Multilingualism and translation as publishing services for researchers – A conversation with Avi Staiman
Multilingualism is a skill that most researchers have in international research consortia and groups and also need in order to be able to disseminate their findings through scholarly publishing. However, the difficulties in learning another language and deficiencies like grammar and spelling issues often cause challenges and backlashes to non-English native speakers commonly referred to as ‘linguistic discrimination‘. Avi Staiman and Jo share some of their experiences and observations made, as well as resources and best practices to foster a global and multilingual research environment. They also talk about translation and editing as external services, publication success, and closing the gap between authors and scholarly publishers.
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Multilingualism is a skill that most researchers have in international research consortia and groups and also need in order to be able to disseminate their findings through scholarly publishing. However, the difficulties in learning another language and deficiencies like grammar and spelling issues often cause challenges and backlashes to non-English native speakers. Avi Staiman and Jo share some of their experiences and observations made, as well as resources and best practices to foster a global and multilingual research environment. They also talk about translation and editing as external services, publication success, and closing the gap between authors and scholarly publishers.
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More details at access2perspectives.org/2022/09/a-conversation-with-avi-staiman/
At Access 2 Perspectives, we provide novel insights into the communication and management of Research. Our goal is to equip researchers with the skills and enthusiasm they need to pursue a successful and joyful career.
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Avi Staiman is the founder and CEO of Academic Language Experts, a company dedicated to assisting academic scholars to prepare their research for publication and bring it to the world. He also is the co-host of the New Books Network ‘Scholarly Communication’ Podcast. Avi has been a guest lecturer at NYU’s Master’s Program in Translation & Interpreting, The University of Tokyo, and Bar Ilan University. His essays have appeared in the Cambridge University Press Blog, Scholarly Kitchen, Multilingual, and Times Higher Education.
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Jo: Welcome to another episode of our podcast. Today we’re very happy to have Avi Staiman with us from academic language experts. Welcome, Avi.
Avi: Thank you so much for having Jo. It’s a real pleasure to join you today and I’m looking forward to our chat.
Jo: Yeah, so we got to know each other through the East Network, which is basically a community for European, but also non-European science publishers and editors. And then we also a few times come across multilingualism, also not so surprisingly because that’s where you specialize with translations as an editorial service to researchers as customers. But before we dig into that topic in more depth, would you like to share a little bit about yourself, how you like just a brief sketch around your career trajectory so far, your background and how you ended up now managing, coordinating academic language experts?
Avi: Yes. Thanks for asking, Jo. It’s kind of a funny story, to be honest. This is my first job and I’ve had it now for about eight years and now proud to say that I’m the owner of a company. We have about ten employees, about 3000 freelancers around the world, and academic language experts. But really it all started by mistake. Back in the day when I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I had an online course, I remember specifically in the field of sociology of education. And I asked my professor if I could write my papers in English. I was studying abroad and he kindly agreed. And he was impressed with my English to the point where he asked me to translate his article. Now, at the time, I did not know how to write an academic article nor what translation really meant. But naively, I said yes and agreed to his request. And six months later somehow slogged through and got to the end of the work. And I realized a few really important things already with that first paper. Number one is you really need to understand specific subject areas in order to be able to write about them intelligently or translate or edit or do anything of consequence. And number two is translation is really a profession and an art skill and it’s not just something that people do as a hobby in their free time. I mistakenly thought that and ended up spending many more hours than I anticipated. So that was kind of sort of set the trajectory as, okay, I understand now what’s involved and how difficult and challenging it is. Maybe there’s a way to help additional scholars, maybe there are additional scholars who are facing such issues over time. It started as a language company with translation, editing and proofreading, and it has evolved over the last number of years into what’s traditionally known as author services. I like using the term author empowerment, but really trying to think deeply about how we help scholars get from where they are, elevate their research and enable them to publish with confidence. That’s really what we’re trying and aiming to achieve, because there’s a lot more that goes into successful publication than just whether or not the text is written without mistakes in English. There’s a lot that goes into that. And we’ve built our entire business around helping scholars get from point A to point B.
Jo: Yeah, and that’s exactly so. What I hear often from scholars of any career stage. Where there’s a lot of frustration around getting rejections for research or article submissions. And then the reason being the lack of skills in the language of English. Either American or British or technical. Whichever. Or there’s now also international English. Funnily enough there’s also not one English language. But then depending where you publish. They use one over the other. And that’s even confusing for native English speakers, I suppose. So your team, you mentioned you have around ten employees or team members. Are they all now native English speakers of different language skills? And how is that beneficial?
