The Role of Translation and Interpreting in NGOs: Caritas Graz-Seckau as a multilingual workplace

//The Role of Translation and Interpreting in NGOs: Caritas Graz-Seckau as a multilingual workplace

Vanessa Steinkogler | PhD Candidate, University of Graz

Background of my Study and Rationale

In the summer of 2018, I had the chance to work in the administrative department of Caritas Graz-Seckau in Styria for two months. The NGO (non-governmental organisation) provides assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and local communities in emergency and crisis situations (Caritas Graz-Seckau 2015). During my work I soon noticed that every organisational unit of the NGO is inevitably confronted with foreign languages due to the NGO’s migration-related field of activity. When I asked Caritas employees how communication situations in foreign languages were managed, they often reacted perplexed; it seemed as if the permanent presence of and interactions in foreign languages constitute a somewhat invisible part of the employee’s daily working routine. It is precisely for this reason, why researching this organisation could be insightful in understanding multilingual working fields. It is the diversity of multilingual communication within Caritas I am particularly interested in as well as the different solutions used to meet communication needs in foreign languages. I would like to emphasise that I do not aim to evaluate the quality of interpreting and translation, but rather intend to increase the visibility of such language mediation activities in NGOs.

In today’s globalized economy and society, NGOs play various important roles: they represent new global workplaces (cf. Castells 2000), are global players that can regulate and influence global politics and provide humanitarian and development aid. NGOs differ fundamentally from other organisations working at an international level; not only in terms of their background but also considering different budgetary priorities and the motivations of their staff (Frantz/Martens 2006:). In all of the above-mentioned contexts, agents with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds come together, and providing language mediation often forms part of NGO’s day-to-day work. Since these organisations aim to negotiate and interact between agents, translation and interpreting form the crucial basis for the functioning of NGOs. Nevertheless, the role of multilingual communication within humanitarian aid organisations has so far been scarcely discussed in research in Translation and Interpreting Studies (TIS) and has only recently gained momentum (cf. Tesseur 2014 et passimFootitt 2017Delgado Luchner 2018).

Since NGOs are organisations with limited financial resources and have staff that mainly works on a voluntary basis (Frantz/Martens 2006:26, 32), I find it particularly worth taking a closer look at the role of so-called professional and so-called non-professional interpreting and translation from both a conceptual and an empirical point of view. The issue of professionalisation has been discussed in TIS for decades. TIS have long fought to establish themselves as an independent scientific discipline and in this context, it was particularly important to promote the professionalisation of the translation and interpreting profession (cf. Grbić/Kujamäki 2019). As a result of the different discourses on professionalisation (cf. e.g. Paloposki 2016), a sharp boundary is often drawn in translation and interpreting theory between so-called professional and non-professional written and oral translational activities. The question arises whether such a clear categorical differentiation adequately reflects practice and whether this differentiation makes sense when used as an analytic concept in research. Although the majority of all interpreting and translation work is done by so-called “non-professionals”, the research field Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT) still belongs to a peripheral area of translation and interpreting studies (cf. Pérez-González/Susam-Saraeva 2012). Indeed, it appears that the work of people without specific training is still considered a threat to the professional status of translators and interpreters (cf. Grbić/Kujamäki 2019).

Purpose of my PhD Project

In my PhD project I aim to provide insights into the diverse translational practices as well as perception and action patterns in NGOs using the example of the Catholic welfare organisation Caritas Graz-Seckau. In particular, I examine the role of language, cultural knowledge and translation at Caritas Graz-Seckau and look into the translation and interpreting needs that arise, how these needs are met, which actors are involved in translational activities, how they interact with each other and their work environment, and how they perceive translational activities. Based on the fact that translation and interpreting at Caritas Graz-Seckau take place in many different contexts and organisational departments and are carried out by different actors with different professional backgrounds, it is hypothesised that diverging and also conflicting opinions regarding translation and interpreting as well as translational expertise exist and no common understanding is shared within the organisation of what translation and interpreting comprise. Based on this assumption, the concepts of multi-professionalism, i.e. the idea of holding more than one profession (Pym 1998), and competing professionalisms, the existence of alternative and dominant forms of professions that determine the work and status of the same (Footitt/Tesseur 2019), are of particular relevance for the dissertation project. I assume that the visibility of translation, the linguistic and cultural knowledge, and the translators and interpreters at Caritas Graz-Seckau is almost non-existent and that this invisibility of translation is accompanied by a lack of structured and organised translational practices. As a consequence, it is possible that Caritas Graz-Seckau does not fully take advantage of the translational potential. This could mean that despite a trend towards professionalisation in TIS, translational work of so-called non-professionals and volunteers in NGOs continues to play a significant role.

Research Methodology and Theoretical Framework

Data for the PhD project is collected by means of semi-structured interviews, and aims to render visible the complexity and diversity of written and oral translational activities within NGOs. Moreover, the findings will at best uncover multidimensional and hybrid identities of translators and interpreters and as a consequence question traditional discourses on translational professionalism – especially those that postulate professionalism as an all-or-nothing concept. After transcribing the interviews and preparing the field notes, the data is evaluated by means of qualitative content analysis (Gläser/Laudel 2010Mayring 2008).

As a conceptual framework for my project I chose the theory of social worlds according to Anselm Strauss (1978Clarke/Star 2008) as well as the concept of boundary work introduced by Thomas Gieryn (1983). Strauss understands a social world as an agglomeration of people who are jointly committed to a certain activity and who share and use resources and technologies to achieve a common goal. The theory of social worlds is particularly well suited for the research project, since it focuses on the relationships and interactions as well as the resulting conflicts and actions of actors within the social world and various subworlds. Drawing on Thomas Gieryn’s concept of boundary work, I aim to analyse the creation, maintenance, blurring, bridging, and dissolution of boundaries between these subworlds. Particular attention is paid to what characteristics and qualifications a group attributes to itself in order to be called “professional”, to distinguish itself from other social groups and to claim expertise in a particular field.

Even though NGOs are drawing and strongly relying on staff’s language skills to make their projects a success, it seems that NGOs give little institutional recognition to interpreting and translating as a profession for which training and guidance are needed. Hence, the recognition of the value that translation, language and cultural skills may add to development work and building relationships, has yet to take place.

By |2022-10-05T11:03:37+02:00December 9th, 2020|PhD Conference|