70.1 February 2023

Visual Translation, Design, and Language Justice: A Case Study from North Central Florida


By Valentina Sierra-Niño and Laura Gonzales


Purpose: This article presents a case study of how a bilingual technical communicator and a bilingual visual designer collaborated to visualize stories of language access in North Central Florida.

Method: We combined participatory methods used in technical communication (Agboka, 2013; Rose and Cardinal, 2018) with interviews and design methods (Gonzalez Viveros et al., 2020) from both technical communication and visual design. The goal of the study was to document the languages spoken by immigrant community members in North Central Florida, to interview immigrant community members about their languages, and to transform interview data into visual designs that could inspire conversation about language justice in our community.

Results: By transforming interview data into visual designs (i.e., collages), we were able to understand the complexity that language plays in the lives of multilingual communities, gaining insights into both the challenges and the advantages of speaking multiple languages as immigrants in North Central Florida.

Conclusion: We encourage other technical communication and design researchers to implement visual data approaches in their work, particularly when working with participants whose language histories span beyond white American Englishes. As technical communication continues expanding into more global contexts and as language diversity continues to be a reality in contemporary technical communication work, interdisciplinary collaborations among technical communicators, translators, and designers, will continue to gain importance and impact, particularly in community-driven projects.

Keywords: Translation, Community Engagement, Design, Language Access

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Translation in technical communication requires attention to culture, power, and collaboration
  • Collaborations between technical communicators and visual designers can provide additional insights into the role that translation plays in contemporary technical communication research
  • Multilingual communities value language as a critical part of their identity
  • The use of visual design, in this case, in the form of collages as a visual language, can open opportunities for dialogue with multilingual communities beyond the barriers of written and spoken languages
  • The use of visual language as part of translation can help facilitate meaning-making processes and make visible the connections between language and identity

Translation has long been a part of technical communication research, particularly in global contexts. Technical communicators were originally defined as “translators” of information who could make technical information accessible for broader audiences (Slack et al., 1993). With the continued globalization of the field, technical communication researchers continue expanding definitions of translation and its connection to technical communication research, practice, and pedagogies. Particularly during the social justice turn in technical communication (Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019), translation and language diversity, more broadly, continue to be emphasized by technical communication researchers invested in working collaboratively with multilingual communities in both local and global contexts (Agboka, 2013; Dorpenyo, 2019; Gonzales, 2018; Pihlaja & Durá, 2020; Walton, Zraly, & Mugengana, 2015).

For example, researchers such as Godwin Agboka (2013) and Isidore Dorpenyo (2019) emphasize the role that translation and localization play in designing information with and for multilingual communities in the Global South. Agboka (2013) advocates for a participatory approach to localization, which considers collaboration between users and designers as critical to the development and implementation of multilingual tools and technologies. Other researchers, such as Massimo Verzella (2017), emphasize the role that translators play in the development of technical information, making important connections between translators, technical communicators, and user experience researchers. As Verzella (2017) explains, “translators can be seen as users who are also producers of meaning, and translation an act of mediation enacted through the negotiation of meaning making meaning-making. Importantly, translators can help development teams understand what type of cultural differences are relevant for user experience design, how much language matters in design, and what adjustments are necessary to prepare digital products and documentation for localization” (p. 54). Since texts are “not always designed with goodwill in mind,” the mere translation of information from one language to another does not guarantee language access (Jones & Williams, 2018, p. 371). Indeed, as Natasha N. Jones and Miriam F. Williams (2018) explain, “texts and technologies that are complicit in supporting and promoting oppressive practices have social, cultural, embodied, and material impacts on communities” (p. 371). These impacts, and the oppression they perpetuate, can be extended when translation is performed incorrectly and without attention to power and rhetorical effects. Thus, as Cardinal et al. (2021) articulate, “When thinking about how practitioners and scholars design communication for linguistically and culturally diverse audiences, we must ask these specific questions: Whose communication practices, cultures, and languages are at the center of an organization? Who, thus, needs access due to the marginalization of their languages? Who has the power to grant access within these configurations?” (p. 39). These questions are important not only for agencies and organizations seeking to follow language access laws but also for technical communicators interested in collaborating with multilingual communities to design and share multilingual materials and resources that facilitate effective communication and information design.

