Medical Humanities’ Translational Core: Remodelling the Field

Ahead of next week’s Translation and Medical Humanities conference at the University of Oxford, Marta Arnaldi and Charles Forsdick launch the conference takeover by imagining medical humanities as a fundamentally translational field.

Multilingualism and interdisciplinarity

There is a growing recognition that the success of a series of urgent recent developments in arts, humanities and social sciences research and teaching – relating, for instance, to decolonization, reparation, sustainability and an active embrace of ecological concerns – depend on the active integration of multiple perspectives, often reliant on access to multiple languages. The privileging of multilingualism challenges not only Anglocentrism in scholarship (often perpetuated by the global academic publishing industry and other institutional structures), but also the anglonormativity that this generates (as well as the limitation of epistemological diversity it implies). As those in the arts, humanities and social sciences increasingly explore the meanings of interdisciplinarity for addressing the complex challenges of the twenty-first century, there is an emphasis on the importance of brokering relationships between those in “distant” STEM disciplines. At the same time, however, if the negotiation of such differences is to be taken seriously, there is a parallel need to promote a linguistic sensitivity at the heart of such interdisciplinary working. For collaboration and the creation of new research practices across disciplines inevitably remain limited if they are restricted to the monolingual, which means, more often than not, restricted to English. Understanding interdisciplinarity in such multilingual frames accentuates the decompartmentalization that such an approach implies, opening it up to new methods and bodies of knowledge.

Multilingual medical humanities

The importance of nurturing such linguistic sensitivity in the specific field of the medical humanities has recently been explored by Steven Wilson (2023) in a manifesto on the subject. Building on its author’s work on the languages of COVID-19 (Blumczynski and Wilson 2022; see also Blumczynski and Wilson 2023), this intervention makes it clear that any “critical” or “second wave” medical humanities, dependent on what Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods (2016, 8), as quoted by Wilson (2023), have called “creative boundary-crossing,” requires understanding such a development not only in methodological but also in cultural or linguistic terms – especially as the field grapples increasingly with crises with global dimensions. Such encounters with unfamiliarity involve a sensitivity to cultural context and also what Wilson (2023, n. p.) dubs a “need for linguistic hospitality.” In combination, such methods have the potential to permit “a more comprehensive encounter with the voices and perspectives of diverse global populations” (Wilson 2023, n. p.), an approach that has implications for the inclusivity of medical research and clinical practice, as well as public health.

Beyond English as the language of science

These developments in the medical humanities resonate with broader debates in scientific literature about the importance of languages and cultures. As Michael Gordin noted in Scientific Babel (2015), the emergence of English as the lingua franca of the STEM subjects is a relatively recent phenomenon. Recent papers have explored the extent to which this development is an impediment to the involvement of non-native English speakers in science, creating barriers to the career development of researchers whose languages lack recognition and validation (Amano 2023). Linguistic bias in research assessment and the association of English-language publications with high impact factor journals can lead to the downgrading of knowledge disseminated in local languages (Pölönen et al. 2021). Building on these reflections, others have argued for the need for science communication in multiple languages as a means of extending access to scientific knowledge and encouraging greater engagement at grassroots level (Márquez and Porras 2020). At the same time, there is evidence of a growing reflection of the role of multilingualism in the creation of knowledge, a development particularly evident in the field of biodiversity, where a pluralistic approach, drawing not least on indigenous epistemologies, depends on openness to a broader range of linguistic contexts.

Source: Image 21a in “La selva sanadora: plantas medicinales y tóxicas del noroeste del Amazonas“ (2009).
With thanks to Georgia Nasseh for designing the conference poster.

From the multilingual to the translational

Conversations about the need for greater linguistic sensitivity in the medical humanities are part, therefore, of a much broader set of debates about multilingualism and the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. In the manifesto cited above, Wilson (2023, n. p.) makes it clear that attention to a broader range of languages leads to a broader reflection on “the importance of effective interpreting and translation in navigating the multilingual world.” The acknowledgement of multilingualism as part of the lived reality of the majority of the world’s population is certainly central to any challenge to the ideological monolingualism that risks underpinning monoglot approaches to medical education and practice. An emphasis on multilingualism stresses the existence of diverse languages in the field of health. But complementing this with a reflection on the translational allows us to address the ways in which such multiplicity is negotiated, while also moving beyond the linguistic to explore the other variables – cultural, epistemological, practical – on which any medical humanities genuinely open to the world will depend.

