The often under-explored issue of researching multilingually (RM-ly)

The latest draft of the current publication by the RMTC Hub team (Holmes, Fay, Andrews and Attia, 2015) begins as follows:

In our increasingly inter-connected world, there are many, often under-discussed, possibilities for using more than one language in a research project, and there are also many, often under-explored, complexities in doing so. Although the use of more than one language is a common practice in some linguistically-oriented fields (e.g. Foreign Language Education, Area Studies, Translation Studies, Intercultural Communication, Crosscultural Pragmatics, and Multilingualism Studies), such possibilities may exist, we would argue, in any and all fields of research. These wider possibilities pose a challenge to the increasing, but often inequitable, use of English as the dominant language of (much) international dissemination of research.

Similarly, in an earlier discussion of the RM-ly area (Holmes, Fay, Andrews and Attia, 2013: 286), we argued that “many research endeavours, and those involved in them, invite the use of more than one language in the research process and its dissemination” but that “a detailed and systematic analysis of the possibilities and complexities of researching where more than one language is, could, or should be involved, has, to date, not been documented” and nor has “this under-discussed area of researcher praxis” been “extensively covered in research training nor widely discussed in the research methods literature”.

Although RM-ly is under-explored and under-discussed as yet, once my interest in had been sparked (and I had begun discussing it with colleagues in conferences etc, e.g. Fay, Zhou and Liu, 2010), in many things I was reading I began to notice traces of it in others’ reflections. Below, I give some examples of what caught my attention and I invite you to look for similar discussions which bear upon our RM-ly theme.

Example 1: Elif Shafak Elif ShafakIn an Interview (with William Skidelsky) in The Observer (8th April 2012), one of Elif Shafak’s responses is fascinating re the affordances of thinking in different languages. Q: Did you write Honour in Turkish and then translate it yourself? A: For the last 9 years I have been writing in both English and Turkish.  I write my novels in English first, then they are translated into Turkish by professional translators.  Then I take their translation and rewrite.  So basically I write the same novel twice.  There are things I find easier to say in Turkish and others easier in English.  If I write about sorrow and longing, it is easier in Turkish.  If I write about humour, irony, satire, it is easier in English.

Example 2: Hard decision to make? Well, stop thinking in English, for a start
In a short piece by Louise Hartmann in The Observer newspaper (29th April 2012), p.18 of the New Review section, this appears:

For an account by Keysar and colleagues, see this link:


Dr Boaz Keysar

Thinking in a second language can make people judge a risk more clearly, psychologists from The University of Chicago have found. In a series of experiments, more than 300 from the US and South Korea were asked whether they would make the same decision in a foreign language as they would in their native tongue. “It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty in using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic” the team of researchers led by Dr Boaz Keysar wrote. “We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases”.According to the study, a second language can provide a cognitive distance from automatic processes increasing analytical thought and reducing emotional reactions. In one of the experiments on betting behaviour students were, for example, more likely to bet when the proceedings were conducted in Spanish than English.Given the rising number of people who use a foreign language on a daily basis the findings could have far-reaching consequences. The research suggests it might be beneficial for people to speak a second language to make use of it when faced with financial decisions.

Example 3: The challenges of human relations in ethnographic enquiry
As Ethnomusicologist Nicole Beaudry reflects upon her fieldwork experiences with the Inuit, Yupik and Dene peoples, inter alia, she dwells upon the aspects of those fieldwork experiences which can be understood through our RM-ly project focus. In some ways, her account presents the move from researcher naivety to a researcher realisation of the RM-ly possibilities and complexities: “I had planned to address elders and other knowledgeable people, imagining that translators would merely translate. Little did I know!” (pg.68).

ShadowsBeaudry also notes (pg. 71) how her back-and-forth trips to the field worked against her learning of the local languages to level of fluency needed to undertake the research in and through them. Here, I see her anthropology-raised expectation of becoming fluent in the necessary language but I wonder how realistic this is for all researchers, and for sure I wonder how realistic it is for me in the narrative research I am conducting with Leah Davcheva into the Ladino-focused interculturality of elderly Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria (Fay & Davcheva, 2014). Whilst the researcher-expectation of fluency it the local language seems to be common in e.g. Anthropology, is it so common in other disciplines?

Relatedly, there is the issue of English-as-a-lingua-franca as the medium of research. Even though some of the people Beaudry interviewed could speak English “nevertheless they felt more at ease in their own language because in this manner they felt that they were addressing the people of their community rather than me” (ibid). Here, the language choice seems to be broadly informed rather than a simple matter of participant preference.


Nicole Beaudry

Reflecting on her use of interpreters over the years, she then notes that it is her relationships with them that have “caused me the strongest conflicting emotions – frustration, anguish, and discomfort, as well as joy, warmth and thankfulness – in good part because these were the people that I spent most time with” (ibid). And, once more, she foregrounds her naive initial assumptions about their role in her work: “I first assumed that interpreters would simply translate for me and that I would remain in control of my mission” (ibid).