In her study of informed consent documents in translation, Tatiana Batova (2010) also highlights how cultural differences embedded in technical documents are often lost in translation, providing strategies for how technical communicators can work with translators to adapt and transform information across languages to maximize usability. This work demonstrates that there are multiple approaches to practicing translation and collaborating with translators in technical communication research.

Translation is a culturally-based practice that requires attunement to community knowledge, power dynamics, and the relationships between researchers and target audiences. Much of the existing literature on translation and technical communication points to the fact that providing language access, or making information accessible across languages, requires much more than the transformation of words from one language to another (Sun, 2012; Agboka, 2013). Translation is not just the transformation of words in one language for the equivalent words in another language. Instead, translation is just one component of successful language access and requires the rhetorical negotiation of meaning not only across languages but also across cultures and worldviews (Gonzales, 2018). As Cardinal et al. (2021) explain in their discussion of language justice, “an access framework mostly focuses on translation and interpreting only when asked for and lacks a holistic approach. While it is very important that communities do have information in their own language, translation and interpretation are only one piece of the puzzle” (p. 39). In other words, making information accessible across languages can encompass translation. Still, it requires close collaboration between various stakeholders invested in designing successful multilingual and cross-lingual experiences and interactions.

Building on this research, in this article, we present a case study of how we, a bilingual technical communication researcher and teacher and a bilingual visual designer, researcher, and teacher, are collaborating on a project to make visible, in literal terms, the importance and dynamic nature of language access. We argue that as technical communication researchers continue working with and as translators in the development of technical information for multilingual audiences, they should embrace a shift from language access to language justice. Given the increased need to address issues of language diversity when developing and sharing technical information, as evidenced, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, technical communicators should continue working with visual designers and multilingual community members to illustrate the dynamic nature of language and its role in effective communication design. As technical communication continues expanding into more global contexts, and as language diversity continues to be a reality in contemporary technical communication work, interdisciplinary collaborations among technical communicators, translators, and designers will continue to gain importance and impact, particularly in community-driven projects (Cardinal et al., 2021).

From Language Access to Language Justice

Research in technical communication has expanded the field’s understanding of translation and its role in making information accessible to multilingual audiences. For example, in their work helping a nonprofit organization to translate health-related information, Rose et al. (2017) point to the fact that “translation and translators have a critical role” within multilingual technical communication research. Other scholars, such as Agboka (2013) and Walton et al. (2015), explain that translators are not just transformers of meaning in a research project but can instead influence the entirety of a research and design process and should be considered integral to technical communication teams.

In industry contexts, there have also been important distinctions and clarifications made regarding the role that translators and translation play in community participation. For example, the group, Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE), designed a “Language Access Toolkit” that provides guidelines for organizations seeking to better serve multilingual community members. CCHE makes a distinction between language access and language justice. Language access is a Civil Right protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as Executive Order 13166, which “requires Federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them” (Arguelles et al., 2011). While language access laws require organizations receiving federal funding to provide access to information for community members who speak languages other than English, language justice efforts move beyond the minimum requirements of the law. Instead, according to CCHE, “Language justice is about building and sustaining multilingual spaces in our organizations and social movements so that everyone’s voice can be heard both as an individual and as part of a diversity of communities and cultures. Valuing language justice means recognizing the social and political dimensions of language” (Arguelles et al., 2011). In other words, language justice emphasizes the importance of multilingual communities not only having access to information but also feeling as though they can participate and are included in the communication processes and protocols within a specific community or organization.

Acknowledging the social and political nature of language allows us to recognize that a lack of language access and language justice can have a significant impact on communities’ well-being. The distinction between compliance with basic regulations and a more comprehensive approach to information access is also noted by Evia and Patriarca (2012) in their work with technical communication for construction Latino workers in the U.S. The authors found that the documents that provide work safety information for workers “privilege utilitarian efficiency (compliance with regulations to protect companies) at the expense of critique and ethical action (ensuring that workers actually understand the rules)” (p. 342). While laws and regulations aim to guarantee a baseline for language access, actually providing language access requires attention to several complexities, such as demographics, advocacy groups, the political climate of each state, political agendas, and even the awareness that people, both providers and multilingual community members, have about these legal rights (Chen, Youdelman, & Brooks, 2007). Within these complexities, there are power imbalances. When working on translation and information design, technical communicators and designers can help balance those power inequalities through approaches that center communities’ needs and perspectives, including participatory design.

