How not to get lost in translation

The benefits and challenges of using multi-language sources in your research

Lilija AlijevaPostdoctoral students from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, of which Routledge (part of the Taylor & Francis Group) is a cultural partner, are taking over our Insights blog this week. Read about the issues that affect today’s PhD students with three guest posts that cover academic events, using multi-lingual sources for your research, and thoughts on communicating research.

In June I had the pleasure of attending the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) summer camp at King’s College London, which I was invited to because I was recently awarded an LAHP scholarship for my PhD in law at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The five-day programme focused on various key themes, such as the value of partnership between universities and the arts, benefits of cultural collaboration in research, and publishing your research.

I spoke to many other LAHP students and what struck me was that their interests cover a variety of research fields and topics. A significant number of people are focusing on studying art, humanities and communities outside of the UK. They will use another language, in addition to English, to carry out their research project. Some may use non-English language articles, theories and books; others may conduct surveys and interviews with people who speak another language.

Because my research project is on linguistic minorities, I will also use a significant amount of non-English research materials for my project. I was always fascinated with linguistic minorities and their experiences in their host-state. In order to understand their perspective it is important to use the literature written in that minority’s language, or engage in a dialogue with members of that linguistic community. But there are a lot of important pros and cons to consider when using other language materials to conduct your research.

Let’s start with making it clear that there is an enormous benefit to using research materials written in other languages. You may reveal new theories and perspectives within a research topic that have not been used before. Therefore, this will add more value to your research. And it would definitely be a huge advantage if you are fluent in the language you want to use for your study, but it comes with a lot of dedication and responsibilities.

My tips? First of all, choose your resources wisely, there is no doubt that there is vast amount of information readily available to you in another language, but make sure it is exactly what your research needs, otherwise you will end up with too much material.

Secondly, if you are conducting surveys, interviews or focus groups in another language make sure that the translation and transcription is as accurate as it can be, otherwise you are risking loosing important information or even distorting the data that is essential for your study. If you are conducting interviews or focus groups, it may be time-consuming because you may face the challenges of translating and transcribing at the same time.

For those who are not fluent users of other languages (but still would like to use non-English materials because they may think that this can contribute to their research), it is good to find a reliable person or organisation for accurate translation.

All of these tips for both multilingual and non-multilingual researchers will hopefully help to prepare you. It may take time but, in the end, your dedication to the study and to breaking language barriers in research will be rewarding.


Liliya Aliyeva is a Research Assistant at the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University School of Law. She will be starting her doctoral programme in law at Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She regularly posts on her blog and Twitter on approaches to social research, legal research, and on human rights and minority rights topics.