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Accurate and reliable translations for political organisations

Glienicke Bridge

Pol­i­cy on the move: S Swift Trans­la­tion pro­vides sound trans­la­tions of aca­d­e­m­ic pol­i­cy advice

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:

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.

Tact matters!

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‑