Linguistic Validation is a set of processes designed to ensure that a translation is linguistically accurate, culturally appropriate, and validated by a professional in the field. It is a process mostly used in the translation of clinical trials, one our areas of expertise in healthcare translations. Translation involves far more than just swapping out words and maybe switching up the word order from one language to the next. There is a huge amount of semantic and cultural work that must also be done in order for a translation to be good – which is why, in the industry, we talk about localization; meaning the adapting of text or spoken word to the language and culture of the target country. This does not mean that every translation is fraught with cross-cultural confusion, but sometimes, it really can make a big difference.

Brand names are an obvious area where connotations, rather than denotation, can make a big difference, so linguistic screening of those product or company names is a significant part of any marketing project. (That being said: don’t believe the most infamous cautionary tale about the Chevrolet Nova failing to sell in Spanish speaking countries. That one is apocryphal.) However, the stakes are higher when you are collecting data – be it through a software interface or asking questions. This leads software localization and survey translation to be some of the most complicated localization projects one can take on. So let’s talk about it!

Software localization essentially requires extensive glossary management. This allows terms to be harmonized across platforms, programs, and interfaces within a country – using terminology not in-use by other, already embedded applications that can cause yours to stick out in a bad way. That being said, most communication within a digital environment is straightforward with relatively well-established idioms, (like ‘clicking’ a ‘mouse’ in English). Surveys, on the other hand, are difficult to design even within one’s native language. This is why the field of psychometrics exists – to understand how to best communicate exactly the question you mean to ask in order to solicit exactly the information you want. (For more on this, look up the issues of equifinality and mulitfinality in survey instrument design – yikes!)

Linguistic Validation – processes involved

Enter stage left: Linguistic Validation– a set of processes designed to ensure that a translation is linguistically accurate, culturally appropriate, and validated by a professional in the field. The typical workflow of a linguistic validation process looks like this:


Linguistic Validation FlowchartRight away, we see that this entails quite a bit more than the usual translation, editing, and proofreading processes. Indeed, it even goes beyond the forward-back translation process that many of us use for regulatory work. Some parts of this are reinforcing that typical workflow – using two initial translators to give several perspectives right off the bat during that harmonization phase and including back translation which is required for most regulatory agencies, as I stated. However, the next two phases are unique to Linguistic Validation and bear a further look.

The use of Focus Groups in Linguistic Validation

The first is the Focus Group – or Cognitive Debriefing, as it is sometimes called – which brings in a small group of lay, native speakers to do a trial run of the instrument. This session is facilitated by a trained native speaker, sometimes a linguist, but sometimes a social worker or psychologist with specific training in the Linguistic Validation process. Participants provide feedback on each question (referred to as an “item”) including: (1) readability / personal understanding of the item, (2) cultural connotations of any particular terms, (3) problems in answering the item, (4) clarity of symbols or icons used. The facilitator leads the discussion to explore any areas of potential cultural confusion and gauges the disparity between the participants’ understanding of the items and how those might be improved. A full report is then provided to the Language Service Provider (LSP) to take under advisement. At this point, the LSP can either update the instrument or send on to the next step.

The clinician (or appropriate professional depending on the type of survey) is a native speaker and trained professional relevant to the content of the survey. They are sometimes employed by the end-client, but other times the LSP itself will contract with individuals in the target countries to perform this step. This final reviewer looks at the specific terminology and content of the survey to make sure that it accurately reflects the language used by professionals and lay people in that country. Specifically, this could include regulatory language unique to local government, dialectical differences in health terminology, etc. Upon completion of their review, they submit their comments and suggested changes to the LSP who compiles these and sends back to the translator to take into account. If, however, any items need to be changed, the owner of the instrument, (another interesting topic: survey instrument copyright and how organizations gain permission to use and translate them) must approve any changes to the item’s wording before translation proceeds.

Finally, the back translation and reconciliation process is carried out once more, and finally – finally – you have a fully validated translation of that survey which should guarantee that people will misunderstand it in the same way in another language! That is to say, it is equally valid in the target language and data collected should have similar levels of reliability and validity from the newly translated surveys as those of the original instrument. Just something to think about next time you fill out a five item questionnaire at your doctor’s office – a lot of work goes into the creation of that simple survey!