Participatory approaches are based on mutual learning between researchers and participants (Robertson & Simonsen, 2012). The meaning and the interactions that affect the roles within the power structures of communication are consciously articulated and negotiated (Evia & Patriarca, 2012). Participatory design seeks to include the experiences of multiple people both in the process and outcome of the design. Thus, participatory design can foster the ability to include different voices and perspectives. This is critical when working with multilingual audiences whose voices come in different languages, from different cultures, and have different ways of interpreting their lived experiences. According to Cardinal, Gonzales, and Rose (2020), participatory design can be used as an approach that “values the racial, linguistic and cultural diversity of contemporary audiences” when working with multilingual communities (p. 2).

Being aware of and respectful of racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity is critical to avoiding the misrepresentation of culture in information design. Misrepresentation and cultural appropriation can occur when “the translator adds, explains, replaces or omits source linguistic or visual elements at the expense of cultural concepts to achieve a functional equivalence.” (Bouziane, 2016, p.139). Besides the use of written language through letterforms, other kinds of visual elements such as photographs, weavings, and symbols are also “graphic counterparts to language, religion and identity” that, in multicultural power structures, might be at risk of being misrepresented (St John, 2018, p.257). In this article, we propose that language justice can be approached through the visual dimensions of language, specifically by leveraging the power of visuals in participatory design to illustrate the connections between language, culture, and identity.

Besides the perpetuation of power imbalances and misrepresentation of cultures, the lack of adequate language access services can bring profound negative consequences for individuals who do not speak the dominant language of a place. In contexts of global migration and language diversity, several examples show that language justice is needed. For example, a 13-year-old girl died in Texas in 1999 due to misunderstandings caused by language barriers between the English-speaking medical staff and the girl’s Spanish-speaking parents (Chen, Youdelman, & Brooks, 2007). In Sweden, there have been increasing reports of asylum-seeking children who suffer from Resignation Syndrome, a stuporous condition similar to catatonia. A major trigger that leads children to develop this condition is the stress and trauma generated when they have to translate, for their parents, migration documents with negative decisions (von Knorring & Hultcrantz, 2020). More recently, after the Uvalde massacre in Texas, where nineteen children and two teachers were fatally shot, the Texas House committee in charge of investigating the incident released a report written only in English. The committee stated that it would take weeks to have the report translated into Spanish even though more than 80% of Uvalde population is Hispanic or Latino and “half of residents age 5 or older speak a language other than English at home” (Carroll, 2022).

Following the work of technical communication researchers who expand the fields’ conception of translation beyond the transformation of words, and in alignment with community and industry groups such as the CCCHE and the Designing Language Access Group at the University of Washington-Tacoma, in this article, we demonstrate how technical communicators can work alongside translators and visual designers to further expand understandings of language access toward language justice efforts that are now more critically needed than ever. Specifically, we document a project that we are working on in an attempt to make visible, in literal terms, how language access encompasses much more than translation, and how communities, technical communicators, and visual designers can come together to illustrate the importance of language access in their local contexts. To begin, we provide some background on our community context in North Central Florida, noting how visualizing language access in our community helped to demystify stereotypes about multilingual community members and their connections to language and place.

About North Central Florida

The case study we document in this article took place primarily in Gainesville, Florida, as well as other cities within North Central Florida. Although language diversity is understood as a present reality in large Florida cities such as Miami and Orlando, less attention is paid to the language diversity present in rural North Central Florida cities. Yet, immigrant populations are increasing in these regions (New American Economy, 2021). For example, the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative Blueprint, produced by a coalition of community organizations in the City of Gainesville and Alachua County in 2022, cites that in 2019, there were 14,800 immigrants living in Gainesville, Florida. From 2014 to 2019, the total population of Gainesville increased by 2.8%, and 24.4% of the total population growth in the city was attributable to immigrants (New American Economy, 2021). The top five countries of origin for immigrants living in Gainesville include China, Venezuela, Cuba, India, and the Philippines (New American Economy, 2021). While there may be an assumption that Spanish is the language other than English most spoken in North Central Florida, there is an increase in other languages spoken within this city, including Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and multiple Indigenous languages from Latin America.

