan Droz. His contribution is gratefully acknowledged here and the paper will be referenced here one it is published. 

** The illustration above was drawn by a very talented conference interpreter: Benoît Cliquet. Thank you, Benoît, for allowing us to use these illustrations in our work!


Borchgrevink, A. (2003). Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters. Ethnography 4(1), 95–121.

Ficklin, L. and B. Jones (2009). Deciphering ’voice’ from ’words’: Interpreting translation practices in the field. Graduate Journal of Social Science 6(3), 108–130.

Gibb, R. and J. Danero Iglesias (2017). Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research. The Sociological Review 65(1), 134–149.

Mandel, J. L. (2003). Negotiating expectations in the field: Gatekeepers, research fatigue and cultural biases. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 24(2), 198–210.

Molony, T. and D. Hammett (2007). The friendly financier: Talking money with the silenced assistant. Human Organization 66(3), 292–300.

Mudimbe, V.-Y. (1988). The Invention of Africa. Rochester, NY: James Currey and Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Temple, B. and R. Edwards (2002). Interpreters/translators and cross-language research: Reflexivity and border crossings. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 1(2), no pagination.

Tonkin, E. (1984). Language learning. In R. F. Ellen (Ed.), Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct, pp. 178–187. London, UK: Academic Press.

Turner, S. (2010). Research note: The silenced assistant. Reflections of invisible interpreters and research assistants. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 51(2), 206–219.

Author: CarmenDelgado

I’m a trained translator (MA), Conference interpreter (MA), Interpreter trainer (MAS) and researcher (PhD, University of Geneva) with an interest in development anthropology, ethnography and technology.

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