Crime and translation

Joanna Drugan looks at the role of linguist crime fighters, and what needs to change in the way they work with police to make the battle against transnational organised crime more effective

Crime is increasingly transnational and multilingual. According to Europol, in 2013, 70% of the estimated 3,600 organised crime groups in the European Union had multinational membership and communicated across at least two languages. Today’s linguists therefore have a critical role to play in helping the police to investigate serious crimes.

What are their experiences of interpreting and translation in this demanding context? How do they help the police understand, prevent and prosecute such crimes? And what professional and ethical challenges do they face in doing so? These are the questions asked by the joint UK-Belgian Transnational Organised Crime and Translation (TOCAT) research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Our understanding of globalisation is often too narrow. Beyond the familiar themes of trade and international movement, crime and communication are, more than ever before, transnational. As the sociologist Margaret Beare has stressed, since the end of the Cold War, “Transnational crime has flourished… with the opening of political borders and integration of economies”.1 Increasingly, such crime is highly organised and global in scale. For the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), transnational organised crime “encompasses virtually all serious profit-motivated criminal actions of an international nature where more than one country is involved”,2 including drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal trade in wildlife, counterfeit goods or cultural property, and cyber crime.

Even within a single country, crime can be transnational in its organisation, impact or management. Crimes may be directed from one country, for example, but carried out in a different country by a group of people from various other countries.


A global plague

Transnational organised crime is also characterised by its scale, variability, rapid evolution and complexity. According to UNODC, it is “an everchanging industry, adapting to markets and creating new forms of crime. In short, it is an illicit business that transcends cultural, social, linguistic and geographical boundaries and one that knows no borders or rules.”3 We need to treat it, say Detective Chief Inspector Stan Gilmour and Politics Lecturer Felia Allum, as “a plague spreading alongside increasing globalization – the darker side of modernity.”4 And, since it is organised and transnational, it must rely on communication (spoken, signed or written) across languages. This means any effective organised response must involve linguists.

Until now, most research on transnational organised crime has not had language as its focus. However, once you look for them, issues of language and communication are almost invariably apparent in studies or work to combat it. In 2015, for instance, Europol recognised that crime is increasingly organised in ‘networks’ whose members communicate in multiple languages.

My view is that shining a light on language, communication, translation and interpreting is likely to bring new insights and practical approaches to understand, prevent and prosecute transnational organised crime.

Operation Lakeland, a joint operation between police in Kent and Slovakia into the enslavement and sexual exploitation of children, shows how linguists play a critical and growing role. The victims were mainly from Slovakia and trafficked to the UK, though some were trafficked within the UK. The operation relied on police partners across the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK, the UK National Crime Agency, and local social services. But crucially, its success also depended on the effective coordination of dozens of interpreters and translators, to communicate with suspects, witnesses and vulnerable child victims during raids and evidence-gathering.

The absence of coordinated linguistic support was later identified as one of the main factors in the failure of the operation and subsequent prosecution. The ensuing review highlighted the impact of the “lack of qualified interpreters available in Kent during the relevant time and there has been no evidence provided that the situation is any better now. There is every likelihood that skilled interpreters, in a variety of languages, will be required more and more over the coming years. This is a national problem, but perhaps because of its proximity to the key Channel Ports, Kent is disproportionately affected.”5


Criminal justice across languages

Interpreting and translation are provided in criminal justice settings in the UK so that suspects, victims and witnesses of crimes have access to justice, and police can conduct investigations effectively. The relevant legal protections and guarantees in the UK are mainly contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, and in Directive 2010/64/EU. As well as important aspects of human rights and effective evidence-gathering, these cover requirements for the detention, treatment and questioning of suspects; the requirement to explain a person’s rights while detained; and the keeping of accurate criminal records, including visual and audio recordings of interviews.

The context for the provision of language services in the public sector is in the throes of change in the UK. There have been issues with the outsourcing of interpreting and translation for the Ministry of Justice, and in the most recent round of outsourcing, the police and other agencies, such as the Crown Prosecution Service, Home Office and UK Border Force, were added. This means that large private-sector agencies, including thebigword and Cintra, are now responsible for providing linguists to the police and Home Office.


Pioneering research

The stakes are high, and the challenges are many and complex, given the increasingly diverse nature of our societies, with more than 300 languages spoken in the UK according to the 2011 census; the swift and ongoing evolution of transnational organised crime; the shifting framework for provision of language services; and other problems, not least severe recent cuts to police funding.

