Translation and Interpretation Work in Multilingual Business Communities: Roles, Perspectives, Agency

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Research Institute for Social Sciences


The rapid growth of English as a global language masks an equally rapid growth in the extent to which modern business settings have become increasingly multilingual. This has long been the case in multinational companies (MNCs), but large scale migration over the last decade means that many domestic businesses employ a significant number of workers whose first language is not English. Because of the assumption that 'everyone speaks English' many firms do not resort to using professional translators/interpreters, addressing their translation needs through existing staff who happen to be bilingual (or multilingual) or possess language skills. These non-professional translators and interpreters (NPTIs) find themselves called upon to translate or interpret, often by their employers, but also by their colleagues.

The particular contribution of NPTIs has only recently been acknowledged by academic and practitioner communities. This is because they are 'normal' employees, workers or service providers, whose central community-building role goes unnoticed. Their roles as mediating agents and cultural bridge builders makes them central to knowledge transfer between different business and knowledge communities and entails much more than the mechanical replacement of words from one language with those of another. In acting as link persons 'betwixt and between' different linguistic, cultural and historical-political life worlds, their roles are complex and conflicted as they endeavour to align the sometimes different expectations, values and perspectives of the communities they aim to link. Within multilingual business contexts their role has been highlighted as important to knowledge transfer, yet there is no understanding of how and why they enact their roles in particular ways or what enables them to 'build bridges' and create mutual intelligibility between different constituencies (e.g. between seasonal workers who often do not speak English and their employing organisations; between MNC Headquarters and their subsidiaries and the local constituencies they represent or serve; or key supply chain constituencies, who frequently do not speak English at advanced levels).

The Research Network explores the work of NPTIs in multilingual business and entrepreneurial communities, drawing on the perspectives of different groups including non-English speaking seasonal workforces, the suppliers of translation/interpretation services, their entrepreneur and business users, as well as the voices of the non-professional translators and interpreters themselves. The proposed Network will be built upon four events, of which the last will be a dramatised performance of the collected stories, voices and perspectives, developed in collaboration with a community theatre and presented to the communities involved.

The Network brings together established and early career academics from two currently separate disciplinary fields: Translation Studies and International Business/Management Studies. Scholars in both disciplines have taken a recent interest in NPTIs as linguistic, cultural and political agents; yet there is no exchange between these fields and their approaches. The Network is the first initiative to unite these disciplines: methods from arts and humanities and social sciences will be brought to bear on the events associated with the Network. Speakers and contributors include not only academics, but also NPTIs themselves, service providers of language/translation services and involving the active and on-going contribution of a community theatre (New Vic Borderlines), which has developed expertise in academic, pedagogic and artistic approaches with a view to developing collaboratively articulated research agendas, where multiple stakeholders ask questions relevant to the communities and constituencies they represent and serve. The main aim of the Network is to articulate such an agenda, focusing on the work of NPTIs.

Planned Impact

Apart from the academic beneficiaries, there are a number of user or provider beneficiaries which are included in the proposed Network and who will benefit from its work during and beyond its existence.

The non-professional translators/interpreters themselves: this group is currently unconnected, unaware of its power and the demands made on individuals. There is no practitioner or academic body that represents their work and aligns individuals into a coherent community of language practice. Although there have been relatively few empirical studies, the evidence that has been gathered shows non-professional translators/interpreters in work-contexts that are central to organisational efficiency yet also insists that they are unacknowledged actors who are frequently overworked and marginalised. In creating a platform for the initial articulation of their work, the challenges it brings and indeed their very existence within multinational companies, this group will benefit from being given a voice, which may in turn lead to an increased sense of professional and personal 'worth' and well-being in their respective work-based settings.

The providers of translation/interpretation services increasingly draw on the expertise of non-professional translators/interpreters, yet they struggle to understand the particularities of their work, the challenges they face and the training and support they may need. This group of users, will benefit from increased understanding of the collective training and support needs of a part of the workforce they increasingly engage with.

Businesses operating in multilingual contexts (both domestic and international) will increase their understanding of the complexities of translation/interpretation work and will thus be enabled to engage with their respective stakeholders (be they internal, i.e. multilingual workforces, or external, i.e. international supply chains; external markets) more effectively. This will be achieved through the development of their communicative sensitivities, which include awareness of the role of the English language (as the main language of business) and its relationship with 'other languages' and the need for translation.

Decision-makers and policy makers, e.g. as positioned both regionally in the UK and internationally, have been included in the Network as they have little information about the complexities and dilemmas that non-professional translators/interpreters face in their daily interactions. Providing such intelligence directly from the providers of these services will enable decision/policy makers to integrate these perspectives into their strategic planning and thereby render them more sensitive to local/regional contexts.

Wider multilingual entrepreneurial/business and other communities: the Network is located within Keele University's 'Cultural Animation and Social Innovation Centre', a centre dedicated to formulating and executing collaboratively articulated research agendas. It has extensive outreach capabilities into local, regional and international communities and these will be benefit from the proposed Network as multilingual/translation aspects also shape many of their communicative practices and inform how and whether they become interlinked. In highlighting the work of these linking agents, the communities will gain insight into the very process of networking across communities.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/P007228/1 01/03/2017 28/02/2018 £32,768
AH/P007228/2 Transfer AH/P007228/1 01/03/2018 28/02/2019 £20,443
Description First: The immense difference in perspectives of businesses/practice and academic about the role of language and translation work in multilingual settings: the first one seeing language as code and translation as mechanistic and language as a 'common good', i.e. language services should be, ideally, free or cheap; and the second one seeing language as social practice and translation as cultural-political practice and language and translation work as highly complex, skilled professional work. Second: the role of non professionally trained employees who do language and translation work and are sometimes overburdened and both intellectually and emotionally challenged by this task; and at the same time they can wield decision making power due to their skills as 'paraprofessional translators'.
Exploitation Route The delivery of training packages for paraprofessional translators who work in multilingual work organisations (by industry bodies, training bodies, or federation such as the Federation of SMEs); the 'education' of multilingual work organisations and the role of language and translation work; the further exploration of multilingual work organisations in terms of developing practical tools so that they can audit their language and translation requirements.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Retail

Description The grant is a networking grant bringing different stakeholders interested in multilingual work organisations together. So far, only half of the scheduled networking events have taken place, but already some practitioners (providing language and translation services to work organisations) have indicated that their understanding of the ways businesses think about languages/translation work has changed.Likewise, attending academic stakeholders were unaware about the depth and spread of dispersed language practices and the role they play in organisational decision making and communication. Tentative impact or a pathway to impact are emergent and the overall aim to articulate a collaboratively informed research agenda (collaborators are academics, practitioners, businesses) is on track. The insights of the events have not been used as such.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education
Impact Types Economic