Translation to reach a global research audience

Published on 6 October 2021

Image of Beth Richard

Beth Richard

Production Editor

Image of Alice Webb

Alice Webb

Communications and Impact Officer

Over the past few years at IDS, colleagues in the Knowledge, Impact and Policy cluster have been considering how to best meet an increasing need to produce high-quality translations of research publications when budgets are limited.

In an effort to improve the effectiveness of this process, we recently consulted with colleagues in order to create a set of guidelines for communicating our research in other languages. The ambition was to improve our approach by learning from and building on the expertise of those who do this work very well.

In part, the need to strengthen how we approach translation reflects not only a need to do more to meet the needs of our global audiences but also to improve the impact of our research. Limiting research publications to only being in English has the knock-on impact of reducing their audience reach.

Working and sharing knowledge in other languages is a hot topic of conversation at IDS. It builds on the sense that there is an opportunity now, with Covid-19-imposed travel restrictions and the drive to ‘decolonise’ the development sector, to re-focus on the communities most at risk of being left behind. If those communities are not native English speakers, which is often the case in the countries we research, we risk excluding them by producing our work solely in English. Our commitment to participation and inclusion goes hand in hand with our commitment to collecting, publishing and sharing research in ways that are ethical, accessible and which do not create potential power imbalances.

As with most organisations, when it comes to translations, one of the biggest barriers for IDS is financial. The cost of translating research publications quickly adds up, not only in the translation and design but also time for project management and quality assurance. But translations are increasingly important for research impact and inclusion, as mentioned. The question is not only how to create them effectively, but how to communicate them powerfully.

Building on experience

To develop our guidelines we both reviewed industry best practice for translation and interpreting and the practical experiences of IDS’ programmes and centres that regularly communicate research in multiple languages. This includes:

One of the key insights was that translation into languages other than English is only effective where the content can be relied on to be accurate. It is critical to work with professional translators and use local partners to sense-check translations for cultural sensitivities. It’s also necessary to consider the full range of materials that you may wish to produce according to what format is most appropriate for your target audience. For example, some programmes at IDS commission social media posts and newsletter text to be translated alongside the publication itself.

The full guidelines include practical guidance for how to produce translations, including what to consider at each stage of working with external translators, interpreters and designers:

  • Budgeting
  • Scheduling
  • Commissioning
  • Quality assurance, and
  • Specific advice on multimedia formats, which include: Blogs, Newsletters, Videos, Websites, Social media, Paid advertising, and Using interpreters on Zoom.

We also found that the process of planning for translations, including costing, needs to be considered at the very earliest stage of research project or programme design. Our checklist to use when considering how translations should be included in a project proposal would be:

  • Who are the key audiences for the project, and what are their language needs?
  • Have you consulted with project partners to sense-check your impressions of key audiences, taking into account our lens as an Institute based in the UK?
  • Are there any funder requirements for translation?
  • Are there language abilities in the project or partner team? If not, do you need to bring in staff with language abilities?
  • Do you have an idea of which outputs should be translated?
  • Will you be running events and workshops which need interpreters?
  • Do you have to specify which outputs need to be translated at proposal stage?
  • Is there any scope for a flexible pot of money to be used for translations once more is known about key audiences?
  • Have sufficient funds been allocated for external translation and IDS staff time for the identified outputs?
  • How will people find the project’s translations?
  • How can you measure the impact of translations?

Impact can be increased by high-quality translations

Reviewing how we as an Institute approach translation has underlined how important it is to begin by considering who our target audiences are before we produce any research publication. Similarly to how we decide on whether to produce a policy briefing, a video, or a podcast, we need to start by defining what will be most accessible to our target audiences including the language(s) they speak. Local partners are key to success in communicating in other languages, not only for practical considerations, but also because they can provide quality assurance and advise on cultural sensitivities that may arise during any translation process.

We hope that, by sharing these guidelines and the experiences of our colleagues and partners, we can reach new audiences and increase the impact of our work. But more importantly, we recognise that communicating our work in other languages is key to our vision of and strategy for reducing extreme inequities and nurturing inclusive, democratic and accountable societies. Our commitment into the future is to evolve our approach to translations and do as much as we can to broaden the accessibility of our work by publishing in more languages – and more formats.

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