It is important to note that attaining data on the languages spoken in any city is difficult work, particularly because immigrants are not always visible in their communities. Documentation processes like the census create fear and a lack of response from immigrant community members who are undocumented and/or who are unable to access census information in their languages and in their communities. For this reason, projects like the case study we share in this article can help to make visible the language diversity present in a city, encouraging immigrant community members to share their stories of language access and increase representation. In the case of this project, visualizing language access through participation from multilingual communities helped us advocate for the need to increase language access services in our local city, county, and beyond.

Combining Technical Communication and Design Methodologies

We introduce a case study to help illustrate how collaborations between technical communicators and visual designers can expand possibilities for understanding the role that language plays in multilingual communities. According to John Gerring (2004), a “case study is best defined as an intensive study of a single unit with an aim to generalize across a larger set of units” (p. 341). Furthermore, Gerring (2004) clarifies, “the case study method is correctly understood as a particular way of defining cases, not a way of analyzing cases or a way of modeling causal relations” (p. 341). We define the project that we share in this article as a case study in that we are looking at a specific population (i.e., multilingual communities in North Central Florida) and seeking to explore how this population defines language diversity and translation based on their experiences. The goal of implementing a case study methodology is to encourage other technical communicators to collaborate with visual designers when working with multilingual participants and multilingual technical content, as visuals can provide additional insights into the complexity of language and its role in multilingual technical communication. The broader goal of this project was to illustrate to city and county officials and local agencies the experiences and needs of multilingual community members, with the purpose of expanding language justice resources in the area.

In the case study we share in this article, we combined participatory methods used in technical communication (Agboka, 2013; Rose & Cardinal, 2018) with interviews and design methods (Gonzalez Viveros et al., 2020) from both technical communication and visual design. The purpose of the study was to document the languages spoken by immigrant community members in North Central Florida, to interview immigrant community members about their languages, and to transform interview data into visual designs that could inspire conversation about language justice in our community. These designs are currently being shared with different stakeholders at the county, city, and broader levels, as part of larger efforts to increase language access services in rural parts of Florida. In this article, we describe this process of transforming participants’ interview responses into visual designs—specifically collages.

We first interviewed 60 community members in Gainesville and other cities in North Central Florida. Interview participants were selected in collaboration with a local non-profit organization, the Rural Women’s Health Project, which helped us identify immigrant community members who spoke multiple languages and would be willing to participate in this study. The Rural Women’s Health Project has been doing language activism and health justice work in our community for over 30 years, and they provided us with the knowledge, resources, time, and motivation to complete this study while also being active participants in the data collection, analysis, and sharing process. 60 interviews (approximately 30 minutes each) took place. Most were conducted via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, while some interviews also took place in person at community events at times when transmission cases were lower in our community. All of these interviews were audio recorded.

Following the interviews, the authors of this article listened to the interviews individually and collectively. Following this initial listening session, in collaboration with our non-profit community partner, we listened to the interviews again and identified two emerging themes from the interview data. The first theme was related to language barriers. In their interviews, participants shared examples of barriers, obstacles, or discrimination they faced due to speaking a language other than English in their community. The identification of these barriers would help us share this data with our local city to suggest improvements in language justice resources. The second theme was related to language joy. Rather than focusing only on language struggles, participants highlighted how they, as multilingual immigrant community members, experienced and practiced joy and happiness due to their ability to speak multiple languages.

Rather than simply sharing interview quotes, in the spirit of participation and collaboration, we wanted to transform the quotes into visual narratives that told stories of the various languages we documented in our project. Given that Valentina Sierra-Niño (the first author of this article) is a visual designer and student, she took the lead in transforming our interview quotes into visual collages. The collages are a visual representation technique where a variety of images are separated from their original context, fragmented, combined, and weaved again into new compositions. While the fragments of images may have existing meanings, articulating them in different ways into collages opens up the possibilities to create new meanings and visualize stories (Gonzalez Viveros, 2020).

For this project, the collages were digitally created using Adobe Photoshop. There are several design kits that suggest collage as a tool to create a visual record of research during design processes (Sierra-Niño, 2022). The toolkits usually suggest that collages can be created by participants or designers—but not as a co-creation of both—to visualize their opinions or emotions about a given topic. Moreover, the use of collage both as a process and outcome of design projects have not been extensively explored (Sierra-Niño, 2022).

