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.