Transnational Organised Crime and Translation (TOCAT): Improving police communication across languages

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Politics Philosophy Lang & Comms Studies


Our societies are more diverse than ever - more than 300 languages are spoken in the UK today. This increased diversity has had a major impact for the police. Officers now have to investigate and combat organised crime 'networks' whose members communicate across multiple languages. Police therefore increasingly need translators to be able to investigate serious crimes such as people trafficking and child sexual exploitation. This involves significant challenges, including cost, number of languages, quality and the limited supply of qualified linguists.

In the Transnational Organised Crime and Translation (TOCAT) project, researchers, the police and translation providers will work together to understand and face up to these challenges. Our starting point is the need for practical guidance to help police officers and translators work together as effectively as possible. A working group has drafted official new UK guidelines for police to use when they work with translators. The TOCAT project team will conduct a trial of these new guidelines, using a 'Test, Learn, Adapt' approach. Selected police officers in the UK and Belgium will be trained to use the guidelines, then researchers will interview and 'shadow' police officers as they work to measure their effectiveness in practice, as well as any other potential needs identified by the users. This will allow us to revise the approach to make it better suited to actual needs. The Belgian trial will also allow us to test how far the approach can be 'translated' to other countries facing similar challenges, since transnational crime operates across national borders.

The main questions we will be asking are:

1. How can police work more effectively to understand and fight transnational organised crime such as people trafficking when it is conducted across different languages? In particular, how should police work with translators when victims, witnesses or suspects don't speak the same language as investigators?

2. Is the planned police approach effective in practice, and, where it is not, what can be done to enhance it?

3. What are the experiences of frontline workers (police officers, support workers, translators) when they face these new challenges, and can they help us develop a better overall understanding of transnational organised crime?

To answer these questions, two researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK, Dr Joanna Drugan and Dr Alexandria Innes, will work with two researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium, Prof. Heidi Salaets and Dr Katalin Balogh. We will draw on our established partnerships with the police and all the professional associations representing translators to design and carry out the research. The research team has decades of experience in researching translation practice in 'real-world' settings, migration, and police working with linguists, suspects and victims of crime, including children and other vulnerable groups. Dr Drugan, an expert in translation quality, will oversee the project. Dr Drugan and Dr Innes, who is an expert in migration, will conduct the UK research, working with three Constabularies and the College of Policing. Prof. Salaets and Dr Balogh, who both have expertise in interpreting in police settings, will conduct the Belgian research, working with local and federal Police.

We will focus particularly on the crimes of human trafficking and smuggling in this project. We will also focus on the impact of language challenges on frontline workers, notably police officers and translators. We will share our research findings and the tried-and-tested approach as widely as possible among police, translation providers and researchers, including making our (anonymised) data available for free. This will result in a valuable contribution to evidence-based policing of increasingly significant transnational crimes, and support further research on this important topic.

Planned Impact

At the first UK training day for police and translators in 2015, both groups called for ways to address growing language-related challenges in the context of transnational organised crime. To answer this call, the TOCAT project offers a collaboration between researchers and three types of non-academic partner: (i) police; (ii) their trainers; and (iii) translation providers, including professional associations which represent translators and interpreters.

All the above three groups will be involved as participant researchers throughout. Language is an increasingly significant challenge in combatting transnational organised crime in other countries too, so the Belgian Police will join us with the aim of ensuring the approach works internationally. The participant researchers' input will include designing research methods and goals, and sharing their own frontline experiences through questionnaires, interviews, focus groups and shadowing. Contributors will be recruited via the police project partners and the researchers' established industry connections. Our research comes when the UK police are focusing on development of relevant policy so stands an excellent chance of making an impact.

The main beneficiaries, and ways they will benefit, are:

Police: Officers will benefit from capacity building via clear proven guidance on how to engage with transnational organised crime through translators. UK and Belgian police will gain enhanced understanding of translation and confidence through training in use of the Protocol. This can save time and resources, as officers will learn how to work effectively with translators. It will also reduce risk of harm linked to failed or delayed prosecutions because of gaps in communication. Police frontline workers will have the chance to feed in to the research via focus groups, interviews and shadowing, so their experiences are incorporated in policy development, maximising usefulness.

Police trainers: The UK College of Policing and Belgian trainers will have access to researchers' expertise to develop training materials in the specialised field of translation, then to evidence on the effectiveness of the training. The College of Policing 'What Works' agenda aims to make policy and practice evidence-based, so the likelihood of impact is high here. Our participant researchers will gain understanding of the significance of evidence-based policing which will extend beyond the researchers themselves, not least because we will hold focus groups at the College where high numbers of police officers will be present.

Related beneficiaries: Police internationally (e.g. Europol) and defence/security sectors (e.g. border security staff, private security firms) face similar challenges and will benefit from a proven approach to working in translation.

Translation providers and users: Linguists, including non-specialists who translate when no professional is available, will benefit from better informed police partners who understand their needs (e.g. the time required for document translation). Our work will deliver more consistent and informed practice, and an independent reference which linguists can cite to access sufficient working conditions. The research and final conference will enable linguists to share their expertise with police outside the pressured settings in which they usually meet. More efficient access to linguists for victims, informants, witnesses and suspects will improve communication and lower waiting times (particularly important for crimes affecting vulnerable groups).

Broader context: our research will impact on national and international communities via an ambitious dissemination strategy including: sharing the approach on the 'What Works' website; authoring accessible publications for print and online media, notably those targeting linguists and security specialists; engaging with relevant professional groups and policy makers to inform understanding and practice.


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Description Our research is still in progress but we have already interviewed nearly 100 specialist interpreters and translators, police officers and their trainers. We have discovered their principal concerns in relation to working across languages, and how far they feel they are trained to address this growing requirement in relation to suspect interviews. We have also gathered evidence about proposed new police training materials and guidance in working across languages, and are now analysing this in order to review and improve police materials before they are adopted for use nationally.
Exploitation Route The College of Policing and police National Language Services Working Group will review our findings then use these to amend draft training and guidance for future use. A range of other police and security organisations have expressed interest in our findings for their own contexts.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description The main impact of this project will be reported after our testing and data collection are complete in the relevant sections of the ResearchFish site; but in the interim, unplanned impact has included: (1) an approach by the Spanish police to share insights from our data in relation to good practice in producing bilingual transcripts of police witness and suspect interviews. This resulted in the PI training Katie Belo dos Santos, a Spanish-speaking member of the Board of the UK national professional association for interpreters and translators, the ITI, in the use of our guidance and training materials. Belo dos Santos then delivered a Continuing Professional Development course for approximately 30 Spanish officers in Barcelona in December 2017. Feedback was very positive and pointed to the need internationally for effective training in this neglected area, which our project is well-placed to deliver; (2) multiple invitations for the PI to talk at events impacting the public and private sectors, including participation in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages; keynote presentations at the AGMs of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and JIAMCATT, International Criminal Court, The Hague.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Higher Education Impact Fund (HEIF)
Amount £965 (GBP)
Funding ID 1645641-IG1 
Organisation ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 12/2018