Here, I note the tension hinted at between HER mission and theirs, and the absence of a shared research or project mission. Subsequently, she came to …

… depend on interpreters, not only for translation, but also for introductions to the right people and for advice about matters of etiquette, language, events, interesting subjects, plane schedules and prices. The list is endless when it comes to things that have to be learned quickly. Moreover, interpreters are in touch with daily events and with the undercurrents of social life in the community. They know about the problems, the illnesses, the moods of the people I want to see. They are also in touch with the gossip and the rumors, some of which are directed at me. The success of my field trip is in their hands … (ibid.)

Her other points arising from her reflections on the use of interpreters include:

  • the way in which friendship developed (in varying degrees) with interpreters, and an awareness of the consequences of such friendship on the research process (e.g. the fact that, as friends , interpreters might feel that they can substitute the researcher) (pg.72);
  • her own preference for working with middle-aged interpreters who might have less fluent language skills for interpreting and translation but who have closer links to the community than the often outward-looking, younger, English-specialists (ibid);
  • the way in which the work (e.g. interviews) often gets done on the interpreters’ terms rather than the researchers (ibid); and
  • the higher value / enjoyment that interpreters place on visiting and interpreting rather than, say retranslating a recent interview (pg.73).

Later, she discusses the process of retranslating (pp.76-77):

Ideally, all my interviews must be retranslated. Even when things are translated during the interview, a lot is still missing … and most of my recordings consist of fairly long statements that need to be retranslated after the interview. … When retranslating, the assistants often supplement the informant’s answers with their own understandings and explanations. Retranslation sessions, as time and money-consuming as they might be, represent the most precious moments of all my field experiences – times when I have learned the most. (pg.72)

I found this term ‘retranslating’ a bit unclear at first, guessing wrongly that it might refer to a kind of back-translation process. I now gloss it as ‘further translation’, or ‘post-interview translation’, of interview interaction. I am interested in how this translation task sits alongside transcription of the interviews and also in terms of the analysis of the interview data which Beaudry presumably did in translation but which her interpreters could have contributed to through engagement with the text in either/both languages.

Overall, Beaudry’s chapter raises many aspects about the use of interpreters and translators in the research process but I would love to ask Beaudry some follow up questions about the processes involved, and the precise details of her research choreography as it were.

Example 4: The spirit catches you and you fall down
In this book, Anne Fadiman (1997) includes the following note at the end of her monograph (and the main text also speaks at several points about issues of interpreting in the research):

“I have quoted conversations with Hmong people in this book in the forms in which I heard them. That is to say, English-speaking Hmong are quoted verbatim and non-English-speaking Hmong are quoted in the words of my interpreter, May Ying Xiong, used as she translated their comments sentence by sentence. Spirit cathes youThis has the paradoxical effect that highly educated Hmong such as Jonas Vangay and Blia Yao Mona, because of the grammatical idiosyncracies of their English, seem to speak less ‘perfectly’ than, say, Nao Kao Lee and Foua Yang whose speech is filtered through an American-educated, and therefore grammatically conventional, interpreter. However, the alternatives – such as messing up May Ying’s translations or cleaning up the speech of English-speaking Hmong – seemed to me far worse. The first was out of the question, and the second would rob the reader of the rich texture of English underlain by Hmong, French, and other languages, as well as removing him or her one further step from my own experience as a listener”. (pg.292)

Example 5: Anglocentric Narrative inquiry?
The Preface to the Handbook of Narrative Inquiry (Clandinin, 2007) concludes as follows:

Narrative inquiry is published in languages other than English. However, the handbook draws on work that is published in English. Working with my colleagues whose work is published in languages other than English I know there are rich sources of narrative inquiry work that we English speakers do not know. In the future, I hope that we shall find ways of bringing their voices to the discussion of narrative inquiry. (pp. xvi-xvii)

What examples would you add to this initial set?

Beaudry, N. (1997). The challenges of human relations in ethnographic enquiry: examples from Arctic and Subartic fieldwork, in G.F. Barz and T.J. Cooley (eds.) Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology (pp.83-83). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clandinin, D. J. (ed.) (2007). Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: mapping a methodology. London: Sage.

Fadiman, A. (1997). The spirit catches you and you fall down: a Hmong child, her American doctors and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Fay, R. and Davcheva, L. (2014). Zones of interculturality and linguistic identity: tales of Ladino by Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, Language and Intercultural Communication14(1): 24-40.

Fay, R., Zhou, X. and Liu, T-H. (2010). Undertaking narrative inquiry bilingually against a monolingual backdrop. Paper presented at Narrative Matters 2010 – Exploring the narrative landscape: Issues, investigations, and interventions hosted by the CIRN in Fredericton, May 20th – 22nd 2010, New Brunswick, Canada.

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J. and Attia, M. (forthcoming, 2015). The possibility of researching multilingually, in Hua, Z. (ed.) Research Methods in Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide. London: Routledge.

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J. and Attia, M. (2013). Researching multilingually: New theoretical and methodological directions, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 23(3): 285–299.

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