Interpreting for Vulnerable Populations

Interpreting for Vulnerable Populations

Just. Journal of Language Rights and Minorities, Revista de Drets Lingüístics i Minories

Guest editors:

Lucía Ruiz-Rosendo & Conor Martin


Vulnerability is often defined as “being at increased risk of harm or having reduced capacity or power to protect one’s interests” (Mackenzie 2013, 34). Vulnerable people are considered as such because of disparities in physical, economic, social, and health status when compared with the dominant population (Rukmana 2014) which make them more prone to situations of neediness, dependence, victimhood, or helplessness, and more in need of “special safeguards, supports, or services to protect them or enable them to protect themselves” (Scully 2013, 205). Along these lines, as Mackenzie (2013, 34) posits, some authors study the notion of “vulnerability” in contrast to the concept of “autonomy” by associating the latter with “ideals of substantive independence and self-determination.” Similarly, another conception of vulnerability is linked to a population’s access to social protections afforded by the State—the weaker these protections, and the more difficulty a population has in accessing them, the more vulnerable the population becomes (Castel 1995). Castel argues that vulnerability is not synonymous with exclusion from a dominant population, but rather a state which occurs through the gradual disaffiliation of individuals and populations from a state of dominance through the erosion of protections. Considering these definitions, some of the vulnerable populations identified in relevant literature are children (Bagattini 2019); people with disabilities (Scully 2013); people with mental illnesses (Atkinson 2007); patients with dementia, elderly people, refugees and asylum seekers (Strokosch & Osborne 2016; Grubb & Frederiksen 2022).

Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2013) posit that, as social and affective beings, we are emotionally and psychologically vulnerable to others in myriad ways: to loss and grief; to neglect, abuse, and lack of care; to rejection, ostracism, and humiliation. As sociopolitical beings, when our capacities for participation (in various parts of our lives) are restricted, we are vulnerable to exploitation, manipulation, oppression, political violence, and rights abuses (Strokosch & Osborne 2016; Fleming & Osborne 2019). In the context of social-ecological systems, vulnerability is usually defined as susceptibility to being harmed (Adger 2006) when confronted with the impact of the environment on our actions and well-being. Moreover, there are crises, such as a pandemic or a natural disaster, that reinforce and amplify some of the pre-existing inequalities in groups already presenting heightened vulnerability to economic and social hardship (intersectional vulnerabilities). All these different definitions and nuanced perspectives suggest that the study of vulnerability and of vulnerable populations involves the examination of complex notions whose implications are intertwined with a specific time and space and with a specific context. In the same vein, there is no binary split between vulnerable and non-vulnerable populations, rather, there are gradual degradations and multiple zones of vulnerability into which a population or individual might fall. Consequently, one may argue that the notion of vulnerability is not one that inherently applies to an individual or population: in other words, the notion of vulnerability is dependent on a particular time and place.

Based on the same dependencies, language can also engender vulnerability. For example, individuals with limited capacity in the dominant language of a given space (country, region, city, organisation) can be described as vulnerable. Whilst it is true that even citizens who speak the dominant language can be considered as vulnerable people, not speaking the dominant language of a given space places the individual in a state of heightened vulnerability when defending their cause (in courts or police stations), conveying their health issues (healthcare), or accessing education. Language can also create vulnerabilities for otherwise dominant populations: in the context of a crisis (be it an armed conflict, a natural disaster or a pandemic) local citizens often face linguistic and cultural barriers when accessing the aid offered by international humanitarian organisations.

In order to mitigate language-engendered vulnerability, interpreters are recruited both by national public services to work with vulnerable populations in different contexts: with migrant children (Sultanic 2022); people with mental health issues (Bot 2008); asylum seekers (Määttä, Puumala & Ylikomi 2021); or refugees (González Campanella 2022), among others. International organisations also recruit interpreters to provide aid to populations who find themselves in vulnerable situations in their own country as a consequence of a crisis, such as the ICRC (International Commission of the Red Cross) (Kherbiche 2009; Delgado Luchner & Kherbiche 2018) the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) (Todorova 2016, 2017, 2019); MSF (Médecins sans frontières, Doctors without Borders); or the United Nations, with its human rights missions (Ruiz Rosendo, Barghout & Martin 2021), among others. Furthermore, international organisations, such as the United Nations and others, host fora allowing vulnerable populations to speak directly to the organisation or through NGOs, such as at the UN Human Rights Council or Treaty Bodies, for which interpreters are also recruited.

