Tag Archives: Research

Lost in translation: when research requires more than one language

IR/security research is often by its very nature international, and can involve empirical work in any number of different places and/or languages. When your research is done in one language and has to be written up in another one (in Western academia, usually English), translation is an essential part of the research and writing up process. However, when I began my PhD I found there was very little advice available on the issues surrounding translation, and most of what I learned before my fieldwork came from informal talks with colleagues and supervisors. So, I thought it might be useful to write a blog-post about some of the problems and pitfalls of translation during research, many of which I have first-hand experience with, followed by some ideas on how to solve them, or at least minimise their impact.

As anyone who has carried out research involving translation will know, it is rarely straightforward or clear-cut. There are no clear rules for how to approach it, but while there is no ‘right way’ to do it, there are many bad ways to go about it. Some of the key issues to think about are listed below, but beware: these come largely from my own experience and what worked for me may not work for you. Likewise, you may disagree with some of the opinions I’ve formed based on my experience, which is fine (of course) – the main point of this is to get you thinking about the big issues, and to find your own solution to them.

There often seems to be an endless list of problems with translating, but without some form of translation we would struggle to understand the world outside of our own little corner. When something is translated, another layer of interpretation is added to the original, and some meanings, nuances or details may be lost. Translation is never neutral: it necessarily involves inserting the translator into the data and transforming it. The translator is cannot be extracted from the translation process: s/he has a lot of power as a meaning-clarifier and maker. Personally, my research has a discursive focus, which has influenced both my thinking on and my approach to translation. Looking at ‘discourse’, particularly if you’re planning to use discourse analysis (either in a language other than your native one or in your native language which then has to be translated into another language during your writing-up) poses some further problems (more on this later). Below I cover some common issues countered during translation, divided into ‘practical’ and ‘linguistic/cultural’ problems, and then suggest some strategies to avoid these.

The title of this blog post may or may not have been a cheap ploy to justify illustrating it with a picture of Scarlett Johansson.
The title of this blog post may or may not have been a cheap ploy to justify illustrating it with a picture of Scarlett Johansson.

Practical problems:

  • Firstly and most important of all: are your language skills good enough? Here you need to bear in mind that the skill set needed depends very much on the type of research you’re doing. Do you need to do interviews? Archival/documentary research? The type of data you’re using will affect the skills that you need, and will help you target your language learning: think about whether speaking/listening may be the most important for you, or whether perhaps reading comprehension is more important. Ethnographic research will of course require much more extensive language skills than other forms, but also has more literature providing guidance on this.
  • Will you be or have you considered using a translator or interpreter? (More on that below)
  • This is slightly controversial, but I don’t think you have to be fluent, or a native speaker to research in another language. But you do have to be good enough for what you need to do, and that requires some reflexive thinking and self-awareness.
  • If you’re not a native speaker, it’s important to be open and disclose your language skills (and limitations) in the research outputs.
  • The time factor: if you’re not a native speaker, translations can take a lot of time. This is particularly true if your research involves processing a large number of documents.

Linguistic/cultural problems:

  • Things don’t always translate well – not everything has an equivalent in another language. Some texts, words or expressions will therefore not have a direct translation, and you need to have a strategy for dealing with these.
  • On top of this, some terms or words can have multiple meanings in the original language, which can be either lost in translation or mistranslated. This was a big concern for me, doing research in Chinese – and one of the many reasons I decided to conduct my interviews in English. Many words have multiple meanings (particularly in Mandarin), and your interviewee may be purposefully vague. If so, your translation may put words in her or his mouth that s/he would not have said, by giving their words a more specific meaning in the translation. It’s worth noting that this is a problem for native speakers too (in cases where they have to translate during the writing-up process).
  • Knowing a language, even to a fluent or native standard, does not automatically mean that it will be easy to carry out research interviews in that language. In practice, ‘research language’ is very different to usual language skills. Official discourse is often very different to everyday talk and in many cases uses a different vocabulary, which can make it tricky even if you’re a native speaker used to ‘everyday talk’.
  • Lastly, cultural knowledge is an important part of understanding a language. When something is translated, it is taken out of its discursive and cultural context, and in the process it can lose some of the meaning, or things can appear significant when they are not (and vice versa). A couple of examples: this article is by a Russian speaker who researches North Korea, and explains how some things translate much better from North Korean into Russian than they translate into English, because North Korea and Russia have a shared communist history and many North Korean expressions are borrowed from Soviet Russian. Translated into English, this context is lost. During my own research on energy security in China, I found a lot of discourse around China’s ‘scientific’ outlook and approach to energy security. It was only during a conversation with a fellow (non-Chinese) China-researcher that I began to view this more as a Marxist trope common in Chinese official discourse than something with more significance to China’s approach to energy security specifically. It’s easy to overlook or miss things, but it’s worth remembering that it can be just as easy for native speakers (who sometimes get home blindness). It does mean it’s important to be extra careful, however.

Until the day this magic button appears..
Until the day this magic button appears..

