Now that even village councils handle matters affected by European legislation, financial flows and court rulings and embedded in a European or even global public sphere, demand for accurate and reliable translations of policy advice has risen. At S Swift Translation, I translate policy advice in which academic expertise is of direct practical relevance for political institutions, public authorities, international organisations, think tanks, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political foundations as well as research in the humanities and the social sciences aimed more squarely at academic audiences. I work from German into English.
On linguistic terra firma in a limited number of fields: my competence areas
Since accurate and up-to-date terminology aids understanding where obsolete or inappropriate terminology could trigger confusion or political friction, I confine myself to projects in fields I am familiar with:
- Education policy
- Migration and diversity
- Democracy and participation
- Remembrance and the politics of history
- Religion and ethics
- Transport policy and sustainable mobility
- Urban and rural development
- Uses and abuses of the Internet
Translating academic policy advice: Key issues
Academic policy advice, often aimed at policy makers and political multipliers, is situated at the point where the production of academic knowledge and society intersect. As such, the expert reports, dossiers and studies I translate are often already “translations” of the fruits of academic research into strategic options for action. As their authors have often taken great care to produce concise and accessible texts without over-simplifying, over-complicating or distorting the questions at stake, I exercise a similar degree of caution to ensure that their positions are reproduced accurately in translation. Three issues that require particular care in policy advice translations are highlighted below:
- Side-stepping methodological trip wires and statistical booby traps
- Preserving non-directive language
- Finding appropriate language for politically charged issues
It goes without saying, of course, that I also pay attention to a range of other issues when approaching any translation project.
Lies, damn lies, and mangled statistics: methodological tripwires and statistical booby-traps
Decision-making is only rarely based on one single, obvious version of the truth. Academic policy advice is, in fact, often sought precisely because strategies are required for coping with an insecure knowledge base fraught with unknowns. It can make sense to approach complex problems laden with uncertainty in a methodologically open-ended and interdisciplinary fashion, but this frequently leads to the production of knowledge which is provisional, limited and open to question: research results can conflict and expert opinions can clash without it being possible to say that particular approaches are unfounded or particular experts incorrect in their views. Amid this uncertainty, what distinguishes solid, reputable analysis from incendiary speech or opinions rooted purely in ideology is its methodological soundness. It may only be possible to determine whether an expert was right or not with the wisdom of hindsight, but it is possible to test whether appropriate methodological criteria have been applied correctly in the here and now. Are statements solidly grounded in theory, and, where possible, evidence-based?
Where intellectual tools and methods are of such central significance, and quantitative data may already have been distilled to its bare-bones essence, translators must be especially on their guard to ensure that information is represented correctly. Like journalists, translators are sometimes prone to distorting statistics unintentionally. Good translators, however, not only avoid introducing new errors into texts; they may also catch errors or leaps of logic that have crept into texts prior to translation. When I translate analyses that dip into the toolbox of economics or have recourse to the methodological arsenal of qualitative and quantitative social science research, I draw on my methodological awareness of these areas to avoid such pitfalls. When translating quantitative research or texts laden with figures, I include additional correction cycles dedicated specifically to verifying that statistics have been presented logically and consistently. As a third line of defence against silly and potentially embarrassing mistakes involving hard-to-spell names or figures, I translate using a CAT tool to ensure that all numerical information is presented consistently and that names and numbers are not copied out by hand (with the associated risk of introducing errors) from source texts into my translations.
Preserving non-directive language is crucial!
In today’s knowledge-based society with its increasingly ubiquitous globalised risks, the search for solutions for pressing problems often transgresses the sovereignty of specific polities. Translators play a supporting role when governments learn from one another, topics are discussed in many states in parallel, and civil society mobilises across international borders. The dialogue between research and policy making is continuous, since the goals of society are constantly reappraised in the light of new insights into the consequences of policy instruments. The legions of experts involved in this ongoing dialogue between research and politics are frequently caught between conflicting objectives: when summarising the state of knowledge and illustrating the options that present themselves, they need to ensure their contributions are both politically relevant and academically credible. Many experts resolve this dilemma by taking enormous care to ensure that they do not exceed their mandate as academic observers: by not prescribing what ought to be done, they avoid prejudging political decision-making and broader public debates. From an expert’s point of view, not issuing any direct political recommendations may be preferable to engaging in protracted and controversial negotiations over phrasing and ultimately only being able to issue watered-down recommendations or recommendations that come across as political and may backfire if decision makers suspect manipulation and respond by dismissing reports in their entirety.
It is important that translators are conscious of this non-directive stance adopted by many experts and do their utmost to ensure that non-directive language comes through clearly in translations. Communicating the sharpness and depth of an author’s analysis is not enough; his or her distancing language or proximity to a topic must also be relayed precisely. In practice, this can, at times, be tricky: a mistake as trivial as a poorly chosen verb of indirect speech can change a statement into one that is strongly value-laden, emotional or biased. My background in policy translation and my own experience as a volunteer with a civil society organisation help me to capture such subtle nuances successfully, as does the fact that I only translate into my native language, English.
Language is no mere appendix to politics: it is often political in its own right and needs to be handled with care, especially when ideas developed in one polity are to be presented in another. Sometimes representing the content of a text clearly and accurately (creating “equivalence” between the source and target texts, in other words) is not enough. Translators must anticipate situations in which faithful translation could lead to misunderstandings or communicative conflicts and find solutions. As a tactful translator, I draw on political, legal and historical background knowledge, adopt a self-critical approach and work in close partnership with my clients to produce translations capable of fulfilling the communicative purposes for which they are intended.
When problems are framed clearly and this clarity is preserved or even enhanced in accurate and lucid translations, an ideal basis for further deliberation and identifying solutions can result. Does your organisation require cogent, readable and tactful translations that can focus attention on topics, make issues easier to understand, and avert misunderstandings?
I look forward to hearing more about your work and your project. You can contact me using the contact form below, or directly at the address sarah@s‑swift.de.