Small Grants, Grand Impacts: Multilingual Communication in Crisis Settings

In 2016, UCL Centre for Translation Studies’ Dr Federico M. Federici and UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction’s Professor David Alexander received a £3,995 Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding Small Grant to fund a pilot study identifing fundamental problems of multilingual communications affecting disaster settings. The study aimed to explore whether cognitive and emotive load would trigger different behaviour in translators when operating in crisis settings, and took place in parallel to early activities of the EU-funded INTERACT Crisis Translation Network project (led by Dublin City University Professor Sharon O’Brien, with Dr Patrick Cadwell, also from Dublin City University, and Associate Professor Minako O’Hagan of University of Auckland).

The researchers examined participants’ emotional and cognitive responses to the English translation of authentic crisis-related messages, measuring cognitive stimuli such as eye-tracking. The study allowed the team to identify why and how source message can pose problems of communicative efficiency – and whether the team’s changes, driven by the analysis of the biometric measurements of the participants’ responses, led to any improvement. The preliminary findings of the project helped to refine their research questions and led them to prioritise various forms of support to enhance crisis communication through translation. One of these priorities was preparing future translators to serve in crisis settings, explained in more detail in the team’s recently published open-access journal articleCrisis Translation Training: Challenges Arising from New Contexts of Translation.

From consultation on the initial pilot project to full collaboration through the years of activity on the INTERACT network, the team has continued working on multilingual communication in crisis settings, with Dr Federici undertaking a secondment with INTERACT in New Zealand, and Dr O’Hagan receiving Global Engagement seed funding from UCL’s Global Engagement Office for a secondment to UCL in 2017, helping to further cement their research partnership. Most recently, the INTERACT Crisis Translation team offered advice on providing multilingual, effective and trustworthy information regarding COVID-19 to the crisis communication teams that put together the first set of multilingual information available on the WHO website in January 2020.

For Dr Federici, these activities were all kick-started through the Grand Challenges Small Grant. Dr Federici said: “The Grand Challenge award allowed us to conduct a really meaningful pilot study that lead to many new questions, and enabled us to reconsider our intuitions and identify more marked parameters for data collection.”

“Our continued work on multilingual communication in crisis settings, accelerated through grant, has allowed the INTERACT Crisis Translation team to offer advice to on-going crises. The Small Grant award really allowed me to jump start my participation in these activities, and for this I am very grateful to the reviewers who saw its potential, and the funding stream.”

Modern-day crises, including the current coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, are transboundary and will continue to grow increasingly intercultural in nature. The importance of effective multilingual crisis communication – and the work of academics like Dr Federici and his international collaborators – is increasingly evident.