Connected/ing communities in Manchester: translation and interpreting in the spotlight

Extract of handwritten letter date stamped 18 June 1957 …Camden Town. Dear sir No doubt you will remember me even though you’ve only just met me once not very long ago. I was the interpreter at Knutton Miners Hostel and I consulted you Sir when I put in my notice. It might look surprising to you Sir that I turn to you again but there is a thing or two…

Extract from letter about withdrawal of labour – Copyright National Archives Ref COAL 75/2465 613514, reproduced by permission

In this blog post, Dr Rebecca Tipton, Lecturer in Interpreting and Translation Studies at the University of Manchester, reports on an online event hosted in conjunction with the AIU Centre exploring translation and interpreting in the city’s public and charitable services, and in many of its community-led organisations.

An online event in September 2020 held in conjunction with the AIU Centre brought together interpreters and translators, representatives from refugee and community support organisations and university researchers in the city of Manchester to reflect on contemporary attitudes to language support provision and on the practical initiatives undertaken within specific community groups to support new and established residents.

Discussions also focused on the importance of documenting the lived experience of English language learning and interpreter-mediated interactions with key public services and institutions in the historical record, as a means of charting the evolution of the local politics of equality, diversity and inclusion and the experience of minoritized communities.

The event was part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Translating Asylum, which explores language support for refugees and asylum seekers to the United Kingdom between the 1940s and the 1980s, a period that saw large scale population displacement around the globe against the backdrop of an emerging international humanitarian system. Its goal is to document and critically examine language support provisions in a period when such provisions were largely unplanned, and when charitable organisations tasked with supporting new arrivals often had to rely on people volunteering to interpret from within the group, even though their own level of proficiency in English may have been limited.

The project was also featured as part of the ‘Refugees: forced to flee’ season at the Imperial War Museum in London last year: https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/refugees-forced-to-flee 

The AIU Centre’s resources have played an important role in helping to understand the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in Britain in the mid twentieth century. I retain a strong memory of visiting the Centre on a very grey November day in 2018 and coming across an account of Polish resettlement after the Second World War by Zosia Biegus and Jurek Biegus (2013), which provides a particularly vivid and poignant insight into the lived experience of new arrivals at camps around the country in the aftermath of war. The horror of seeing watch towers and barbed wire fencing at the former RAF bases temporarily accommodating new arrivals in 1945 served as a timely reminder that entering a place of safety does not always mean an end to emotional hardship and marginalisation, and these  can be compounded by language barriers.

The organisation and professionalisation of language support provisions today contrasts markedly with experiences in the latter half of the previous century, and yet there is limited information in the public domain about what provisions exist, how they are organised, how they are received and their longer-term impact on the social, economic and cultural life of the nation.

Speakers at the event all touched on the rich tapestry of dialects and varieties of languages spoken within the Chinese, Arabic and Romanian communities of Manchester respectively, and the challenges these can pose for interpreting services.

Circle Steele from the Wai Yin Centre described how the Centre, established over 30 years ago, has extended its services to other communities in Manchester in addition to those from a Chinese-speaking background, all with the goal of promoting social change. Its work is supported by specialist teams, many of whom are bi- or trilingual (Cantonese/Hakka/English) and combine specialist service expertise (clinical nursing and social work) and interpreter training, which allows for expedient and targeted support. The Centre ensures as many of its translations as possible are produced in traditional and simplified versions of Chinese in order to enhance their reach across relevant communities. Increasingly it finds that users of the Centre are turning to technology-based translation solutions in an attempt to lessen reliance on intermediaries with language skills; however, the mixed levels of success with such technologies show the continuing need for the sort of support the centre provides for communication with key services and support for English language learning.

The lack of standard procedure for identifying specific dialectal needs was highlighted as a challenge for local interpreting services by Dr Leonie Gaiser. She explained that interpreters of Arabic in the city have reported using standard Arabic to bridge dialect differences but, since this is not widely used for spoken communication, there are questions as to whether this solution can effectively address the reality of language practices in the city and individual needs.

Dr Ana-Cristina Popescu, a professional interpreter and Romanian language specialist, highlighted the challenges facing individuals in making initial contact with institutions, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic with the increased reliance on internet technology to facilitate interactions (such as registering for a GP service). Access to technology can be problematic and digital literacy can be poor across different communities in Manchester.

Panellists reported a desire by many individuals not use professional interpreting services even though they were available and even though their level of English language proficiency may still fall short of the level required to communicate effectively with different public services. Another recurring theme was the frequent reliance on children and young people as informal interpreters in a range of service settings, with a participant from Refugee Action commenting that there is still a widespread lack of understanding about why such practices may be inappropriate.

Maya Sharma of the AIU Centre observed that there is now greater awareness of multilingualism in the city, but such awareness is often tied up with narratives of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant, with people wanting to show they are making an effort to learn and to use English in order to counter perceptions of migrants draining resources. On the other hand, she noted the challenges facing individuals having to deal with the consequences of public institutions that are reluctant to promote professional interpreting services to their service users.

At the end of the event, several participants talked of how unaware they were of the scale of dedicated community-based organisations in the city and the range of language support within them. This helps to show that language support solutions are not necessarily accessed through private agencies or city council services, and the efforts dedicated by grassroots groups to provide intra- and inter-community communication support need to be more widely acknowledged.

Reference

Biegus, Zosia and Jurek Biegus. 2013. Polish Resettlement Camps in England and Wales 1946-1969. Ashingdon, Rochford, Essex: PB Software.

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the generous support of Dr Claire Fox and Maya Sharma at the AIU in hosting this event.