Yet, astonishingly, until now, there has been no national training for police investigators in working with linguists. Some local provision exists, for example in the Metropolitan Police. But our changing world means that even areas with historically low or fixed patterns of migration, where only a few languages were spoken, are now far more linguistically varied. Training and support are needed by the police in all parts of the UK today.

This need has been recognised by the police, Home Office and College of Policing, which is responsible for drawing up official police guidance and training nationally. In 2015, a successful joint event for linguists and police officers at Cambridgeshire Constabulary led to the establishment of a national Language Services Working Group to draw up draft guidance in working across languages.

Researchers in interpreting and translation studies secured funding to support this work, and particularly to test the effectiveness of the guidance and training in practice. The main question of the TOCAT research project is: “How can police officers and interpreters/ translators work together effectively to understand, prevent and prosecute transnational organised crime when officers, suspects and witnesses don’t speak the same language?”. We have been working with the College of Policing, Home Office, Language Services Working Group, police partners in the UK and Belgium, professional organisations, and linguists to learn what guidance and training are needed to enable the police to work more effectively across languages.

The draft Authorised Professional Practice (i.e. police guidance document) has been circulated for expert comment and revised substantially over the past two years; this work is ongoing. Simultaneously, the TOCAT research team has been observing trials of the associated training with a range of different Home Office and police settings.


Test, Learn, Adapt

The TOCAT team is using an adapted form of a research approach devised by the UK Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team in 2010. This approach aims to make sure that public policy is evidence-based by testing any intervention (in our case, police guidance and training), learning from the result and adapting the intervention based on the findings. This ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’ approach allows researchers to ensure new policies actually have the intended outcomes, and to tweak them if they do not. It is an iterative approach, which can be used in an ongoing cycle of testing, so that interventions and policy evolve as the context evolves. For example, how do we know that training busy officers for a few hours will actually mean they remember good practice in producing witness statements with interpreters?

We have put together as full a picture as possible from all those involved in interpreted police encounters: linguists, language service providers, trainers, investigative interviewers, policy makers, those who produce the guidance and training materials, and service users. To do this, we have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews and focus groups, and observed police training and some interviews conducted with interpreters. We have focused on human trafficking as the main crime type for this research, to restrict some of the research variables and because the police reported that they particularly relied on linguists for this crime type.


Linguists’ experiences

In the first stage of the project, we gathered linguists’ views and experiences, partly through prior research, but also via dozens of recorded interviews and focus groups, with some clear patterns emerging. Linguists almost unanimously report high levels of satisfaction with the work they do, and feel very valued by their police and Home Office clients. Many cite the knowledge that they are making a difference as a source of strong professional fulfilment and pride. There is, however, evident fear and disquiet around the changing context for provision under the outsourced framework contract.

Key points of conflict and differing practice have emerged, particularly around what happens to interpreter notes, production of translated statements for use in court and bilingual transcripts. Interpreters experience huge variation in practice and expectations, particularly as many work regularly for different police constabularies. If you work for the Met one day and travel to rural Lincolnshire the next, you are likely to be asked to work in quite different ways, especially as officers are likely to have been trained in different police interview techniques at different times.

New and emerging practices, for which linguists have not been trained, have also been reported. For example, interpreters are being ‘embedded’ in police investigations for a few weeks or even months at a time in order to sift, then translate, huge amounts of text that may be relevant to an investigation. This text is likely to be in challenging formats, such as instant messages, texts and emails.

As Krzysztof Kredens and I explained recently,6 this is likely to mean linguists working with content written across several languages and dialects, in a highly colloquial register, using innovative strategies to condense text, shared slang, fast-evolving terms and usage, and a high level of variability depending on the authors’ age, gender and other features. In transnational organised crime contexts, the texts’ authors are also likely to obscure content by using code words, for example. Throw idiosyncratic uses of emojis into the mix and you begin to grasp the demanding nature of this work.


Ethical and professional challenges

The work is not just (or even chiefly) linguistically demanding, as demonstrated in a scenario reported by some of the linguists we interviewed. Imagine taking a phone call offering an interpreting assignment at some point in the next few days. You’re asked to make yourself available for up to 48 hours in the coming week. No further details of timing or location can be given. You’ll be called on the day, then picked up at your home address in an unmarked car and should bring a change of clothes and toothbrush. You won’t be able to communicate with anyone for the 48 hours, and may not bring a mobile or laptop. Would you take the job? How would you prepare?