Avi: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I think, first of all, you raise a really good point about standardized English, right? I always sort of half chuckle, half cry when I see reviews that come in from viewers saying the English here is not correct or they would have done it differently. Now, there are grammar rules. Obviously. They differ from place to place. There are certain grammatical rules. And that’s why we’re very careful not to define our service as correcting your English, because I think that really we have to respect the author’s authority and the author’s mode of expression. That’s why we use the term ‘elevate your research’, because we see editing is a lot more than just is this sentence technically correct or not? But actually, is it written well in the sense that it is clear to the reader and the reviewer what exactly the ideas that I’m trying to convey? And I think that’s really critical because if we’re thinking about the goal being publication and with the rejection rates as high as they are, even in the mid level journals, it’s really important that those ideas are conveyed in a clear and coherent manner. And as soon as I, as a reviewer, have to start scratching my brain to think, well, how exactly am I going to say this? How exactly am I going to understand this? Is it clear to me that they can’t focus on the arguments themselves and all of a sudden you’re at a disadvantage, and this is a disadvantage, by the way, that I’m sure you’ve seen these studies, Jo, that’s proven in research, meaning nonnative English speakers. You could call it bias, you can call it discrimination, but they don’t get accepted at the same rate as native English speakers, even if their research is of the same quality. So this is definitely an issue we need. So it’s interesting because on the one hand, I would say I advocate for not forcing authors to go into one mode, U.S English or British English, but to enable them the widest spectrum possible. On the other hand, understanding that in order for us to have a common language, in order to communicate with each other, we need to be able to express in English in a way that’s convincing, compelling and really is understandable to the reader. And that’s not a simple thing to do. In terms of the staff. You asked me about my staff. So the majority of our staff are what we typically call English as the first language. Is English a mother tongue? That varies there. We have Brits, we have Americans, but we also have other languages representative as well. So we have a German native speaker, and a Portuguese native speaker. It’s important to me that our team is diverse so that we can really kind of not forget about our central mission. That being said, the majority of research is published in English, so the majority of scholars that are coming to us, I would say about 75% to 80%, are either translating into English or editing in English. There is a nice movement and we can talk about this a little bit later on of scholars or even I would say nonprofits that are understanding the importance of translating back into other languages as well, which we also do. So it’s important to us to have kind of the staff ready to go and in place to be able to handle those requests as well.
Jo: Yeah, that’s great. At Afriaxrchive we are running a similar project translating from English into six traditional African languages with a whole cohort of translators, professional translators and also science journalists. So there’s a whole bunch of experts in different niches making sure that the science doesn’t get lost in translation, which usually happens. And this is also a reason what I feel and always often advocate for, that we need multilingualism and research because a lot of the information gets lost in translation if we focus on English alone as presumed lingua franca, where I probably very well aware of that several there are Arabic, we have Mandarin, they have Spanish. English is not the only scientific language nowadays, but for the Western journals, pretty much dominant and also in sheer numbers, probably very much dominant.
Avi: So first of all, I applaud you for the work that you’re doing in the African languages because I don’t think there’s probably nearly no research that’s being translated into those languages and I think it probably can be very meaningful for the local population to be able to have something that they can really use and benefit from. And that’s where I make the real distinction. When there is research, especially in the medical sciences or the social sciences really across the board, but when there is research that has a local impact, right. We have to go back to our very basic fundamental question. As a researcher, who am I trying to speak to? Who am I trying to influence? Who am I trying to help? And if the answer is a local population that does not speak English as a native language, then it should be part of your mission, whether it’s in finding grant funds or whether it’s in the way you allocate your own research stipend to try and get your research into the local language. If it’s research that really all you’re interested in is communicating with your colleagues, and all of your colleagues are perfectly capable of understanding reading, writing, and English, then maybe it’s not necessary. And I think that’s really the real question that scholars need to ask is what is the point? What am I trying to accomplish and who am I trying to help? I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, Jo, in our previous conversation, but I once hung up the phone with a scholar, and I wanted to cry because she was working on poverty with Children research. That was her study of research in South America. And she was asking me for a quote for editing in English. And I said, that’s wonderful, but what’s the goal here? And she said, well, it’s to influence policy makers in South America. And I said, well, okay, why don’t we translate it into Portuguese, into Spanish, into the local languages? And she said, I would love to, but my university will only recognize it if it’s a publication in English. So this really critical research that’s going to actually have an impact on people’s lives is being overlooked. And by the way, I don’t want to throw her in the mud. She really wanted to translate into Spanish as well, and Portuguese and was trying to find funding to do that, but that was kind of the situation she was stuck in. So I think that the real message to funders as well as universities is to think about what potential benefit could come from translating the research and getting it into another language.
