The Challenges Presented by Interpretation and Translation throughout the Process of Resettlement for Refugees and Migrants


            One of the greatest challenges faced by not only refugees, but the service providers trying to assist them upon arrival in a new host country, is the language barrier. No matter where in the world, lack of a shared common language creates a disconnect and misunderstanding between those of different nations and cultures. It has created a divide amongst Latino migrants in the United States, Cambodian refugees in the United States, refugees fleeing from Europe during World War II, refugees of different dialects throughout Northern Africa, and many more populations today and throughout history. Particularly during the beginning stages of refugees being integrated into their new host countries, or even in refugee camps, there is a heavy reliance upon interpreters to bridge the language gap between the two parties speaking different languages. Sometimes these interpreters are hired professionals who are trained and sometimes it is members of the refugee community interpreting for other refugees. This paper will examine the problems that exist in translation and interpretation in general and more specifically the power dynamics and hindrances that emerge between migrants and interpreters due to migrants’ required reliance upon these services.

The research conducted shows evidence of these power dynamics in refugee and migrant communities, specifically touching on children that serve as interpreters. It also examines how language proficiency serves as an indicator for integration into a host community or how it can cause migrants to be seen as the “other”. Lastly, my studies extend to how translation impacts the first-hand narratives that come directly from these regions in which turmoil leads to the displacement of its citizens.

Emerging Power Dynamics

The UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) is responsible for the protection of refugees all over the world. Their main purpose is to guard the rights and well-being of refugees. One of the most important and first steps that the UNHCR has to take when working with refugees is declaring or denying refugee status to those seeking asylum.[1] This status has a huge impact on the lives and futures of the interviewees and is a heavy responsibility placed on the interviewer. The interview seeks to find out whether or not the applicant meets the four main criteria for refugee status: they are outside their country of origin, there is a well-founded fear, they are facing persecution, and for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.[2] These interviews often require an interpreter to mindfully and authentically evaluate the consistency and legitimacy of the responses from the asylum-seeker.

There are four different types of interpretation as defined by the UNHCR. But first, to clear up a common misconception of people using “interpretation” and “translation” interchangeably. Interpretation is “rendering spoken or signed language into another spoken or signed language” while translation is the verbatim transcription of written texts or pre-recorded audio[3]. The four types of interpretation are consecutive, summary, simultaneous, and verbatim. Consecutive interpretation is most commonly used during refugee status interviews, it includes the interviewee pausing while the interpreter explains those small segments and they continue alternating. During summary interpretation, the interpreter listens to a longer segment and paraphrases to the best of their ability, it requires more judgement on the interpreter’s behalf to decide what is and is not necessary to say. Verbatim interpretation is often used for legal documents or hearings and requires the interpreter to repeat word-for-word translations of what is said. Similarly, is simultaneous interpretation, but the interpreter listens to the speaker and translates at the same time, which usually requires equipment and technical support staff. The interpreters for UNHCR are advised specifically for how to interact with women and children, they are told to keep in mind unique trauma experienced by these populations and gender dynamics between interviewer and interviewee. They are also recommended to remain as neutral as possible and to refrain from abusing their power.[4]

A qualitative survey was conducted in 2016 from the University of Aberta and Gallaudet University that examined the constructs of power and power dynamics that emerge in interpreted interactions. “The theme of power and privilege was the most frequent major theme as it emerged in 32.7% of the data set.” It was concluded that the interpreter is extremely aware of their power and this awareness influences how they conceptualize their job of interpretation and how they make their conscious decisions.[5]

Children as Interpreters

            A unique circumstance that presents many challenges and unique power relations is the use of children as interpreters. Most sources suggest that children are far too young to handle the stress that interpreting presents to them[6] [7] [8] [9]. However, children are often more quickly immersed into the English language through schools and are just mentally more capable at picking up a new language more quickly than adults. Therefore, children are often used as interpreters in doctor’s offices, amongst their parents and teachers, and other scenarios.