Avoiding pitfalls:

Strategy 1: Don’t translate

While this strategy may sound counterintuitive, in many instances translation can be avoided. For example, if you’re studying official discourse, it’s often possible to access official translations of key documents in English. Using this strategy, you need to be aware that the texts are prepared with a foreign audience in mind (which has important implications). Personally, I decided to avoid translating where possible. I conducted my interviews in English, which limited number of interviewees (not ideal, but I decided it would be better than the risk of misrepresenting my interviewees). In my case, this was less of a problem as my research relied primarily on documentary material. Many of my key documents were available in official translations, though I had to translate others. By translating documents where no official translation was available I also avoided limiting analysis to documents ‘pre-approved’ (and, therefore selected for translation) by the Chinese government. In the case of some particularly important documents I also checked official translations against their original (Chinese language) versions. This was important as official translations can at times exclude particular (often potentially controversial) sentences or sections of documents when produced for a foreign audience.

Strategy 2: Use a native speaker

If you don’t speak the language you are translating from to a native standard, get your translations checked over by a native speaker. If possible, do this anyway as a second pair of (bi or multilingual) eyes can only help.

Strategy 3: Use a translator/interpreter

Using a translator or interpreter can save a lot of time and hassle, but can also be problematic (and expensive!). There’s no such thing as a perfect translation between two different languages: your translator/interpreter is using their own knowledge and skills to filter, manage and transform the information given by your interviewee/document into a language that you understand. This can add extra layers of meaning to your data, so the usefulness depends very much on the focus of your work. It can be particularly problematic if you’re using discourse analysis, as you’re no longer analysing the discourse of your original source but translated version. If you do decide to use a translator or interpreter, make sure that you are clear with them about exactly what you need them to do – if you need as close to a perfect translation as possible, make sure that they know this. If you’re conducting an interview, go through the questions and your interview strategy with your interpreter beforehand – the wording of your questions may not actually make sense if they are translated literally.

4: Online translation engines

When processing a lot of information, online translation engines like Google Translate can be helpful to filter your material. While they are largely useless when it comes to actually translating articles and documents, they can help you identify what’s actually worth translating or spending more time on. If you have a lot of material, this can be a helpful strategy to narrow down your focus.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation. Translation is not a science, and your skills will get better with experience.

Ps. If anyone can recommend any useful resources about using translations and translating during research, please either add it in the comments section below or email me, and I’ll add them at the end of this post!


Review: Critical Approaches to Security

2013 has so far been a great year for anyone interested in critical approaches to security. With the launch of the new journal, Critical Studies on Security, and two new edited collections on the theory and methods of critical approaches, it is a good time for anyone who shares some kind of dissatisfaction with mainstream approaches and wants to study or research security from a critical perspective.

Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction

cover-css1Mark B Salter and Can E Mutlu’s book Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction is motivated by “a desire to champion clear research design and rigorous method in critical security studies” (p.1). Consisting of thirty four chapters by thirty three authors it is clear from the outset that this book covers a broad range of approaches to research methods from a critical perspective. This diversity reflects the fact that there is no single Critical Security Studies (CSS) method, something which can be unnerving for students and incomprehensible even for some scholars[i]. Although Research Methods in Critical Security Studies covers such a wide-ranging set of approaches to research methods, Salter and Mutlu have collected the chapters in to six sections which help guide the reader by grouping chapters into conceptual areas.

The first section of the book focuses on research design, and is perhaps the most universally useful part of the book. In the first chapter Mark Salter provides a concise introduction to research design from an interpretivist perspective, focusing on the principles of clarity, fit and reflexivity (p.15-24). This chapter comes with an extremely handy CSS research design checklist which will be useful to all levels of researcher; from undergraduates beginning their dissertations to senior academics writing papers and books for publication.

Other contributors in the opening section address the issues of wondering (p.25-28), criticality (p.29-32) and empiricism without positivism (p.42-45). Within this section are three other chapters that focus on issues that are sometimes ignored in methods textbooks. A chapter by Anne-Marie D’Aoust, on the emotional and material factors of actually having what it takes to do research (p.33-36), brings to light the often overlooked, but incredibly real issues that impact on how research within CSS, and also in IR more broadly, is conducted. Taken together, this introductory section not only frames the rest of Research Methods in Critical Security Studies but it also provides a great introductory platform for researchers to begin their research on security from a critical perspective.

The rest of the book is divided into sections that are organised around conceptual ‘turns’ within social sciences and CSS; ethnographic, practice, discursive, corporeal and material. In each section each methodological turn is given an introduction and then scholars whose work is associated with each turn talk about their research. In each chapter, authors address their research design in relation to their research question, methods, results and also the challenges they have faced whilst doing research. Accounts from acclaimed scholars such as Claudia Aradau, Luis Lobo-Guerrero and David Grondin sit well alongside work from up and coming PhD researchers within CSS.

Each chapter is only a few pages long and this brevity is perhaps the only downfall of Research Methods in Critical Security Studies. This is a minor annoyance rather than an actual problem, purely because most of the chapters provide such interesting accounts of research that as a reader you are often left wanting more! Further readings that are recommended at the end of each chapter go some way to addressing this issue, as does engaging with the actual published work of each author.