Jo: Yeah, I totally agree. What I’m trying to censor the researchers more and more is think about the purpose of your research and then again how you get the message across, as you said, to the stakeholders, to the beneficiaries. And these can also be policymakers. And then, as you just said, they probably are not so good in English if they’re policymakers in Northern, Central, Eastern Europe. I just wanted to add that it’s important to have that in the research budget from the onset, like from when you go and set out the plan for the whole research project in the first place.
Avi: Yeah, I think you’re just right. And I think the problem becomes the incentivisation of certain activities in academia over others. So what I mean by that is when you’re up for tenure, they’re going to be looking in most universities and colleges, they’re going to be looking at, well, where did you publish what’s the impact factor and how many times did you publish? And I think that part of our job needs to be turning around to universities and saying, well, no teaching is important, well no foreign publication is important, well no influence. I could have a study that really impacts policy. Whether or not that’s going to help me in my career, crazy enough, it might not. Whereas if I can get an article into a high stature journal, maybe it does. So I think those are sort of bigger issues that maybe Jo and Avi can’t tackle alone. But hopefully I think there are slow trends that are in place to push universities and funding bodies and promotion committees to look beyond just sort of the typical how many grants, how many articles, and high impact factor journals and actually look at the full body of work in its whole sense and what it was able to accomplish. And I think that’s really important.
Jo: Yeah, I totally agree. How does the normal workday look like for you and your team? At what point in the publishing workflow do people approach you with any requests and what are the most frequent requests?
Avi: Really good question. So first of all, my personal day, I think the thing that I like most about this job is that as much as I do I plan ahead and as much as I do have quarterly goals and annual goals, I don’t know what every day is going to bring in. And I think that’s the fun of anyone who’s been an entrepreneur is knowing that each day can bring its own surprises and challenges and sometimes that’s maddening and sometimes it’s exhilarating and sometimes that could go from one to the other within a few seconds. So that’s me personally in terms of the workflow and where we come into the process. So for the most part we are coming in as the glue. I see ourselves as the glue between the author and the publisher. And actually a lot of the services that we’ve developed have actually come to address this sort of gap where authors don’t really understand what publishers need and publishers don’t really know how to do a good job of communicating what they need back to authors. So for example. We identified this big issue when it comes to books that scholars really don’t know how to put together and I’m speaking in general terms of course. But as a general whole. Scholars struggle with putting together a strong book proposal and sometimes that rejection will lead to them shelving the book project entirely and sometimes all it takes is a little bit of guidance and coaching and help to understand. Okay. What is a book proposal or what is an article as opposed to a dissertation and how do we differentiate between those things or how do I go about finding out if a grant proposal is potentially relevant for me or not? All these questions are sort of like you’re supposed to kind of learn them somehow along the way, but no one actually teaches them in an organized manner. So part of what we set our mission to be is really to be kind of that silent helper for authors and for scholars to really help them with publication because that’s the end goal. I always say to our staff, we can translate something like Shakespeare, but if they haven’t followed the guidelines, if it’s not in line with the aims and scopes, if it doesn’t bring something novel, then it doesn’t matter how good our translation is going to be, it will be rejected. So that’s what we need to kind of align our services with their needs. So that’s really something we focus on. So I would say it comes after the point. The scholars did their research. Sometimes we even help, by the way, with academic coaching while they’re doing the research. But for the most part, scholars have finished their research. They’ve put together some sort of draft. We tend not to write on behalf of authors. There are ethical issues there. And in general, it’s not good practice for authors to come to us for writing. So they’ll write a draft. Sometimes it’s more finished, sometimes it’s less. And that’s when we can kind of step in, help them develop, elevate their draft to the point where they really feel like it’s ready to go. And we really have a hands-on approach. This is not an automated service where it’s kind of like you spit it in, you get an output, and you go and run with it. I really don’t believe in those services. Every individual scholar works with us, works as an individual on the team to get their research to where it needs to go. So that kind of takes them along that process. And the hope is once they’re done with us, then they can go ahead and easily submit it to the journal of their choice, to the book publisher of their choice, and hopefully, obviously, receive a positive response. We also have more of a business to business approach, B to B approach, where we’re helping publishers and societies as well. Sometimes the work with them comes a little bit later on in the process where the authors have already come to the publisher. The publisher says, this is okay, but it needs some additional work. The publisher will send the author back to us and then we get involved. At that stage, we do come in different parts of the workflow, but as a general whole, it’s previsions or pre evaluation by the publisher. We are also developing post publication services where if you want to take your published research and turn it into a tangible written item, whether it’s a press release or a media piece or something to influence policy, a policy paper or white paper, we’re starting to do more of that as well. So that’s another sort of service that’s coming in later along the workflow process.