Against this backdrop, this special issue will showcase the need for addressing and foregrounding language and cultural issues, with a particular focus on interpreters, in the discussion of the challenges faced by people in situations of vulnerability in different contexts and settings. Additionally, this special issue will show that more research is needed to shed light on aspects that further complicate the issues stemming from language-engendered asymmetrical power relations between vulnerable and dominant populations within a given time and space.

Just. Journal of Language Rights and Minorities, Revista de Drets Lingüístics i Minories is seeking submissions for a special monographic issue on the topic of interpreting for vulnerable populations. The issue aspires to drive the debate on the challenges that interpreters face when working with vulnerable populations and communities in different contexts and settings, their positionality and the role(s) they adopt as agents of communication.

Researchers are invited to submit articles in English, Spanish or Catalan. Papers are expected to represent research across a wide range of disciplines, as well as inter- and transdisciplinary studies. It is our belief that more interdisciplinary discussion among scholars from translation studies, social sciences, anthropology, political sciences, development studies, and natural sciences, among other fields, is needed. We welcome any article that contributes to our understanding of interpreting for vulnerable populations. In preparing their submission, which should focus principally on the linguistic and interpreting aspects of the topic in question, contributors may wish to consider and address the following guiding questions:


  • Who are vulnerable populations, particularly when viewed from a linguistic and cultural standpoint? How does the researcher’s positionality impact the study of vulnerable populations?
    1. Is vulnerability a fixed characteristic, or a shifting and relative aspect of positionality? How does vulnerability interact with other elements of these populations’ positionalities?
    2. How do researchers manage their positionality when researching vulnerable populations?
    3. Is vulnerability expressed in the context of asymmetrical power relations? If so, how?
    4. What is the difference between a vulnerable population and a vulnerable individual?
  • What characterises “interpreting for vulnerable populations”?
    1. What is the positionality of interpreters working for vulnerable populations, particularly in terms of training (formal or otherwise, including training through membership of a community of practice and learning by doing) and experience?
    2. Where and in what contexts do interpreters work for vulnerable populations? (PSI contexts; crisis, humanitarian and conflict-related scenarios; (international) conferences or human rights fora)
    3. What languages (signed and spoken) are most often represented?
  • Can, and should, a single paradigm represent “interpreting for vulnerable populations”?
    1. What existing fields address or have addressed vulnerable populations?
    2. How should future studies address this topic?
    3. What are the common challenges and difficulties faced by non-vulnerable users and interpreters when working with vulnerable populations in different settings?
    4. To what extent could interpreters help vulnerable populations to respond to vulnerability by promoting autonomy, be it linguistic or otherwise?


Just. Journal of Language Rights & Minorities, Revista de Drets Lingüístics i Minories is a journal dedicated to disseminating scholarship on the protection, enforcement, and promotion of the rights of linguistic minorities as well as related themes arising from the confluence of language, the social dynamics of dominance and oppression, and the law. Interested authors are invited to send their expression of interest to the guest editors: Lucía Ruiz Rosendo ( and Conor Martin ( by 15th May 2023. They are also invited to send full manuscripts to them by 1st November 2023. A full manuscript should be between 6000 and 8000 words in length (exclusive of abstract and references but including footnotes). Every manuscript will be submitted to a double-blind peer review that includes at least two referees. Please include a brief bionote about the authors and their affiliations in a separate file. All abstracts and manuscripts should use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) for both citation ( and drafting. A summary of the drafting CMS guidelines is available in Just’s author guidelines (


The publication of this special issue will adhere to the following editorial timeline:


Submission of full manuscripts

1 November 2023

Comments to authors (peer-review)

15 January 2024*

Final versions of papers

15 February 2024

Decision to authors

1 April 2024

Publication of special issue

23 April 2024

* Due to the number of proposals received, the deadline for authors to receive comments on their paper proposals has been extended.




