Embracing multilingualism to enhance complexity sensitive research

Published Jan 23, 2020

In this research article, the authors point out that the cycles of translation from English to the language of the context and back again can be costly and inconvenient. But, they point out three benefits to investing in translation and multi-lingual research spaces.

First, the authors argue that disseminating the results of research in local languages not only makes your research accessible to stakeholders, but it also helps stakeholders value all research more. They write:

Translations are expensive and time-consuming, so a large part of our work stays in English unavailable to the local stakeholders, who may have participated in the research process. This is an issue not only because it reduces their possibilities to learn from the systematized outcomes of the processes in which they participate, but because it reduces their perception of the value of research. When stakeholders feel that researchers write exclusively for other foreign researchers, their readiness to support and fund research may decrease.

The second benefit:

Second, academics who don’t read English may find it difficult to continue building on knowledge published only in that language.

This takeaway is obvious. So many publications are translated to English, but the reverse is rare.

Third, and by no means least, naming complex issues or ideas only in English impoverishes other languages. When we forsake finding a word for a particular concept or idea in a given language, we impoverish that language.

This is quite insightful. Language is intrinsic to organizational learning. If the concepts advanced in our research are never introduced to the local language, then it may be impossible for that learning to take root.

The authors recognize a fascinating tension in this work. They demonstrated the possibility of multi-language research spaces via a virtual research commons for their project.

What we have learned from working with different languages and acknowledging them during the full research cycle, including the dissemination stage, is that they are time- consuming, costly and even a bit messy and uncomfortable. For example, in the case of the virtual space above, some participants complained that having to find their own language among texts written in other languages begs an extra effort from them and slows them down. However, the alternative is renouncing inclusion and plurality, which is at odds with the challenge faced by academia to address complex societal problems.

There is a cost to complexity, but solution spaces need to be more complex than the problems they’re resolving.1

  1. See Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety; http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ASHBBOOK.html, p. 207 ↩︎