In 2006, California legislators wanted to ban the practice of minors being used as interpreters. “So often the information is translated inaccurately. The child themselves may not have the full grasp of the English language and therefore may not fully understand the information that has been shared with them.”[10] However, this problem can work both ways as although professional interpreters have certifications and trainings, their language skills may not be at the proficiency levels that they should and there are always dialect languages that present themselves as challenging to interpret. Children know their parents and ones that have close relationships with their parents “speak similar terms, so parents feel more confident with [their children] translating,” says the daughter of a Spanish-speaking immigrant Mother.

Other literature suggests that interpreting could damage the development of children as they are not equipped to be exposed to some of the trauma that being exposed to these adult situations could lead to. In an article from the Royal Society of Medicine it is not recommended that children get involved with issues that are “beyond the scope of their stage of development.”[11] This type of recommendation only considers the situation from a Western lens. As a refugee that does not speak the language of their host country and that is in need of medical assistance, I think that the least of their worries is traumatizing their child and shielding them from these serious issues when their children have most likely been previously exposed to much more severe trauma. Sheltering living a more sheltered life is simply not a reality in some of the lives of these families.

There is a danger presented when children get old enough to realize that they have the power to manipulate their parents in these situations where the parents have no idea what is being said. For example, “I once told my mother that the F on my report card stood for fabuloso,” said Sandino Sanchez, now an adult, whose Dominican parents eventually caught on to the real meaning of an F”.[12] Hopefully, children would not take advantage of situations where their own parents are vulnerable, but as children, they cannot be not-expected to act out in this way, particularly due to the stress that always acting as an interpreter can cause them. This pressure can permeate in many ways, as children not only often serve and language interpreters, but informing their parents on cultural norms and serving as “liaisons between the old world and new”. All of this can be overwhelming. “Children’s practice as translators across these domains may be a source of both skill development and stress as they bear the responsibility of the well-being of their parents and siblings. Moreover, as children assume the responsibility for context interpretation, they also contribute to a shift in parent-child power relations.” (324) Due to this, it is important to understand the importance of historical context for the constructions of childhood in different regions and how these norms of childhood are shifting for certain migrant populations.[13]

Language as a Measurement of Integration

            “Historically, language has been used as a way to mark certain ethnic and cultural groups as others[14].” The “other” is an individual that is perceived to not belong to the majority group and is subordinated by their “other” status. The resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal demonstrates how language barriers hinder social acceptance and integration of migrant populations into new host societies.

The minimally populated and landlocked region of Bhutan is very ethnically diverse, with four main ethnicities: Ngalong, central Bhutanese, the Sharchop, and the Lhotshampas or Nepali Bhutanese. The Ngalong’s language, Dzongkha, was established as the national language. In 1958, the Bhutanese government granted citizenship to ethnic Nepalese under the Nationality Law Electronic document. However, according to Human Rights Watch, Bhutan began to see the growing numbers of ethnic Nepalese as a threat to their political order. Out of fear, the government introduced repressive laws and “Bhutanization” policies in the late 70s and 80s, which led to the economic and cultural exclusion of the Nepali-Bhutanese people. Then, “in 1989, the government introduced a “one nation, one people” policy that forced the practice of the Drukpa culture”. It required all Bhutanese to embrace Drukpa culture, which included a national dress code and the end to all Nepali language instructions.[15]

Flash forward to present day United States and the author, Christie Shrestha from the University of Kentucky, compares this exclusion of the other and cultural hierarchy to Bhutanese refugees continued efforts to integrate into American culture today. In an interview with an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher working with a Bhutanese refugee, the teacher expresses the recommendation of “accent reduction” classes. This illustrates the “ESL teacher’s unawareness of how historically language has been used to marginalize and discriminate minority groups and how language-learning practices are linked with the politics of belonging.”[16] The ability to speak English seems to be a requirement for refugees and migrants in the United States to prove themselves as citizens. They must also speak the language in a way that is most convenient and similar to the way in which other native-born Americans speak. Not being able to speak English fluently becomes a sign of “un-Americanness” and possibly lazy or disrespectful towards the country that these migrants are supposed to be indebted to.[17]