Adger, W. Neil. 2006. “Vulnerability.” Global environmental change 16: 268–281.

Atkinson, Jacqueline M. 2007. “Protecting or empowering the vulnerable? Mental illness, communication and the research process.” Research Ethics Review 3 (4): 134–138.

Bagattini, Alexander. 2019. “Children’s well-being and vulnerability.” Ethics and Social Welfare 13 (3): 211–215.

Bot, Hanneke. 2018. “Interpreting for vulnerable people–Cooperation between professionals.” Current Trends in Translation Teaching and Learning 5: 47–70.

Castel, Robert. 1995. Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Paris: Gallimard.

Delgado Luchner, Carmen & Leila Kherbiche. 2018. “Without fear or favour? The positionality of ICRC and UNHCR interpreters in the humanitarian field.” Target 30 (3): 408–429.

Flemig, Sarah S. & Stephen P. Osborne. 2019. “The dynamics of co-production in the context of social care personalisation: Testing theory and practice in a Scottish context.” Journal of Social Policy 48 (4): 671–697.

González Campanella, Alejandra. 2022. “Trauma informs so much of what happens: Interpreting refugee-background clients in Aotearoa New Zealand.” Perspectives (first online).

Grubb, Ane & Morten Frederiksen. 2022. “Speaking on behalf of the vulnerable? Voluntary translations of citizen needs to policy in community co-production.” Public Management Review 24 (12): 1894–1913.

Kherbiche, Leila. 2009. Interprètes de l'ombre et du silence : entre cris et chuchotements (Réflexion sur l'interprétation dans un contexte humanitaire auprès du CICR). Unpublished MA thesis. University of Geneva.

Mackenzie, Catriona. 2013. “The importance of relational autonomy and capabilities for an ethics of vulnerability.” In Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy, edited by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers & Susan Dodds, 33–59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackenzie, Catriona, Wendy Rogers & Susan Dodds, eds. 2013. Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Määttä, Simo K., Eeva Puumala & Riitta Ylikomi. 2021. “Linguistic, psychological and epistemic vulnerability in asylum procedures: An interdisciplinary approach.” Discourse Studies 23 (1): 46–66.

Ruiz Rosendo, Lucía, Alma Barghout & Conor Martin. 2021. “Interpreting on UN field missions: A training programme”. The Interpreter and Translator Trainer 15 (4): 450–467.

Rukmana, Desdén. 2014. “Vulnerable Populations.” In Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research, edited by Alex C. Michalos, 6989–6992. Dordrecht: Springer.

Scully, Jackie L. 2013. “Disability and vulnerability: On bodies, dependence, and power.” In Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy, edited by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers & Susan Dodds, 204–221. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Strokosch, Kirsty & Stephen P. Osborne. 2016. “Asylum seekers and the co-production of public services: Understanding the implications for social inclusion and citizenship.” Journal of Social Policy 45 (4): 673–690.

Sultanic, Indira. 2022. “Interpreting for vulnerable populations. Training and education of interpreters working with refugee children in the United States.” In Interpreter training in conflict and post-conflict scenarios, edited by Lucia Ruiz Rosendo & Marija Todorova, 114–128. London: Routledge.

Todorova, Marija. 2016. “Interpreting conflict mediation in Kosovo and Macedonia.” Linguistica Antverpiensia15: 227–240.

Todorova, Marija. 2017. “Interpreting at the border: “Shuttle interpreting” for the UNHCR.” Clina 3 (2): 115–129.

Todorova, Marija. 2019. “Interpreting for refugees: Empathy and activism.” In Intercultural crisis communication: Translation, interpreting, and languages in local crises, edited by Federico Federici & Christophe Declercq, 153–173. London: Bloomsbury Academics.