Researching across language – No hablo espanol

It might seem like a really stupid idea to try and conduct research in a country where you cannot speak the language, and perhaps it is. In an ideal world I would either be fluent or have the money for an on-hand interpreter. I have neither. I have also been staying with an Argentinan family in La Ecoladea del Minchal, in Andulacia, Spain, who speak no English. There are of course pitfalls with this approach – while I may know several individual words in Spanish I lack the ability to understand, or frame them, in the necessary context. When talking, for example, about green building, I can understand wood, clay, concrete, but not really what is being done with them. By the time I have worked it out the whole conversation has moved on.

It gets complicated further by the fact that many interviewees are not Spanish, but French or German and although expert in English I think we mutually loose quite a bit in translation. Some have kindly aided me in translating a fellow residents’ Spanish in an interview. I would ask a question, it would be translated into Spanish, and then they would have a whole conversation about it, finally I would receive a one sentence answer in English. From a qualitative methodological standpoint I then both miss the nuances of the debate and remain unsure whether it was the Spanish speakers’ viewpoint, or the translators, which becomes the final answer.

So of course this is not ideal, but it is also not impossible and I think there are merits in pushing our research into places well beyond our comfort zone or cultural understanding. If I were to wait until I was ready (in language and local knowledge) I would never do any work beyond Britain, Australia and the USA. I maybe missing some of the nuances, but I am also gaining huge insights into different ways of building that I otherwise would simply have ignored. Sometimes starting from ignorance can be a useful research tool which can enable us to critically examine difference from an alternative perspective. At least, that is what I am hoping.

(Valor, Las Alpujarras, 11th June)

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