Prof Mike Byram

The stimulus for my interest in ‘researching multilingually’ has been a constant concern in the back of my mind as I have supervised doctoral students from numerous countries. They were obliged to write in a foreign language, English, even though they collected and analysed data in another language, usually their first or dominant language. The translation of their data had to be treated as unproblematic if they were not to get lost in writing their thesis by going down pathways of reflection on the nature of translation or, when reflecting on their own thought processes, the relationship of language and thought.

It was only when one student, Shu Hsin Chen from Taiwan, found herself interviewing some of her teacher informants in English and others in Chinese, that she and I – but mainly she – began to take the issue into her thesis. Talking about this with Richard Fay – as he describes in another place on this website – led to the first exploratory seminar. So at last the concern at the back of my mind has come to the front – with the energetic decision of the others in the team, especially Prue Holmes, to obtain some funding to take the issues further.

If I now look back at my own research in another language, I see two approaches. When I was researching my PhD on Danish literature I could quote all I wanted in Danish while writing in English, as British universities seem to insist. I could do this because I knew my examiners and any other future readers would be able to read both languages. However, I had to provide everything in translation when I turned it into a book for the anglophone world, without the Danish original since the publishers thought it not necessary. Nonetheless, this included a fascinating experience of translating poetry with the help of a professional poet.

When I was writing my first book on education – the education of a German minority in Denmark – I provided all quotations in German with an English translation in parallel. I was trying to make the story of the minority known to English-speaking readers without betraying the words of my interviewees. That back-of-the-mind concern was there too.

Whenever the theme came momentarily to the front, and I tried to suggest some reading for my supervisees, I realised there was little or nothing available in textbooks on research methods. So I am now very glad to be involved in this project which I am sure will put the issues firmly on the agenda for all researchers and those who supervise research.