The collages were created following the guidelines suggested by Gonzalez Viveros (2020). Some of these recommendations include carefully planning the images to be included in the collage, while still being open to experimenting with new additions and combinations as the process evolves; recognizing and reflecting on the meanings of each image and how these change as the images are fragmented; and developing a visual language that creates consistency across a set of collages (p. 43).

In technical communication, researchers have long identified connections between written and visual information, particularly in relation “to issues of data representation, ethics, and intercultural communication” (Turner and Gonzales, 2020, n. p.). As Heather Turner and Laura Gonzales (2020) further elaborate, “When technical communicators encounter complex information that cannot be presented graphically, they often utilize their own design skills and processes to visually represent information” (n. p.). In this particular project, we pair technical communication and design skills together to further understand our participants’ approaches to and discussions of language justice.

The collages were drafted and designed in consultation with the interview participants. Participants were invited to comment on and make design suggestions for their collages during multiple follow-up meetings in order to shape how their languages would be visually represented. Through this process, Valentina Sierra-Niño decided to incorporate two themes into the collages, birds and plants, birds to symbolize migration and plants to represent the land that our participants came from. The birds are also representative of their countries, cultures, or personal experiences and are the main connecting elements across the collages. The themes of birds and plants allowed the collages to come to life and to represent our participants’ stories in visual terms. This combination of design and technical writing further highlights recent work in technical communication that acknowledges the role of graphics and other visual design in conveying technical information (Bahl et al., 2020).

In the sections that follow, we describe how Valentina Sierra-Niño transformed three interviews into collages representing three languages: Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Hindi. The collages are part of a series of postcards that have been presented and shared at public events in the city of Gainesville. On one side of each postcard, there is a collage and a written excerpt in Arabic, Haitian Creole, or Hindi from one of the interviews. On the other side, there is an explanation of the meanings behind the main images in the collage and the written excerpt in English. While the multilingual written text is part of the postcards, the text is not the most important part. Instead, the visual language, expressed through the collages, became a central component to facilitate the exploration and negotiation of meanings with the interview participants. In this discussion, we emphasize how the collaboration between a bilingual technical communicator, a bilingual designer, and our multilingual participants shaped the designs. Following the introduction of these collages, we discuss how the visual aspects of translation provided an important layer to understanding language justice and its connection to technical communication.

Collage 1 – Arabic

The first collage we created was based on interviews we conducted with a woman who is an Arabic speaker from Saudi Arabia. During her interview, this participant explained that language and culture are intricately connected. She stated, “The Arabic language is linked to our identity and to our religion. We are Muslim, and it is a privilege to speak Arabic because you can read the holy book in the native language in which it was written. You understand it better than those who read the translation because you cannot translate everything.” At the same time, while this participant highlights the value of her language, she also explains that not having access to information in your language while living in the U.S. is also very violent: “we consider it a privilege, so it’s very emotionally harmful to be in a place where your language becomes your obstacle. You feel vulnerable, tied up. You feel that you don’t belong here and you cannot live here.” Figures 1 and 2 illustrate how we transformed this participant’s quotes into a collage with writing in both Arabic and English.

In the foreground (see Figure 1), the collage about Arabic shows a falcon with falling feathers and Muslim woman wearing a hijab. The woman is walking towards a fragmented image of a road in North Central Florida, framed within a picture of the Hima desert in Saudi Arabia, the home country of this interview participant.

The connecting element across all collages are birds and plants, which we used as a metaphor for migration. In the collage about Arabic, the bird is a falcon, the national bird of Saudi Arabia. In the initial interview, the participant mentioned that it was harmful to be in a place where her language was an obstacle, as noted in the quote included on the collage itself. That is why Valentina Sierra-Niño decided to include a falcon on the collage, representing it as if it is losing its feathers to imply that the bird is hurt. In a subsequent conversation with the participant to explore the meanings behind the images in the collage, she elaborated on the symbolic significance of the falcon. She mentioned that besides being Saudi Arabia’s national bird, the falcon was a bird that wealthy people have, and because of this, it is associated with power. The interview participant found the use of the falcon in the collage to be very expressive, standing in as a cultural symbol of power, losing its feathers, and facing a state of vulnerability. This metaphor reflects what the participant had mentioned during her interview when she discussed her perspectives on the Arabic language as a privilege that loses its power in the context of North Central Florida.

