“Migration in Translation”, project by Jessica Mariani


 “Migration in Translation” project unveils how terms and words shape people’s perception of migrants and refugees in institutional communication.

As people have always moved around the world, migration has always been a factor in world history. Early humans were nomads travelling in search of shelter and safety and today people move for many different reasons, from economic to political, from cultural to religious or environmental. Although the concept of migration is as ancient as human beings are, we still encounter difficulties in expressing the legitimacy of these movements and, consequently, in finding the right terms to describe this concept and everything that relates to it.  The “Migration in Translation” project (MIT) was born from the hypothesis that a historical and socio-political phenomenon like the migration crisis can be looked at through the lens of terminology, especially in the multilingual setting of the European Parliament, which relies on standardised terminology across languages and translation. 

Photo by Paolo Pellegrini, 2015

Migration in Translation: what, why, how

The core of the “Migration in Translation” project was to investigate the role played by terminology and translation in shaping the migration crisis, identify the benefits and problems of institutional translation, and also to measure the impact of translation on communication. The project developed on two levels and was structured into two parts.      

The first aim was to take a closer look at how migrants have been represented over time (from 1950 until 2016) through the lens of terminology and translation in two typologies of institutional texts produced by the European Parliament: legislative texts and press releases. By conducting a detailed corpus analysis, the terminological fuzziness in the migration domain was investigated and empirical data confirmed the general trend denounced by several organisations like the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and some bodies within EU Institutions. The second aim was to take a sociological view of the texts and investigate authors and practices in their institutional settings. By conducting an ethnographic study of the institutional policies in two units of the European Parliament we hypothesised that the results obtained in the first part of the thesis might somehow be correlated to the processes implemented within the EU Institutions.

Research findings: how terms are born, live and die

The efforts made by the EU Institutions to discuss and address the migration crisis that has broken out in Europe since 2015 were marked by frequent debates and polemics, partly fed by imprecise and sometimes inflammatory terminology used in institutional texts to describe migrants. This process has been ongoing since the implementation of the Single European Act in 1983; before that, the concept of migrant was mainly related to work reasons and was expressed by terms like migrant worker or frontier worker. The concept of migrant as an umbrella term, absorbing different types of people moving for different reasons, appeared in Europe only in the 1980s ahead of the oil crisis, the Single European Act and all the treaties that followed (Maastricht Treaty, Amsterdam Treaty and Dublin Regulation).

As soon as new trends of migration erupted in the European Union between 1990 and 2012, a considerable number of new terms were coined and used in institutional texts, which made the representation of migrants more fragmented and organised into different categories, according to their conditions of entry, their rights and their legal definition in international treaties. This overflow of new terms contributed to overcoming a simplified representation of migrants, who move from country to country for different reasons and under distinct conditions. On the other hand, this fragmentation caused further confusion and obscurity in institutional texts. As concepts referring to migrants and illegal migrants were not clear and divided the political debate, terminology suffered from this lack of clarity and gave rise to ideological implications and mistranslations throughout the texts.

The term refugee was originally used in the 1970s with its legal meaning conferred by the Geneva Convention: those people who managed to have their status legally recognised. After 2015, the term refugee was de-terminologised, meaning that its specialised meaning was changed into a more general one, referring to people fleeing their countries for reasons beyond their control but who have not obtained the legal status of refugees yet.

The term asylum seeker first appeared in the 1990s but reached its peak in use only in 2009 and was previously included under the umbrella category of migrants.

Overall, migration terminology started to become standardised after 2000 while variation of equivalents was more common before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and the Dublin Regulation in 2003. Terms that referred to different concepts were used as synonyms like rifugiato and profugo, or rifugiato and richiedente asilo, immigrato and emigrante, which were all used as synonyms for migrant. 

The following figure illustrates all the actors involved in the terminology process that are responsible, in different ways, for harmonising terminology across the EU Institutions


Towards humanisation of migrants and refugees

Translation served as a means to change the perception of migrants in institutional texts, so that they would not be perceived only as objects of policies. More general terms like persone (people), cittadini (citizens) or paraphrasing strategies like persone bisognose di protezione internazionale (beneficiaries of international protection) were increasingly used from the 21st century onwards, humanising the discourse revolving around migrants and reversing the trend of institutional translation as being regulated only by rigid and standardised norms.

 Background Information

The MIT project is a four-year research (PhD level) by Dr. Jessica Mariani funded by the Italian Ministry for University and Research and conducted between the University of Verona and Mantua (supervision by Prof. Facchinetti), the European Parliament Press Unit in Brussels (supervision by Federico de Girolamo) and the Terminology Coordination Unit in Luxembourg (supervision by Rodolfo Maslias). Other scholars from the following universities were involved as external supervisors: Prof. Lynne Bowker (University of Ottawa), Prof. Luc van Doorslaer (KU Leuven), Prof. Kaisa Koskinen (University of Tampere). The MIT project was presented in 2015 at the Translating Europe Forum held at the European Commission in Brussels and  received tin 2018 the EAFT Award for Outstanding Achievement in Terminology Research and Development during the Terminology Summit in San Sebastiàn.

Author: Jessica Mariani holds a PhD in Media and Translation Studies from the University of Verona and is  certified Terminology Manager from ECQA. Born as a communicator, Jessica has moved between journalism, political communication and academic teaching across several EU countries. “Migration in Translation” is a joint research project funded by the Italian Ministry of University and Research and conducted in collaboration with the European Parliament Press Unit and the Terminology Coordination Unit.