Probably a very naive observation is that many of the services that you are providing, I would assume, are being provided by the publishers naturally or historically, but we find more and more. And also it’s a standard that the formatting has to be done by the researchers. The editing needs to be perfect to go through acceptance and then towards peer review. What else? Like, it has to be in a specific format, specific file type. So all of that and all the things that you just mentioned you have researchers with, or wasn’t that in the past, whenever the past happened, a naturally inclusive service package for a publisher? And why that’s not the case anymore, I mean, we can philosophize and be frustrated around that, but unless probably many publishers also provide all these services. But what made you feel you’re positioning yourself with your company now, filling the void that publishers have started providing or operating, rather.
Avi: Yeah, so the trend, it’s interesting, it’s kind of full circle, but it’s changed in a very important way. So let me try and explain. 20, 30 years ago, you’re 100% right, Joe. If someone comes to publish their article, most likely editing will be included, formatting, layout, all these things will be included as part of what the journal or the book publisher is going to be doing for the author. That pretty quickly came to an end in the sense that they realized they could offload these costs onto the universities, onto the individual researchers, and have them come once they’re entirely ready. By the way, globalization also sort of just multiply the number of submissions that were coming into these publishers to the point where they probably couldn’t handle them all and figure, okay, let’s just turn it back on the authors and say, until it’s perfect, don’t send it to us or send it to us. We’ll publish it once it’s sort of camera ready, as they said. So they sort of slowly offloaded some of these services to external services, and we kind of came in, we were one of the players that kind of helped fill that gap to help authors try and get there. And by the way, I think there are advantages, the fact of having external service that’s not biased by the end product and actually can help scholars really say what they want to say and help them develop it and realize their arguments. What’s happened in the last five years, I would say more recently or even less because of open access, is that all of a sudden publishers who for a long time, to be honest between us, Joe, didn’t really give a damn about authors, all of a sudden they’re kind of forced to give a damn about authors again because they’re no longer selling to libraries. They’re selling in an indirect way via authors. So all of a sudden, authors have the power to make important decisions. So all of a sudden, publishers need to make the authors like them, which is not an easy thing. After pissing off the authors the last 20,30 years, what has happened now is that a lot of publishers are actually coming back and saying, well, we are offering these services, you still need to pay for them. We’re not doing it as in house, but we will bring in an external service such as our own academic language exercise or other services, and either they will provide it as a partner service. So, for example, we have a partnership with Brill where Brill authors will come to Brill, Brill will refer them to us and we’ll help them get their manuscript ready for Brill. We’ll send it back to them and then they’ll pass it along to Brill. That’s sort of one model. The other model is what’s known as white labeling. And what white labeling means is that publishers will sort of not tell you who the partner that you’re working with. They will be powered by one of the author services companies such as ourselves, but they’ll slap their name on it. So it’ll be Wiley editing Services or Taylor and Francis editing services. I think that sometimes people can be mistaken because they think, oh, if I use Wiley services or Taylor and Francis Services, my article will get accepted. That’s really not true. People have to be careful, but they may be using one of the author services companies out there and just not letting people know that that’s what they’re doing and trying to promote their own brand. So those are kind of two different ways of going about it.
Jo: Yeah, with Africarxiv I’m running with the team preprint repository. How do you see preprints come in where researchers may consult you for your services before they publish your preprint and then go into journal publishing or the other way around. They share a preprint in whatever state they find it ready to be ready in and then seek feedback on the preprint and then have further improved also for the editing and the language skills or the language status towards journal publishing. Or do you have clients who say, oh, I have this preprint published increasingly and now I want to turn this into a journal article, so it needs a little erranding.
