Language and Interpretation



Time to read

5 Minutes

Post by Ines Hasselberg, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Follow Ines on Twitter @InesHasselberg.

Examining practices and experiences of border control poses a number of particular methodological and ethical challenges, many of which have been addressed in this blog over the past three years. One specific challenge relates to the diversity of linguistic backgrounds of those we wish to engage with. This might be an obvious challenge but it is by no means one easily addressed. Interpretation is costly and time consuming and brings with it a whole new set of challenges. This week Ana Aliverti, Andriani Fili, Rachel Wechsler, and I will share our experiences with, and approaches to, language diversity in field research.

My research aims to gain a better understanding of the experiences of foreign-nationals in prison in order to grasp the relevance of citizenship and migration to imprisonment. I conducted part of the field research at HMP Huntercombe, a prison exclusive to male foreign-nationals. It’s a low security prison and those incarcerated within vary greatly in their linguistic backgrounds and knowledge of English. I was granted full access to the facilities. It quickly became apparent that here, in a setting where I could engage freely with prisoners, language was both an obstacle and an opportunity.

Being fluent in two languages (Portuguese and Spanish) other than English was an advantage from the start. I quickly learned in my visits that speaking a common language facilitates trust-building and opens a way to frankness and intimacy. Portuguese and Spanish-speaking prisoners sought me out more often than others, leaving me with a sample not representative of their proportion to the prison’s overall population. Speaking in their native language not only afforded us some level of privacy when chatting on the wings, but also greater intimacy that was built on the common ground of a shared language and a Latin identity of sorts.

While I was able to communicate with the large majority of prisoners, either in English or Portuguese and Spanish, there were men I had difficulties in engaging with or was altogether unable to do so. At HMP Huntercombe, I often spent time with two French prisoners who spoke no English at all. They were fully dependent on the few other French-speaking prisoners in their wing to access all sorts of services and information. They were keen to talk to me and were very patient as I struggled to communicate in French. They were happy that I made the effort and our brief chats on the wing quickly built rapport between us. Soon they both expressed their wish to be interviewed for the project. However, whereas my limited knowledge of French allowed us basic communication, it was far too rudimentary for an engaged conversation, let alone a semi-structured interview.

It’s not difficult to imagine why being unable to understand the native language affects the experience of imprisonment―it is therefore important to include in the research the perspectives of such prisoners. HMP Huntercombe held a group of eleven prisoners of Vietnamese citizenship, of whom only one spoke English. This group was always referred to by the prison staff as being the most vulnerable and most challenging to ‘manage.’ Other prisoners often mentioned these men were more isolated. Not only were they unable to communicate outside their group, but they were also not able to attend any work or educational activities in prison. For the most part they spent their days in the empty wings, while everyone else engaged in training and working activities.

I sought out interpreters for the French and the Vietnamese prisoners. Having worked as an interpreter myself, I was, however, dreading the experience. Speaking through interpreters renders difficult the development of initial forms of trust. Simultaneous interpretation is also often a long, tiring, and ultimately confusing process, where the interpreter becomes the centre stage of the interaction. In an effort to avoid these challenges, I opted to recruit research assistants to conduct the interviews for me, rather than interpreters who would conduct the interviews with me.

I was lucky to count on the assistance of my colleague Marion Vannier for the interviews in French and Tiên-Nhạn Phan, a Vietnamese-speaking postgraduate student, who showed great research skills for the interviews with the Vietnamese speaking prisoners. I met with them individually to go over the research aims and the interview script and guided them on possible ways to handle issues that might be more sensitive. With both Marion and Tiên-Nhạn I was present in the room at the time of the interviews, but I sat towards the back, as an observer and not a participant. The experiences, however, were rather different (see here and here for their accounts).

The French prisoners knew me well by the time Marion accompanied me to prison. For them, Marion was a vehicle of communication with me. When I asked one of them whether he preferred me to leave him and Marion alone for the interview, he replied that there was no need as he was talking to me anyway. My meagre knowledge of French had enabled me to establish a relationship of trust with him, but also meant that I could somewhat follow the interview and observe his reaction to the different questions.

The Vietnamese prisoners, on the other hand, met me only once prior to the interviews, when I handed them research leaflets in Vietnamese in preparation for Tiên-Nhạn’s visits. There was no opportunity to establish any sort of relationship with them on my own. Tiên-Nhạn did all of the leg work. Whereas Marion visited the prison once to conduct interviews previously scheduled by me, Tiên-Nhạn visited a handful of times in order to initiate contact, schedule interviews, attend group meetings, and finally, conduct the interviews. Although I was always present, I couldn’t follow any of the conversations. Instead, I observed Tiên-Nhạn’s engagements with the prisoners and relied on her feedback, interview reports, and translated interviews. Although I was somewhat excluded from these interviews, the fact that Tiên-Nhạn acted as an interviewer and research assistant rather than as an interpreter meant that she was able to develop trust and build rapport with the Vietnamese men, and in their formal and informal engagements with her she was able to gain a deep and nuanced understanding of their experiences in prison. The interviews with Marion and Tiên-Nhạn ran smoothly, avoiding the delays in communication stemming from simultaneous interpretation. They are testament to Marion’s and Tiên-Nhạn’s great interview skills. I am fortunate to have worked with them.

I’m not quick, however, in dismissing the value of simultaneous interpretation. The accounts by Andriani and Rachel attest both to the importance and necessity of interpreters in research on, and sites of, border control. At HMP Huntercombe both prisoners and officers alike remarked how ill prepared the staff was to work within such linguistic variety. The vast majority spoke no language other than English, although several expressed the wish to learn a language that would allow them to better support this prisoner population. I’d also like to note that the challenges and opportunities that I faced regarding language diversity at HMP Huntercombe are by no means particular to me or those focusing on matters of citizenship and border control. These are challenges that any one conducting research in prison across a number of jurisdictions in Europe and North America is likely to face. Whatever the questions under examination are, prison researchers are likely to find today a significant number of foreign-nationals in prison many of whom won’t have command of the official language. This particular group may or may not have a different perception and experience of the issue at hand―be that prisoner-staff relations, health, or recidivism―and shouldn’t be consistently left out of research samples on account of language (see here for a discussion of why language matters in prison research).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Hasselberg, I. (2016) Language and Interpretation. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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Foreign-national prisoners
Prisons and Detention


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