Translational thinking

For translation is a way of thinking. In addition to defining the transfer of meaning between languages and cultures, it is a philosophy and an epistemology based upon, and serving, an Other-oriented agenda. Translation can be seen as the “science-art of alterity” in that it provides concepts and tools with which we can better understand, interact and communicate with the Other in all its forms – linguistic, cultural, disciplinary and/or non-human (Arnaldi 2022a, 2-3). This vantage point opens up a radically innovative and more fertile horizon for the medical humanities, one that is fundamentally “entangled” and creatively implicated not just with the interdisciplinary and the multilingual, but also with the ecological, technological and planetary. From this perspective, there are no hierarchies of knowledge, bodies or beings when it comes to a more just and equitable understanding of health and disease across languages, cultures, disciplines and ecosystems. There is no human health outside of, or without, planetary health, and vice versa. Holistic wellbeing relies upon processes of relationality and communication that are translational in nature. This capacious and courageous comprehension of translation takes seriously the term’s theoretical and methodological potential to explore the many languages and cultures that make up our own as well as other species’ worlds.

Translational medical humanities

Building upon a rich body of works produced at the intersection of medical humanities, translation studies, social theory and ecocriticism, we – Marta Arnaldi and Charles Forsdick, together with our colleagues Eivind Engebretsen and John Ødemark – have imagined a translational medical humanities. This is not, as it may seem at a first glance, a new dimension of medical humanities. We argue instead that translation has underlain medical humanities discourse from the beginnings, and unceasingly, not only because of the inherently translational nature of medical humanities, as a field that moves across, and carries within itself, a number of perspectives, methodologies and disciplines, but also as a consequence of the Other-oriented agenda – denationalised, decentralised, dewesternised – implicated by its critical (Whitehead et al. 2016) and multilingual (Wilson 2023) turns, as well as by its queer (Dalton 2022), postcolonial (Howell 2018) and artificially intelligent (Ostherr 2020) inflections.

Understood in this way, translational medical humanities harnesses and mobilises precisely those principles and values that make this field radical: biocultural diversity and inclusivity; linguistic, cultural and disciplinary hospitality as the capacity to reconfigure boundaries; attention towards the margins and the marginalised; complex, ecological and processual thinking; non-hierarchical knowledge and practices; and epistemic hybridisation and justice.

Translational medical humanities also offers a way of studying translation under a unified lens. A key trope across biomedicine, the social sciences and the humanities alike, albeit differently used and understood, translation is still analysed and comprehended along separate lines of enquiry. The time has come to ask, honestly and comprehensively, what translation is and does to, and in, contexts of health and disease. We explore(d) ways of addressing this question in a forthcoming book, as well as in a number of co-authored articles and collaborative projects (e.g. Arnaldi et al. 2022; Engebretsen et al. 2020).

Image credit: Eoin Kelleher.

The first international conference on this idea

In an attempt to place translation at the heart of the medical humanities, we acknowledge that it is fundamental to listen to a plurality of voices. We therefore invited scholars across a variety of disciplines and around the world to contribute their visions. Translation and Medical Humanities, a conference taking place at the University of Oxford on 5-6 September 2023, will explore the interface between translation studies and medical humanities by mobilising ideas of wellbeing, health and disease across space and time. We asked different stakeholders to use translation, broadly construed, as a medium to invoke the role of the arts, humanities and social sciences as “essential services” for medicine and health care. Simultaneously, in the spirit of reciprocity in cross-disciplinary research, we prompted colleagues to reappraise the significance of biomedical advancements in the shaping of our linguistic, cultural and societal ecosystems. The response to our call was overwhelmingly positive, and we are now excited to share the programme of what promises to be a transformational journey across, and beyond, the critical, the multilingual and the non-human. In the conference’s frontier zone, translational understandings of health and disease are likely to become observable for the first time, and/or to be produced, as are interdisciplinary and creative formations that will reshuffle our beliefs of what counts as science, scholarship, or knowledge.

Translational applications

But the translational is not solely a site of theoretical and methodological reconfiguration. The essays that will follow this introductory piece – the first of six making up the conference’s “takeover” – showcase many of the applications enabled by a translational medical humanities. Among these approaches are translation as transmission of ideas and diseases, translation and/as (m)otherhood, translation and AI in the face of disease, knowledge translation and translation as a form of writing therapy and illness narrative. For more details, we refer to the richness of the conference programme. The contributions forming the conference’s takeover will reveal ways in which a translational medical humanities may bring into focus, under the same lens, the most urgent forms that the discipline is taking. They will also show how translation is, in itself, a self-critical notion and practice that invites us to question our beliefs and values, including the idea that translation is necessarily a good thing, causing no harm.

We hope that this conference will provide a space for epistemic questioning and crossing; that it can contribute to a more genuinely interdisciplinary and just medical humanities, one that does not endorse dominant views, but, rather, laterally shifts and moves across them. We also hope that some of the ideas expressed in this piece will become, translationally, something else…

You can register to attend the conference online here (registration for in-person participation has now closed).