Avi: Yeah, so I want to clarify. First of all, language services are sort of one half of the business. The other half of the business is what we call publication support. So you can actually get help with the writing process, you can get help with the academic review, so someone will review your research, you can get up with a book proposal. These are all things and grant proposals. These are all things where we’re kind of focusing on the science and the structure and not just on polishing up the writing. So there are different ways that you can work with us in terms of the question of preprints. So I think preprints are really interesting and I think that as a general whole, I would say that the more that scholars can do, whether it’s through crowdsourcing or through a professional service like ours, to improve their manuscript before it’s published, I think it’s a good thing. Meaning the more they can come to a publisher with something that’s ready, the more chances they’re going to have a smoother publication process. So we are actually behind the scenes in talks with a few of the big preprint servers to try and sort of integrate the services whereby someone can come. They can upload a preprint. Then right afterwards they can use our service. Then maybe upload a revised version. A more updated version of their preprint and then go ahead and pass it along to publishers and see who’s interested in biting. So we definitely are taking I think blueprints are very much a positive direction. I think it’s really helpful for scholars to get early input and not have to wait six months for peer review which is based on the grace of whatever reviewers may or may not be around and may or may not have time. And so therefore. I think that there’s no doubt that we sort of hooking up with preprint servers to send them obviously with the author’s consent. But to make that transition smooth and then preprint servers passing along to us some of their authors and research to help kind of what I would say is push them over the edge and get them from where they are to where they want to be before they go ahead and send it off to the publisher is actually a really important step. That’s kind of really one of the things that we’re working on behind the scenes.
Jo: I’m hoping my idea of the future is also where journals and publishers will pitch to authors for them to consider their venues to be publishing instead of the other way around.
Jo: Because it’s already visible as a pre plan. Some people ask what’s the point of publishing in a journal if we wouldn’t have to go through the prestige dilemma with impact factor and that sort of thing. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there. If I could read it, what’s the point in putting it through peer review where we can also have crowd based and community based peer reviews is also much better than being reliant, as you just said, from the time and availability and the goodwill of one or two individuals who may or may not personally know. But I feel that Janice and publishers still have a huge service to fill and maybe remind themselves about that aspect in curating the content that’s out there for us. Because as we all observed, there’s so much research being published, there’s not one researcher, I assume, who can conveniently say, I’ve read all the papers that are important to me and my research like that’s humanly impossible nowadays, especially if you look beyond English as a language for science which many don’t even know exists. There’s research in their discipline which is not English but in curating the content, I think that’s where we need Jonathan publishers very much and very urgently like, I don’t know, that’s a little bit of a future scenario, but have you had time maybe also to even think towards these aspects? Like what’s the future position of a publisher and also academic language experts as a standalone, still very versatile service in the next five or so years to come?
Yeah. I think that the dream and the goal is that if preprints become standard and if preprints become what every scholar does. Then by default it will become the sort of pool of the source of information and publishers will be fighting over each other to get the best research from the preprint servers and then maybe authors especially because some of these preprint servers really are nonprofits and they really run. I think for the right reasons as a whole. They will really be able to kind of authors will be able to kind of pick from the different publishers that are interested in their research. That would be kind of ‘I see the end goal’, I think that publishers are not going to kind of embrace this approach easily and I think that it’s the job of the academic community to push towards this because it just opens up healthy competition and really lets the best research win in that sense. And I think that’s what’s really important. The way I see our involvement in that process is, like I said before, to be that glue, is to help those authors. Our main clientele are authors for whom English is not their native language, is to get them on the same level so that if there is this sort of I don’t know what we want to call it, but this database of research out there is to really make sure that every researchers best expression of their writing comes to the fore. And I think that’s really important, especially as sort of to me it’s not important how prestigious this particular journal is, it’s the rigor of the review and then we can rely on the research that’s being published. Did anyone not learn from the pandemic that the general public isn’t entirely convinced by scientific method and isn’t entirely right? And there were some problematic papers that were published that sort of poke some holes in the veracity of the scientific method and process. And I think that it’s our job as the scientific community to get back to a point where when we’re publishing something, we know that it’s as verified and checked and scrutinized as humanly possible. How do we determine facts in this world? Well, because scientists said it and it was reviewed by peers and that sort of became facts. But as soon as those facts start. Becoming challenged because we’re not doing a proper review, because there’s a push to publish as much as possible as quickly as possible, then I think it’s a slippery slope. So that’s part of our job is to really make sure that research is as clear, coherent, accurate and viable as possible, so that what ends up getting published really is valuable.