Another multilingual community member, who is originally from Bangladesh, related the falcon and its falling feathers as the act of shedding off parts of her own culture as she migrated and tried to fit in a new one. Collages have a narrative and ambiguous nature where many interpretations can fit (Gonzalez Viveros, 2020). Therefore, the collages potentially “carry much information that may not be directly apparent” (Stappers & Sanders, 2003, p.85) and can work as conversation starters with participants to explore and create new meanings around language justice, migration, and cultural representation. In the case of the Arabic collage, we first used the participant’s quotes as inspirations for the collage, and we then used follow-up interviews to get feedback on the original design. In this way, the collages are meant to represent participants’ and our (the researchers’) shifting and always-evolving perspectives on language justice and its implications on immigrant communities. Creating the collages required an act of translation, where initial interview quotes were transformed into visuals and then revised based on further conversation.

Collage 2 – Haitian Creole and French

Our second interview participant was an immigrant from Haiti who speaks Haitian Creole, French, and English. During her interview, the participant discussed colonization and how it influences language histories, such as the broad use of French in Haiti. During her initial interview, this participant explained that “Haitian Creole is my native and emotional language. Some Haitians are more comfortable expressing themselves in French, so I talk to them in French. I talk to my sister in English and Haitian Creole and my dad in French and Haitian Creole. My language fluctuates depending on the types of interaction that I have.” Later in her interview, this participant also discussed the importance of recognizing immigration as a Black issue. She explained, “There is a racist belief circulating in the U.S. that the Black population is only composed of African Americans. This has, in turn, created an assumption that Black people only speak English, so they don’t need access to language access services. Moreover, due to Haiti’s complex linguistic history (composed of French and Haitian Creole), Haitians who migrate to the U.S. are excluded from various activities. As a result, Haitians living in the U.S. who are not proficient in English do not have access to adequate information.” In her collage, we wanted to illustrate the participant’s Haitian identity as well as the challenges of not being able to understand information in English in the U.S. Figures 3 and 4 showcase this participant’s collage in English, French, and Haitian Creole.

Having conversations around the collages created the space to discuss with participants some cultural particularities they considered important to include visually. In the case of the collage about Haitian Creole and French, for example, we had two versions of the collage with different images of a Black woman. The first one showed a woman from a frontal view wearing a traditional Haitian dress, as depicted in Figures 3 and 4 (on the next page). The second one showed a woman from behind wearing a black tank top, as depicted in Figure 5 (below).

When we first showed both design options to this participant, she mentioned that she preferred the first collage because of the use of the dress as a cultural reference. She also noted that the woman in the second collage didn’t look Haitian, as there were no specific features that would signal her Haitian identity. Based on this participant’s close association between language, race, and culture, it was important to include an image of a Haitian woman that incorporated cultural elements.

It important to note that including any cultural imagery, such as the Haitian cultural items included in this collage, can run the risk of essentializing and minimizing culture to a single image or figure. As localization and technical communication scholars have long argued, incorporating cultural icons on websites and technical documents can have negative impacts, and can flatten complex cultural dimensions (Medina & Pimentel, 2018; Sun, 2012). Through our participatory design methodology, in creating the collage depicted in Figures 3 and 4, we also learned from our participant about the Karabela dress, a dress traditionally worn by Haitian women to depict their cultural identity. In addition, the collage depicted in Figures 3 and 4 includes an image of the Caribbean rose mallow, the national flower of Haiti. The bird includes two colors, black and yellow, to represent the two official languages of the country. The woman in the collage represented in Figures 3 and 4 is wearing the Madan Sara, which this participant explained represents the power of Black women in her community. In our conversations and interviews with this participant, we learned that it was important for her collage to reflect the strength of Black women, and Haitian women specifically. Like the previous collage related to Arabic, the visual elements and translations encompassed in the collages provided an opportunity to understand how these participants define language justice at both literal and metaphoric levels. The role of visuals in these collages was not to make a caricature out of a culture or language but rather to visually represent the stories of our participants shared in their descriptions of language.

