oD Blog

Translating out for our readers

In the second in a series of blogs on openDemocracy's editorial partnerships, the importance of introducing ideas to a wider audience whilst retaining respect for the original voice.

Rosemary Bechler
23 January 2014

When we work with editorial partners to build an audience for the dissemination of a new theme, we need to customize the treatment of the material and develop our editorial skills to achieve the maximum effect. With the tools we now have available, our publisher Andrew Hyde can provide our partners with solid data on what we have achieved in terms of quantifiable ‘impact’.

openDemocracy’s main language is English, and we offer ‘good Englishing’ to many of the writers worldwide who submit their work to us, mostly for free. We want to help them make themselves clearly understood to the audiences that interest them. For some contributors who rely on us this is a small revelation in itself. It can be particularly effective on oD Russia or Arab Awakening pages whose authors are keen to access an Anglophone or ‘western’ audience. But we are under no illusion that the whole world is currently accessible in English, and recently, prompted by openGlobalRights, we have branched out into multiple language translations, undoubtedly the beginning of a long journey to build new communities of openDemocracy readers, involving a whole new set of social networking and other editorial and promotional skills.

Just as important from the outset has been making thought accessible across the various barriers of specialism and expertise. Thinking produced in particular highly competitive contexts like academe or the world of think tanks has a set of aims which belong to its parent institutions;  an important goal for the editor making ideas accessible to wider audiences, is to show respect for these origins while ‘translating them out’.

Sometimes just asking a rather naïve question is the best way to access truly in-depth knowledge in an accessible form. An eight thousand-word piece destined for a scholarly journal will have a three-thousand-word argument at its core that ought to be far better known.  Two rather obscure articles from separate sources can illuminate each other when placed head on in a debate,giving the reader a rare chance to make up his or her mind. Notes and references can be shorn, including a note which makes a crucial point in the text, or happily embedding those offering further reading as convenient links which the reader may choose to follow up or ignore.  A collection of interesting case studies, or the chance to overhear a passionate conversation between experts, can say more about an entire discipline to a novice than any attempt at a mission statement.

Unfortunately, it is not the case that the best thinkers can put even the most complex argument in simple terms, any more than you could find a ‘neutral’ tone which doesn’t fatally under-represent or misrepresent the unique voices with which people speak – but if you are interested in the kind of translation that makes ideas accessible to people beyond the immediate community in which they were reproduced – then this challenge is also a fascinating one. This means that from the beginning, openDemocracy is interested in different kinds of rhetoric, and indeed in very different levels and types of knowledge and opinion.

The challenge of accessing broader audiences is important in any democracy, and we too have found that certain approaches work better than others. However many different types of audience there are, authenticity counts, and nothing works so well as the existing commitment of our authors to their ideas. Experts willing to wade into the comments section and answer questions can overcome significant barriers to the communication of ideas. It is a matter of adding concentric circles, beginning with the inner circle of enthusiasts – even if there is only one of them. Their enthusiasm, in the writing and the willingness to share, is what makes it possible to attract a wider circle of readers who may think they have only a tangential connection to these themes.  We soon see the effects. An engaged audience is immediately reflected on Twitter, on Facebook and in the numbers of readers and types of constituency you really reach.

Translating out is essential – but respect for voice is also key. The best editorial partnerships are ones where we have been able to bring readers’ attention to a compelling tone of voice and a vocabulary in a way which helps them appreciate the effort made in sharing these ideas with openDemocracy readers, and to see why we should care.

CALL OUT FOR 2014 EDITORIAL PARTNERS openDemocracy's editorial partnerships with institutions such as universities, think-tanks, museums and organisations have had tremendous success in 2013 - our main 2014 projects will be decided in the next four weeks - please contact us for a chat if you want to know more. 

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