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.

Ethical concerns before, during and after ethnographic research

As I will soon be teaching a module on research ethics for PhD students in translation and interpreting, this post a bit more of a literature review. Social research is, at its core, a relational activity. We interact with colleagues, participants and audiences/readers.

So, how can we make sure these interactions remain ethical?

1. Ethics of anticipation: ethical review and informed consent

Anthropologists have long argued that the requirements of institutional ethical review (common in the UK and the US, not at all in francophone countries!) and informed consent do not fit the specificities of ethnographic field research, where ethics is a “recognition of the problem”, rather than a solution (Lambek, 2012, p. 142) and an on-going decision-making process that cannot be reduced simply to obtaining informed consent:

“A wider conception of ethics recognizes that moral judgements are made at every juncture of ’scientific’ practice, and these judgements are made together with other parties involved in the research. Despite wider pressures to do so, it is vital to resist discussion of ethics as a methodological and institutional ’tool’, or as a mode of legitimization and authorization, and to continue to argue that ethics involves a broader field of negotiations with varied moralities, philosophies and politics.” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133)

Ethical review and informed consent are problematic in ethnographic research, as it supposes that the researcher is able to anticipate “with whom, for how long, to what end, and where” she will work (Simpson, 2011, p. 380), which runs counter to the inductive, iterative and open-ended nature of ethnographic inquiry. Furthermore, it is not easy to define who is a participant, i.e. who is affected directly or indirectly by the researcher’s presence in the field. Therefore, “[a]pplying the logics of autonomous individuals and signed consent forms to the ethics of participant observation necessarily makes ethnographic practice appear non-consensual” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133). Secondly, obtaining informed consent mainly in order to allow the researcher to protect herself and avoid liability (cf. the “audit culture” in contemporary anthropology (Lambek, 2012, p. 141)) is an unethical use of research ethics.

In light of the specificities of ethnographic research, the American Anthropological Association has adopted a broader definition of informed consent:

“Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research. It is understood that the degree and breadth of informed consent required will depend on the nature of the project and may be affected by requirements of other codes, laws, and ethics of the country or community in which the research is pursued. Further, it is understood that the informed consent process is dynamic and continuous; the process should be initiated in the project design and continue through implementation by way of dialogue and negotiation with those studied. Researchers are responsible for identifying and complying with the various informed consent codes, laws and regulations affecting their projects. Informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant.” (American Anthropological Association, 2009, Art. 4)

Ethical review requirements vary considerably between countries, we can argue that there are “national cultures of ethics” in the social sciences (Fassin, 2006), linked closely to national traditions of higher education. The ethnographic method is particularly difficult to fit into ethical review requirements (“serious tension” (Simpson, 2011, p. 379); “useless restrictions” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)). More importantly, ethical review and informed consent fail to adequately address the ethical concerns that arise during fieldwork:

“[The ethical review model] leaves aside most of the important ethical issues raised by fieldwork and gives a false guarantee that ethics is respected through purely formal operations. In this sense, as well, it threatens ethnography by proposing lazy responses to real needs and, thus, avoiding the more painful moral and political questions sociologists and anthropologists should deal with.” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)

And create the illusion that ethical dilemmas have right or wrong answers:

“Sometimes the course of action is obvious but more often it is ambiguous, as one is confronted with novel circumstances and criteria, or even the ostensible absence of criteria, and pulled between different sets and kinds of obligations and commitments. It is a mistake —an ethical blind spot —to expect there is always an obvious, single, right, virtuous judgement to make or a correct path to follow in every situation” (Lambek, 2012, p. 143).

In the context of research involving participants from developing countries, the considerable power gap between researchers and participants, and the often vulnerable status of aid beneficiaries begs the question of their general ability to provide informed consent (Simpson, 2011, p. 379)! Relationships with research participants in the field are particularly challenging from an ethical perspective and differ considerably from the types of relationships built in an interview setting. One of the negative consequences of ethical review is a “conflation of interviews and ethnography”, where one becomes a proxy for the other and ethnography is reconfigured as a series of discrete, recordable interactions (Simpson, 2011, p. 381).