In suspected cases of human trafficking, this approach to booking linguists is sometimes essential to the success of the operation. The police may have to plan a raid on an address or series of locations to pick up suspects, victims and witnesses; it won’t be clear who is who. Many of them will be highly vulnerable and traumatised, perhaps including children. They may be hungry, injured or suffering from serious diseases, and are likely to be terrified by the raid, often conducted in the early hours of the morning when they are asleep. Interpreters may need to attend the raid itself, to allow officers to communicate with those being taken to Red Cross reception centres, where hours of interviews will be needed to ascertain whether crimes are being committed, and who the victims and suspects are. Secrecy is needed to ensure the operation’s success, particularly where a small close-knit linguistic community is involved.

The professional and ethical challenges are many and acute. They can often be attributed to conflicts between two different professional perspectives, and these can be particularly difficult to navigate in transnational organised crime contexts. Consider the interpreter’s need to prepare (even if just very brief details, such as the name and crime type) versus the police need for confidentiality or secrecy. Linguists reported arriving at the police station to learn they have been booked to interpret for a member of their own family, for instance.

From the police perspective, investigators have raised concerns at what they perceive as linguists’ refusal to assist them. Interpreters see themselves as neutral, rather than employed to help the police, but their police clients often do not, and voice frustration that linguists will not answer questions such as “Do you think he’s really from where he says he is?”.

Repeatedly in our interviews, both linguists and police have raised hard and important ethical problems. These can be categorised in three groups: ethical duties and dilemmas for linguists; ethical duties to linguists; and ethical duties and dilemmas in ensuring justice is served. For instance, what should linguists do when they witness bad practice by other linguists, or by their client (the police)? Linguists usually work in isolation. The content in police settings is highly confidential and may involve achieving a difficult balance between justice, individual human rights and effective policing against a ticking clock. Police have access to training, mentors, colleagues and support, but linguists often do not.

Even CIOL members who engage in continuing professional development and network with fellow members run the risk of vicarious trauma and desensitisation, given the nature of this work. And what about the untrained, unqualified bilinguals who are called on when no professional linguist is available? Do we, as trainers, qualified linguists or professional associations, have a duty of care to them, and the victims, witnesses, suspects and police they are trying to help? These are difficult questions. In the case of support for untrained bilinguals, training the clients (i.e. the police) is likely to be the only way to reach them, making it all the more important that national guidance and training are as effective as they can be.


Next steps

Work continues on the TOCAT project until September, with our focus shifting to a trial of the translated guidance and training in Belgium. Will this approach, devised and tested in the UK in English, be useful for officers working in Dutch in Belgium? In transnational organised crime contexts, it seems important – and ethical – to ensure that any practice demonstrated to be effective is shared widely across national borders.

We are conducting further interviews with linguists for certain ‘rare’ languages (i.e. difficult to source in UK justice settings), particularly those with experience in human trafficking cases. The police guidance and training materials are undergoing further review to take account of the evidence and feedback gathered during our research, ready for the approved version to be embedded in training nationally later this year.


This is an abridged version of the Threlford Memorial Lecture delivered at Members’ Day 2018. To hear the lecture in full, visit

The results of the TOCAT project will be presented at a conference on 14 September at Europe House, London. To join the provisional attendance list, email or contact the project team via

Dr Joanna Drugan is Professor of Translation at the University of East Anglia. Her research focuses on questions of translation ethics and quality, and she currently leads the Transnational Organised Crime and Translation research project.


1 Beare, M (2003), Critical Reflections on Transnational Organized Crime, Money Laundering and Corruption. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 3
2 ‘Transnational Organized Crime: The globalized illegal economy’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,
3 Ibid.
4 Allum, F and Gilmour, S (2011), Routledge Handbook of Transnational Organised Crime. London: Routledge, 2
5 ‘Multi-Agency Review of the Services provided to Victims of Child Sexual Exploitation in Kent’ (2016), Kent Safeguarding Children Board
6 Drugan, J and Kredens, K (2018) ‘Translation in Superdiverse Legal Contexts’. In The Routledge Handbook of Language and Superdiversity. London: Routledge