It is hard to take away an exact methodological framework from Research Methods in Critical Security Studies that is going to fit your own research ‘like a glove’. However, this is hardly surprising in a field like CSS where one can be interviewing sex workers at 2am in a Cuban nightclub as Megan Daigle has done (p.81), attending airport security management courses like Mark Salter (p.107) or looking at parliamentary archives in relation to counter-terrorism laws as Andrew Neal does (p.125). This diversity of original and interesting work within CSS is clearly highlighted in the book and it is extremely unlikely that one text book alone is ever going to provide you with clear answers to one’s own methodological problems, simply because there is no singular CSS method or methodology. Rather, there is a broad range of interesting methods and methodologies that suit the critical inquiry of security.

In this regard Research Methods in Critical Security Studies works well as a source of inspiration for readers interested in CSS as it not only shows how diverse the field is, but celebrates it as well. Moreover, it does exactly what it says on the tin by providing an introduction to research methods within CSS that students and scholars of every level should find interesting and useful.

Critical Approaches to Security: An Introduction to Theories and Methods

cover-css2Critical Approaches to Security: An Introduction to Theories and Methods by Laura J Shepherd is the second recent edited collection on the topic of critical approaches to security. Eschewing the moniker of CSS, Critical Approaches to Security collects together a variety of theoretical approaches and methodological techniques in two sections on theory and method.

Each chapter comes with a summary and learning outcomes section up front and is closed with questions for further debate and sources for reading and research. This, coupled with figures, images and break away boxes within most chapters, makes for a clear and lively read that will keep undergraduate readers engaged whilst dealing with complex topics such as Foucault’s key ideas (p.82) and the ‘anti-method’ of deconstruction (p.214).

The first half of the book explores various critical theories of security, providing a useful overview of each theory that helps the reader in understanding how different packages of ideas shape how security is understood and how theory in turn informs methodological choices.

The second half of Critical Approaches to Security addresses methods and how one can go about collecting and analysing data. Many of the chapters compliment and provide a more in-depth engagement with the methods explored in Research Methods in Critical Security Studies. For example if one is interested in ethnography, Cai Wilkinson’s chapter in Critical Approaches to Security (p.129-145) provides an engaging and detailed account of ethnographic methods whilst the section on the ethnographic turn in Research Methods in Critical Security Studies (p.51-84) highlights how these methods work in a variety of scenarios and research projects. This example is just one that emphasises that reading Critical Approaches to Security together with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies is the best way to make the most out of the two edited collections.

Critical Approaches to Security also includes two chapters on methods that are not touched upon in Research Methods in Critical Security. The inclusion of a chapter on what is often seen as ‘the Q word’ from a critical perspective; quantitative methods, enriches Critical Approaches to Security and goes some way to showing that the quantitative/qualitative divide is a false dichotomy (p.103-117). A further chapter by Cerwyn Moore and Chris Farrands on visual analysis is also a welcome addition that explores the ‘aesthetic turn’ in IR and security (p.223-235); a ‘turn’ that is not included in Research Methods in Critical Security.

As with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies, it is unlikely that you will be able to copy and paste what’s in Critical Approaches to Security on to your own work, but again this is because how you go about doing your research “is ultimately up to you, and there is no right answer” (p.8). What you will gain from Critical Approaches to Security is a clear introduction to several complex theories of security and a concise guide to how certain key research methods work in practice.


Both of these edited collections stand alone as great introductions to critical approaches to security that will be of interest to anyone who is remotely interested in these topics. For those of a critical disposition they will be a useful guide to studying or conducting research on security. For those who take a more traditional approach to the study of security, these two books will, at the very least highlight that the theories, methodologies and methods of critical approaches work extremely well in helping to understand the historic and contemporary dynamics of security broadly defined.

The strength of Critical Approaches to Security is in its depth and detail on critical theories, methodologies and methods. Together with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies, whose strength lies in its account of many different methods in the context of actual research practice, one is provided with a firm foundation for studying and researching security critically. Both books build upon other introductory CSS texts[ii], providing a more detailed account of critical methodologies and methods. As such both books are a welcome addition to a sub field of security studies that is seemingly no longer at the margins.

Rhys Crilley is a PhD doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His work draws upon critical approaches to security and focuses on images and narratives of conflict on social media platforms. He blogs at rhyscrilley.tumblr.com and can be followed on twitter @rhyscrilley.

[i] See Keith Krause’s 1998 article in Cooperation and Conflict on this topic. And although not in response to the lack of a CSS research program, see J.A Tickner’s 2005 article in ISQ to get an idea of how mainstream scholars fail to grasp the complexities of critical approaches with multiple ‘research programs’, methodologies and methods.

[ii] Other notable introductory texts to the critical study/research of security include seminal books by Ken Booth, Keith Krause and Michael C Williams. More recent introductory books on the topic include those by Karin Fierke and by Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams.

This review was originaly published by e-International Relations and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original piece here.