2. Ethics of interaction: relationships with participants

In development projects and humanitarian aid, researchers might easily be perceived as being part of the NGO/international organisation delivering aid (Batianga-Kinzi, 2014), and sometimes they are (Moussa, 2014). The power asymmetry and agency gap between researcher and aid beneficiaries creates a potential for dependency, including the solicitation of money (Molony & Hammett, 2007), and close emotional involvement (Ouedraogo, 2014; Sundberg, 2014). The “participant” in ethnographic field research comes in many forms, “informants, interlocutors, consociates, collaborators, consultants, and friends” (Simpson, 2011, p. 384), and exists as part of a wider network of relationships. This relationality of participants makes it difficult to manage informed consent in practice (e.g. A driver provides useful information about how an NGO is viewed by the local population. This information is crucial to understand our data, yet no informed consent has been obtained from the driver.).

The anthropologist as participant-observer becomes part of the field and of the network of relationships between actors. As interlocutors in the field are far from homogenous, conflicts might sometimes be unavoidable. Furthermore, researchers will likely encounter attitudes that go against their own values. The ethical challenge here consist of engaging with these attitudes, even though this might sometimes result in advocacy or taking sides. Far from a “rule-based notion of ethics”, researchers are confronted with building complex relationships that are “founded on trust, respect, and an avoidance of delimiting the subject” (Simpson, 2011, p. 385).

An example from my PhD fieldwork in Kenya:

A Kenyan informant, who had provided me with very useful insights about Kenya throughout my field work, got angry when, during my third visit to Nairobi I went to UNHCR to train refugee interpreters. Why was I spending time training Somalis when there were many Kenyan’s not able to get education? Why was I helping the refugees who were already getting everything for free and just benefitting from handouts? My liberal, generally open attitude had allowed me to build a good relationship with this Kenyan, yet in applying the very same attitude to Somali refugees, I was compromising this relationship. In the interest of my relationship with my Kenyan informant, and in the interest of an ethical relationship with my interlocutors in Nairobi in general, I sat down with him for a long conversation. My aim was to better understand his attitude, but also to humanise Somali refugees. We discussed ethics, in the form of Christian values that I knew he adhered to, and the implications of these values for interactions with others. In an environment where the risk of ethnic and inter-religious violence remains high, neutrality or pretending to agree with his attitude for the sake of a peaceful relationship did not seem like the most ethical way forward.

3. Ethics of textualisation: anonymity and dissemination of results

Confidentiality refers to not discussing research-related information with anyone outside the research team, while anonymity specifically refers to protecting the identity of research participants (Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015). Anonymity can be preserved by using pseudonyms for participants and research locations (Zolesio, 2011; Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015), or by completely omitting data segments from a publication (Thomson et al., 2005) (which makes it difficult to assess the rigour of a study! (Wiles et al., 2008)). In some cases, authors have opted to transform their qualitative data into a fictionalised account (for an example involving a development project see Rottenburg, 2009). Anonymising research locations allows for greater decontextualisation of findings, making it easier to draw comparisons across locations, however, it also creates the risk of over-generalisation (Nespor, 2000).

Two recent trends have imposed practical limits on anonymity: technology and the participatory turn. Technology, in particular social media, makes it difficult to fully anonymise research locations (researchers presence in a city or their participation in a public event will leave an on-line trace, as people might take photographs and upload these to social media) and research participants (who might be part of the researcher’s network of friends) (Nespor, 2000; Saunders et al., 2015). Additionally, research participants might want to be mentioned by name and credited as participants in a particular project (Saunders et al., 2015; Wiles et al., 2012).

Ethical decision-making at the writing stage involves a threefold relationship between informants, truths and publics, and a selection process whose “politics” are rarely made explicit (Simpson, 2011, p. 389).

4. Further reading…

For an entertaining yet very realistic insight into the ethical dilemmas researchers are faced with as participant-observers: Bogerhoff Mulder & Logson (1996); Barley (2000).

General introduction to different forms of ethnographic writing and the textualisation of culture: Van Maanen (1988); Clifford & Marcus (1986).