Interpreting First-Hand Accounts

            Novels are an art form and offer a unique retelling of a person’s life, often through the use of personal narrative. For many refugees and migrants this power to share personal narrative is often taken away due to language barriers. However, with the recent introduction of the modern Arabic novel in translation, voice is given to some narratives from the Arab world, “Arabic novels offer a marvelous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask”[18]. Arabic novels present the chance to read through a retelling of the massacre in the Shatila refugee camp in 1982, or Ghassan Kanafani’s, Men in the Sun, which tells the story of three Palestinian refugees being smuggled across a swath of the Iraqi dessert to Kuwait. The recent emergence of the Arabic novel in translation allowed for this Palestinian voice to be heard.[19] According to Kanafani, “politics and the novel are an indivisible case,” and he is right as many novels give insight into current and past events in a region and how events still linger in the daily lives of inhabitants of the region. Translation takes away from the power of entirely first-hand narrative but the introduction of the Arabic novel in translation provides for accurate insight than ever before. However, “there is some fear that the lure of English translation and American publication is a corrupting force” and that “[English-speaking readers] would end up reading only versions of what [they] want to hear” (8).

Another example of a refugee’s voice coming to life in another language is Lucky Child by Loung Ung. From 1975 until 1979, through violence, death, and forced labor, the Khmer Rouge systemically killed almost one fourth of Cambodia’s population in the Cambodian genocide. This novel depicts the story of Loung who comes to the United States with her brother Meng, and the sister that is left behind in Cambodia. Loung is chosen as the lucky one because she is the youngest sibling. The novel is split into two sections in order to tell the story of Loung’s journey and Chou’s journey. As Loung is fluent in English, she writes her own narrative but has to translate her sister’s. “As the author, I have had to translate Chou’s Khmer and Chinese words to tell her story in English… Here are our stories: mine as I remember it and Chou’s as she told it to me.”[20] The difference between the chapters is very clear as Chou’s lacks a certain level of fluency in the writing, since it is translated directly from another language. The power to share her story is taken away due to her lack of English language skills. Although Loung allows for her narrative to be shared with a larger audience, Chou’s voice is taken away through her sister interpreting her words.


This paper showcased evidence of power dynamics, and setbacks caused by need interpreters in refugee and migrant communities. Translation and interpretation have given voice to the refugee and migrant community in some respects but taken away their voice and hindered them in other aspects. A problem that has been historically prevalent since the first documentations of refugees is difficult to conquer, but with awareness of the power dynamics and hindrances presented by language barriers, migrants and host communities can work harder to understand one another. Hopefully this awareness with decrease negative sentiments and “othering” of migrant populations due to the disconnect caused by language barriers.

[1] UNHCR, Interpreting in a Refugee Context (UNHCR, June 1993).

[2] UNHCR, What is a Refugee? (UNHCR, 2017).

[3] National Language Service Corps, Understanding Interpretation and Translation (National Language Service Corps, 2014).

[4] UNHCR, Interpreting.

[5]Debra Russell and Risa Shaw, Power and Privilege: An Exploration of Decision-Making of Interpreters (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., 2016), 8.

[6]Antony Jauregui, Kids Interpreting Medical Information to Parents (npr, 2006).

[7] B. Jacobs, J. Green, L. Kroll, and T.J. David, The hazards of using a child as an interpreter (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1994), 474P.

[8] Lizette Alvarez, Interpreting New Worlds for Parents (The New York Times, 1995).

[9]Lynn M. Nybell, Jeffrey J. Shook, and Janet L. Finn, Childhood, Youth, and Social Work in Transformation: Implications for Policy and Practice (Columbia University Press, 2009), 324.

[10] Jauregui, Kids Interpreting.

[11] Jacobs, Green, Kroll, and David, The hazards, 474P.

[12] Alvarez, Interpreting New Worlds.

[13] Nybell, Shook, and Finn, Childhood, Youth, and Social Work, 324.

[14]Christie Shrestha, Power & Politics in Resettlement: A Case Study of Bhutanese Refugees (University of Kentucky, 2011), 60.

[15] Shrestha, Power & Politics in Resettlement, 6.

[16] Shrestha, Power & Politics in Resettlement, 61.

[17] Dina Nayeri, The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay’ (Guardian, 2017).

[18] Claudia Roth Pierpont, Found in Translation: The contemporary Arabic novel (The New Yorker, 2010), 1.

[19] Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun (American University in Cairo Press, 1991).

[20] Loung Ung, Lucky Child (HarperCollins Publisher, 2005), xiv.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: