Translating Asylum: Translation, interpreting and the British humanitarian response to asylum seeker and refugee arrivals since the 1940s

Language and communication are of crucial importance in the reception and longer-term resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees. However, few studies address matters of interpreting and translation in historical contexts of refugee support. While language support provisions can be described as a form of humanitarian intervention (i.e. meeting need at the point of crisis), they are also shaped by societal attitudes to migration, integration and linguistic diversity.

This project explores the strategic importance of translation and interpreting in the early reception and resettlement phases of selected groups of asylum seekers and refugees in England since the 1940s. It seeks to investigate the overall question of how approaches to limited language proficiency have evolved against the backdrop of increasingly ‘technologised’ humanitarian activity and changes in attitude to migration over the period. The project will address three inter-related issues: (1) the evolution of the relationship between government and voluntary sector organisations in making provisions (including language provisions) for asylum seekers and refugees, (2) the evolution of indigenous attitudes to linguistic diversity at the point of crisis and its aftermath, and (3) the ways that individuals respond to language support provisions in the early phases after arrival and develop their own networks to foster social engagement and participation.

The research will be driven by the following questions:

  • How did non-state actors (BCAR, Red Cross, Ockenden Venture, Royal Women’s Voluntary Service) handle matters of linguistic and cultural diversity following the Hungarian uprising in 1956, World Refugee Year 1959, the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, and refugees who fled Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s?
  • What can the analysis of policy documents, parliamentary debates and media narratives relating to the events listed above contribute to understanding the evolving attitudes to linguistic diversity and processes of ‘articulation’ (Slack 1996)?
  • What is the significance of the findings from the first two questions for understanding interpreting and translation as part of the ‘technologisation’ of non-state humanitarian activity during the period in question?
  • How have language support provisions been experienced by different generations of migrants in the cities of Leicester (Ugandan Asians) and Liverpool (Vietnamese)?
  • How have experiences shaped understandings of linguistic diversity and the role of professional translation and interpreting in processes of articulation in the two cities?

Research methods

The project will draw upon archival research, oral histories and corpus-based studies to examine how language support provisions were organised by the state and non-state organisations. A corpus-based study will identify narratives and attitudinal shifts around linguistic diversity over the period in question. Two city-based case studies will examine how language support provisions were experienced by different generations of refugees in Leicester, which accommodated Ugandan Asian refugees in the 1970s, and Liverpool, in which newly arrived Vietnamese refugees were re-settled. The case studies aim to shed light on the ways in which language provisions developed at the municipal level and the networks of community associations that grew organically to complement existing provisions and/or develop independent sources of support.

Dissemination activities

The project will involve close collaboration with a range of community associations and heritage organisations. Dissemination activities will include academic publications, workshops on translation and interpreting involving community organisations, and an event at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre (University of Manchester). With permission, the oral testimonies gathered during the case studies will be made publically available on this website and deposited in oral history archives.

This research is based at the University of Manchester and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project brings together a multidisciplinary research team from translation and intercultural studies, refugee history and migration studies. It is supported by an advisory board including representatives from refugee community organisations and experts on the histories of humanitarianism, translation studies, archives and public history.

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