Collage 3 – Punjabi, Odia, and Hindi

Our third collage stemmed from interviews and conversations with a woman from Punjab, India, who currently lives in Gainesville, Florida. During this interview, the participant made connections between her language, culture, and family. She explained “Punjabi is my nurturing language. When my parents were very loving, when they were very mad, they would talk to us in Punjabi. It is the language of love, it is the language of joy and sorrow, and when you really need each other, that’s Punjabi.” In addition to Punjabi, this participant speaks Odia and Hindi, and she explained that “Odia is the language of community, of making friends with your neighbors. It’s a communal language. Hindi is my home language. English is my language of attainment and profession.”

During her interview, this participant further explained that while each of the languages she speaks serves a purpose in her life, people who hear her speaking these languages don’t always understand this purpose. She stated, “When we’re speaking in Hindi or one of my languages, people who are not part of the conversation have felt entitled enough to tell us that we need to learn English and we need to go back to where we came from. We feel violated. I feel outraged. It’s heartbreaking that people can be so threatened by something as beautiful as a different language.”

In the collage for this participant, like in the other collages, we wanted to illustrate the beauty, complexity, and pain that comes with speaking multiple languages as an immigrant in the U.S. Figures 6 and 7 illustrate the collage for this participant in Punjabi, Odia, and Hindi.

In the case of the stories about Arabic and Haitian Creole, participants made connections between language and other aspects of culture and identity, such as religion and race. However, the process of making and exploring meanings through collages not only allowed us to discuss cultural meanings but also personal ones. An example of how personal experiences might be interwoven with larger cultural signs can be observed in the collage about Punjabi, Odia, and Hindi. While the Indian peacock is the national bird of India, the home country of one of the participants, this participant did not bring up the bird because of its relevance as a national symbol but because it reminded her of her grandfather’s home. During her interview, this participant told stories about how she would wake up at her grandfather’s home and see many peacocks and how this bird has come to symbolize her home and her multiple languages. Personal experiences might be interwoven with larger cultural signs, and creating the space for interview participants to make design decisions about the images they wanted in their collages led this participant to share the personal relationship she makes between the mustard greens, the peacocks and Punjabi, one of her languages, based on her lived experiences in India. As evidenced in this collage, the metaphor of birds provided an opportunity for the participant to elaborate on the connections between language, home, and culture, and to provide more examples about her own definition of language justice.

Lessons from Designing in Translation

Since the goal of the interviews we conducted for this project was to better understand participants’ perceptions of and experiences with language justice, the process of transforming verbal interviews into collages and of then using collage design to foster more dialogue expanded our conceptions of translation beyond the written word. Indeed, many translation scholars, both within and beyond technical communication, describe translation as a process that requires much more than words and includes visual design (Cardinal et al., 2021; Turner & Gonzales, 2020). In this specific project, collages provided an opportunity to go beyond words to describe complex concepts like language and identity, which allowed for our conversations with participants to gain depth and additional perspective. The participatory approach to the collage design, including gathering participant feedback through various iterations of the collages, also assisted our efforts to avoid the cultural stereotyping that can easily happen when people from a different culture visually represent a culture, language, and/or race that is not their own.

By transforming participants’ interviews into collages and by then using participatory methods to (re)design and revise the collages, we as researchers got the opportunity to expand and strengthen conversations about language access. Rather than just listing the languages that participants speak, for example, we got a chance to intricately understand the memories that these languages represent for participants. Through this discussion, we were able to better understand that incorporating participants’ languages into technical communication within their city and county would not only allow participants to understand information that they have a right to access but would also allow participants to feel like their memories, histories, and experiences are valued and included in their new community within the U.S.

On a policy and public engagement level, the collages we created were incorporated into several local community events that helped us advocate for the need to increase language access services in our city and county. In collaboration with local community organizations in Gainesville, and specifically, an initiative called the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative (GINI), we were able to use visual collages to share complex, intricate stories about the importance of language for immigrants in our region. Currently, we are working with a local museum to expand our collages into a larger exhibition about language access in North Central Florida. Having the collages alongside other data points, including but not limited to written data from our interviews, provided a different dimension that strengthened our advocacy efforts. When people do not have time or interest in reading long data reports, collages and other visuals can help technical communicators, designers, and language advocates tell stories about language through the perspectives of multilingual community members.

