Overcoming the “Beltway Syndrome”: How Professional Translation Can Help Think Tanks Have a Global Impact

The notion that Washington, D.C.–based organizations seeking political influence are short-sighted (commonly referred to as the “beltway syndrome”) in their communications efforts and messaging is often used to describe the way think tanks operate. Despite the considerable amount of resources invested by those institutions in communications over the last few years, the use of professional translation services has not been integrated as part of a global strategy. Treated as a mundane administrative task, translation is often overlooked or falls short in delivering a message and connecting with the reader.

Here is my three-point take on why delegating this task to a professional translation company is not only cost and time effective but is also key to an effective global communications strategy.

1) Multilingual content is key to global communications.

Most “global” institutions offer translation in 3 or 4 languages at best and often translate scattered parts of their websites; much attention is given to the “user experience” of the English site, while speakers of other languages would only have access to part of the information in their language. This gives non-English users the experience of a website “under construction” while more and more resources are invested into promoting English content through various channels.

A professional translation service would not only help provide quality translation for the complete version of the English website but can also advise the communications staff on what type of content would appeal to the target audience in order to increase the visibility of the research produced.

2) Professional translation is not a cost but an investment.

An argument often used against using a professional translation service is the cost it represents in comparison to the common practice of relying on bilingual staff to translate. Translation often falls at the bottom of their priority list due to their other tasks. Short articles or opinion pieces often relate to current events and are meant to be published quickly. Translation by internal staff can delay their publication to the point of making them completely irrelevant, resulting in the waste of a significant amount of internal resources.

Additionally, bilingualism and translation do not require the same set of skills,[1] and the common use of bilingual staff to translate often results in poor-quality translation or even mistranslation. The value added of a translation is to serve a purpose, for instance, influencing decision makers in a foreign country. This in turn requires a professional translator that can create a road map for the translation, taking into account the purpose of the original text, the purpose of the translation, and the purpose of the translated text, as well as such factors as culture, idiomaticity, and terminology.

Investing in translation as part of a communication strategy would help avoid diverting internal resources and ensure the investment in multilingual content achieves its purpose and increases the visibility of the organization.

3) Translating policy papers in the language of the country or region affected by the issue has better odds of influencing policy.

Maximizing policy impact is a common goal shared by most major think tanks that are increasingly making global communications a top priority. However, while English is the most commonly used language in online communications, a 2012 study by Common Sense Advisory, an independent consulting firm, showed that at least 13 languages are needed to reach 90% of the global market.

Whether think tanks publish non-English content or not, international media will likely end up doing the translation themselves. This is also true for foreign embassy staff in Washington, D.C., reporting to their governments on think tank activities in their native languages. Think tanks are missing a great opportunity to directly engage the end users of their work instead of relying on others who might misread or misinterpret their content.

Furthermore, translated papers would increase the think tank’s ability to access decision makers and advocacy groups directly in target countries and have impact on the domestic debate. This will allow think tanks to truly exert influence on an international scale, beyond Washington, D.C.

Lost in Translation: Overcoming the Communications Challenges of Non-native English Speakers

In today’s globalized world, being able to publish English content has become a basic requirement for non-English speakers seeking to expand their exposure or advance their career. However, communicating technical material in English when it is not the author’s mother tongue can pose serious challenges. This post takes a closer look at two of those recurring issues and offers resources to help individuals and organizations overcome communication barriers with the help of professional translators and copy editors.

Overcoming Cultural and Linguistic Barriers

The obvious first challenge is when non-native English writers are constrained in their vocabularies and expressions while conveying their ideas or thoughts. Pressured to publish content in English, they become translators of their own work but fail to communicate in a compelling manner due to language barriers.

The recurring use of “false friends” by non-native writers—when two words that look or sound similar differ significantly in meaning—illustrates this challenge. For instance, “to control” in English usually means “to exercise authority” but “controller” in French means “to verify.” Another example that could lead to miscommunication is the translation of the English verb “to dispose of,” meaning “to throw away” by “disposer de” in French, which means “to own.”

Understanding the Translation of Concepts

While assessing one’s own level of language fluency can be done easily through proofreading and peer review, the translation of concepts poses a different kind of challenge. Paraphrasing or literal translation as a way to adapt concepts into English or any other target language can distort the original idea. This is particularly the case in social sciences, where “concepts tend to take the form of technical terms, which in turn tend to be culture specific.”[1] This specificity requires that social science translators are both good linguists and experts of the “language” of the discipline or organization they are dealing with (its jargon, its givens, its historical background).

The difficulty in identifying the right translator needed or budget limits may encourage writers to produce content in a second language they have not fully mastered. Below are a few tips on the use of language services to overcome this issue.

Selecting the Right Translator and Copy Editor

The use of copy editing or translation services appears to be an easy solution, but hiring the right professional can be a difficult task.

For readers interested in the selection of translators for social science material, the Guidelines for the Translation of Social Science Texts published by the American Council of Learned Societies, provides useful recommendations when considering the translation of a book or other major projects where the interest of the author and translators are aligned.

For shorter material, authors are looking to get the highest quality possible under tight deadlines, and the use of a translation agency that relies on a collaboration between language professionals with specialized knowledge in the subject matter and related disciplines can provide an attractive option.

While budget considerations are often a deciding factor, looking at translation and editing services as an investment rather than a cost is an important point to ensure that those services are used to support the communication strategy of the organization in English and other languages.

Participating in an International Event? Partner with us for specialized translations!

Whether your organization is attending an international event or hosting one, knowledge of technical terms is critical to communicate your message. While glossaries such as the ones listed below can assist with producing communication material, our team of language professionals can ensure the accuracy and quality of your message with specialized translation and copy editing services by experts in your field.

Contact us or request a quote today, to make your documents ready for a global audience.

We speak your language!

Check out these international events and learn more about related technical terms:

The Nuclear Security Summit in (Washington, DC, March 31–April 1) – glossary
IMF Spring Meetings 2016 (Washington, DC, April 12 – 17) glossary
Earth Day on the National Mall (Washington, DC, April 22, 2016) – glossary 
World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul, May 23–24) – glossary
COP 22 November (Marrakech, Morocco) 7-18, 2016 – glossary
21st International AIDS Conference (Durban South Africa) glossary