About the authors

Marta Arnaldi is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Oxford and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo. She is the author of five books, including a monograph and three award-winning poetry collections. A scholar of Italian and comparative literature, Marta has an interdisciplinary background including medical training. She is the founder and leader of Translating Illness, a medical humanities research project and international network. You can follow Marta on Twitter.

Charles Forsdick has recently been elected to the Drapers Professorship of French at the University of Cambridge, a post he will hold from October 2023. He has been James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool since 2001. Charles is a specialist on travel writing and postcolonial literature. He has also published widely on French colonial history and memory. From 2012-20, he was Arts and Humanities Research Council Theme Leadership Fellow for Translating Cultures, overseeing a portfolio of around 120 projects on translation, interpreting and multilingualism. Former chair of the REF2021 Modern Languages and Linguistics subpanel, Charles has been British Academy Lead Fellow for Languages since September 2023.


Amano, Tatsuya. 2023. “Non-native English speaking scientists work much harder just to keep up, global research reveals.” The Conversation (Europe edition), 18 July 2023.

Arnaldi, Marta. 2022a. “Contagious Otherness: Translating Communicable Diseases in the Modern Italian and Francophone Novel.” Open Library of Humanities 8 (1).

Arnaldi, Marta, Eivind Engebretsen, and Charles Forsdick. 2022. “Translating COVID-19: From Contagion to Containment.” Journal of Medical Humanities 43: 387-404.

Blumczynski, Piotr, and Steven Wilson. 2023. “COVID-19 and the importance of languages in public health.” Languages, Society and Policy.

Blumczynski, Piotr, and Steven Wilson, eds. 2022. The Languages of COVID-19: Translational and Multilingual Perspectives on Global Healthcare. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Dalton, Benjamin. 2022. “Queer, Plastic Residues: Biological Mutability and Queer Resistance in Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (2017) and the Work of Catherine Malabou.” Modern & Contemporary France 30 (2): 193–208.

Engebretsen, Eivind, Gina Fraas Henrichsen, and John Ødemark. 2020. “Towards a Translational Medical Humanities: Introducing the Cultural Crossings of Care.” Medical Humanities 46: e2.

Gordin, Michael. 2015. Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English. New York: Profile Books.

Howell, Jessica. 2018. “Coda: Toward a Postcolonial Health Humanities.” In Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire, 196–200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Márquez, Melissa C., and Ana Maria Porras. 2020. “Science Communication in Multiple Languages Is Critical to Its Effectiveness.” Frontiers in Communication 5.

Ostherr, Kirsten. 2022. “Artificial Intelligence and Medical Humanities.” The Journal of Medical Humanities 43 (2): 211–232.

Pölönen, Janne, Emanuel Kulczycki, Henriikka Mustajok and Vidar Røegge. 2021. “Multilingualism is integral to accessibility and should be part of European research assessment reform.” LSE Impact Blog, December 7, 2021.

Upadhyay, Ramanjaney Kumar, and S. Imtiaz Hasnain. 2017. “Linguistic diversity and biodiversity.” Lingua 195: 110–23.

Wilson, Steven. 2023. “Manifesto for a Multilingual Medical Humanities.” The Polyphony, 30 May.

Whitehead, Anne, and Angela Woods. 2016. “Introduction.” In The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, edited by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, 1–31. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Further reading

Arnaldi, Marta. 2022b. “Illness as a Foreign Tongue: Therapeutic Translation in Contemporary Italian Women’s Poetry.” Literature and Medicine 40 (2): 295–325.

Arnaldi, Marta. 2022c. “Translational Futures: Notes on Ecology and Translation from the COVID-19 Crisis.” In The Languages of COVID-19: Transnational and Multicultural Perspectives on Global Healthcare, edited by Steven Wilson and Piotr Blumczynsky, 249–265. London: Routledge.

Arnaldi, Marta. 2021. “The Translational Imagination.” In Poetry in the Clinic: Towards a Lyrical Medicine, edited by Alan Bleakley and Shane Neilson, 295–98. London: Routledge.

Kristeva Julia, Marie Rose Moro, John Ødemark, and Eivind Engebretsen. 2018. “Cultural Crossings of Care: An Appeal to the Medical Humanities.” Medical Humanities 44: 55-58.

Marais, Kobus. 2018. A (Bio)semiotic Theory of Translation: The Emergence of Social-cultural Reality. London: Routledge.

Marini, Maria Giulia. 2018. Languages of Care in Narrative Medicine: Words, Space and Time in the Healthcare Ecosystem. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Ødemark, John and Eivind Engebretsen. 2022. “Challenging Medical Knowledge Translation: Convergence and Divergence of Translation Across Epistemic and Cultural Boundaries.” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 9.

Susam-Saraeva, Şebnem and Eva Spišiaková, eds. 2021. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Health. London: Routledge.

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