Because language access encompasses much more than the communication of words, providing opportunities for visual engagement in a discussion of language allows researchers to further engage with all the aspects that language represents to multilingual people. This type of engagement allows us as researchers to make the case that increasing language justice efforts in our community would not only improve communication but can also increase engagement and allow immigrant community members to truly feel like they are a part of their new community.

Incorporating collages and writing in multiple languages into the products we shared from this project (as seen in Figures 1-7) also posed some challenges. For example, while we thought it was important to create multilingual collages that included participants’ languages, not all typefaces with the necessary alphabets for these translations were easily available and adaptable in the software Valentina Sierra-Niño used to design these artifacts (InDesign). Besides the technical challenges, in some cases, the visual design of the chosen typefaces was also aligned with the cultural meanings expressed in the postcards. For instance, for the text in Arabic, we used a typeface with curved terminals—the end of the strokes in the letterforms—that resemble the handwritten style associated with how the Quran was originally written instead of a typeface with straight and sharp terminals that would be associated with printed or typed text. In this way, the visual representation of participants’ interviews extended both to the visuals in the collages and to the typefaces used to represent participants’ input.

The interviews themselves took place in English but often included content in other languages. They required us as researchers to navigate various translation tools and work in close collaboration with our participants to translate and localize the information that made it to the final design. As scholars have noted, many current digital tools do not facilitate multilingual communication, posing increasing challenges for technical communicators and designers engaged in multilingual research (Gil & Ortega, 2016). Thus, incorporating opportunities for participatory translation and collaboration across languages between researchers and participants becomes increasingly important.

Finally, incorporating visual collages in our interviews about language access allowed us to more clearly understand the complexity of languages and what they mean to multilingual communities. Like birds, which we used in the collages, some languages migrate from country to country alongside their speakers. Some languages become synonymous with the land(s) on which they are spoken, while other languages are completely erased through colonization, racism, and xenophobia. Language is not something that can be contained in words nor something that can be described as separate from the humans who use it, the cultures that foster it, and the communities that continue to evolve it. For this reason, incorporating visuals into a project about language justice allowed us to better understand the many layers of meaning that language elicits from those with experience navigating multilingualism. Through this process of design and dialogue, we were able to advocate for and with our multilingual participants by showcasing how language is tied to our community’s needs, identities, and hopes for the future.


As technical communicators continue collaborating with designers and with multilingual communities, it is important that we continue developing frameworks for expanding our methods of communication across languages, cultures, and contexts. Furthermore, as technical communicators collaborate with various community organizations to advocate for language rights, visual design and participatory methodologies can provide important avenues for strengthening our collective advocacy efforts. Often, writing clear and detailed technical documentation can help strengthen the work that community organizations do. At the same time, pairing our technical writing skills with participatory methods and visual design can provide additional avenues for telling and documenting stories that have a long-term impact on our communities. In this article, we present examples of how transdisciplinary collaborations among designers and technical communicators can open up opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding. The work we represent in the article is just one piece of a broader project that continues to be shared with various stakeholders in and beyond our local community. We encourage other technical communication and design researchers to implement visual data approaches in their work, particularly when working with participants whose language histories span beyond white American Englishes.


Valentina Sierra-Niño thanks Fulbright and Icetex for their support with the scholarship Fulbright Pasaporte a la Ciencia. The research presented in this paper explores a multidisciplinary approach to inspire conversations about language justice. It is framed within the topic Society of the program Colombia Científica and the subtopic Building of a stable and lasting peace.

Both authors thank Robin Lewy from the Rural Women’s Health Project, as well as Alexandra Cenatus and Aml Altwayjri for their guidance and collaboration with this project.


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About the Authors

Dr. Laura Gonzales studies the connections between translation, technical communication, user-experience, and community engagement. She is the author of Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric (University of Michigan Press 2018) and Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication (Utah State University Press, 2022). She can be reached at gonzalesl@ufl.edu.

Valentina Sierra-Niño is a Colombian designer who explores the potential of design to help us co-exist in more empathic ways within our communities. She has worked at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and at The Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. She is a Fulbright Scholarship recipient and Graduate Student at the University of Florida. She can be reached at l.sierranino@ufl.edu.