Ethical challenges of ethnographic research in development/humanitarian aid contexts: Aympam et al. (2014).


American Anthropological Association (2009). Code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association .

Aympam, S., Chelpi-den Hamer, M. & Bouju, J. (2014). Défis éthiques et risques pratiques du terrain en situation de développement ou d’urgence humantaire. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 21–41.

Barley, N. (2000). The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut. Waveland Press.

Batianga-Kinzi, S. (2014). L’ethnographie au risque de l’agression : expérience de terrain à risque. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 87–97.

Bogerhoff Mulder, M. & Logson, W. (1996). I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters. RDR Books: Oakland California.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley.

Fassin, D. (2006). The end of ethnography as collateral damage of ethical regulation? American Ethnologist 33 (4), 522–524.

Lambek, M. (2012). Ethics out of the ordinary. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 140–152.

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

Mookherjee, N. (2012). Twenty-first century ethics for audited anthropologists. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 130–140.

Moussa, H. (2014). L’anthropologue entre les tyrannies des terrains et le choix d’une éthique. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 99–121.

Nespor, J. (2000). Anonymity and place in qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry 6 (4), 546–569.

Ouedraogo, R. (2014). Face à l’avortement : exigences éthiques et dilemme moral à Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 123–141.

Rottenburg, R. (2009). Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J. & Kitzinger, C. (2015). Anonymising interview data: challenges and compromise in practice. Qualitative Research 15 (5), 616–632.

Simpson, B. (2011). Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, 377–393.

Sundberg, M. (2014). Ethnographic Challenges Encountered in Rwanda’s Social Topography. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 71–86.

Thomson, D., Bzdel, L., Golden-Biddle, K., Reay, T. & Estabrooks, C. A. (2005). Central questions of anonymization: A case study of secondary use of qualitative data. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6 (1), no pag.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wiles, R., Coffey, A., Robinson, J. & Heath, S. (2012). Anonymisation and visual images: issues of respect, ’voice’ and protection. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 15 (1), 41–53.

Wiles, R., Crow, G., Heath, S. & Charles, V. (2008). The Management of Confidentiality and Anonymity in Social Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11 (5), 417–428.

Zolesio, E. (2011). Anonymiser les enquêtés. Revue ¿ Interrogations ? 12 (Quoi de neuf dans le salariat ?), no pag.

Language and development

The current buzzword in development cooperation is “participation”.

Participation can mean all sorts of things but it most commonly refers to the (more) active involvement of beneficiaries at all stages of a project, and in particular during the initial stages, when the content and objectives of a development project are defined based on local needs. Indeed, modern development cooperation is supposed to be aligned with the real “needs” of “beneficiaries” so as to avoid the pitfalls of old (creating and maintaining dependency, building infrastructure no one uses, imposing change from the outside that no one wants, using development projects simply as a modern form of colonialism etc.).

In order to allow beneficiaries to participate, one must, of course, communicate with them. Surprisingly, the literature on participatory development has very little to say about languages. It seems that communication between NGOs in the North and the South and aid recipients (often rural populations who have not had access to formal education) happens seamlessly and essentially without hick-ups, despite considerable differences not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, level of education, individual experience and exposure to development thinking.

As a trained interpreter familiar with several so-called “developing countries” I had reasons to believe that things are not as simple as that. Indeed, a development project involves a long chain of actors: institutional and individual donors, NGOs in the North and the South, grass roots organizations, beneficiary representatives and, finally, beneficiaries. It is safe to say that not all of them speak the same language and that no commonly shared lingua franca (no, not even English…) spans the whole chain.

When development workers meet potential beneficiaries they create a strange kind of hybrid communication space, a contact zone where different ideas about change, progress, development, work, life and the world come together. Negotiating difference can be enriching and valuable, but it is rarely a simple or painless process.

So how exactly does participation work? Who brings back the “stories” and “first-hand accounts” from the field that we find in every development aid publication? Who communicates with whom? Who are the people who broker encounters between different links of the chain?

That is what I am trying to find out in my current research project. You can view a short summary of it here.