Jo: I would like it if you’re playing a little bit of device advocate, but I’m not trying to undermine or send any weird messages here, but just coming from a point where I’m also not a native speaker. We have to live and was born and raised in Germany, which is pretty much economically strong as a country. I found it because German and English are related languages. So English was not too hard for me to learn. But now I have a few friends in Portugal, Italy, also Kenya, where English is often the first language, also in Kenya and Nigeria, but then also it’s then Kenyan and Nigerian English, which is also, for some British or American editors, not good enough. So why I’m heading towards this is why should researchers already struggling with low budgets have to pay extra for language skilled services which the native speakers work in certain countries like the United States, constituting universities, they have lots of money, don’t need such services. Or in other words, have you found a balance where you can sustain your business and also love to grow and invest in your team and additional services that you develop and all that entails in business growth and still have affordable pricing?
Jo: And the customer is probably already stretched.
Avi: And we did a deep dive into this. We find that the difference between scholars who work with us and don’t often comes down to what research funds they have available. And I think that the real emphasis needs to be placed on making language an important part of funding requirements and also grant proposals. So when scholars are going to pursue research that the funders understand, this is an important part because again, language is just one piece. I’m really getting back to the communication aspect and how clear we are making our science. And I think that it’s not a matter of and that is really important regardless of what the native language is. So I think that it’s really kind of critical to do editing regardless. I even think that English native speakers should have editing done. I don’t think they necessarily have the humility to admit that it’s necessary. But we’re so entrenched within the deep confines of our research, it’s hard for us to see the forest from the trees and understand kind of what really is what other people are understanding from our research, not just what we’re writing. And therefore I don’t think that we should be doing away with editing or just making it free or coming up with sort of automated processes which are half baked, which I’ve seen. There are a lot of scholars who think that grammarly is a solution for publishing their article, and I really strongly disagree with that. I do think that it’s on the funding bodies and when they are funding to ensure the same way that with plan S, we have sort of demands to make articles open access, there should be a requirement in funding proposals to support language or editing resources so that scholars have that available to them when they’re going to pursue the research.
Jo: Yeah, I totally agree. Also, I didn’t mean to say that either you should provide all these services for free, which wouldn’t be sustainable, or when I just came to mind, which I knew before, but somehow it keeps slipping off my idea plate. Okay, now I’m making up words in conversation that are right over two and more languages in one conversation. But I’m also trying to say that native English speakers would be well off. As we said earlier, a lot of the English research is on world regions outside English speaking territories. So there is a moral demand for making this research output available in those regional and local languages. So they better also come searching for your services to have it translated into languages other than English. Avi: Correct? Yeah, 100%. This brings us back full circle. At the beginning of our conversation, we started to take it for granted that everyone’s going to be working into English, and English is the Lingua Franca of academia, but that may or may not be the best fit for each and every individual piece of research. So I’ve seen we’ve actually been approached by a number of NGOs and funding bodies who have come to us and said, can you help us with translating research to other languages? And I’m really happy to see that trend because I’ve been calling for it for a while now, because I think it’s really important to keep in mind who are we trying to help and really help them in the best way possible. So that’s definitely something that I think Funders should have in mind, is are we helping from above? Meaning are we just kind of saying we’re going to help this population? When it comes down to it, all we’re going to do is publish a report in English which they’re not able to understand, or are we actually giving back to the population that we’re studying and sharing the results of our study with them? And I think that’s really important. So, yeah, if there could be sort of more organized ways of taking published research in English and trying to get them into other languages. I know, for example, at The Lancet, they’re doing something on a very small level, which I really loved because it didn’t really take all that much. But what they’re doing is they’re giving every author who publishes an article at the Lens. It has the ability to publish a foreign language abstract. And it may seem like a small thing, but they actually could publish up to, I think, six or seven foreign language abstracts. And what it does is all of a sudden it makes that research available to scholars or at least they can find it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they can read it or they can comprehend it. By the way, we also haven’t talked about just the general population’s accessibility to research. Right? If I, God forbid, have a family member who’s got cancer, I want to be able to understand their cancer and what the latest research says. If it’s not my local language, it’s really hard to access that. And you’d be shocked when you do searches in other languages how little scientific information there is possible. In English, we’re kind of a little bit spoiled. We’ve got articles about every toe rash you could possibly imagine. But in other languages it’s really not that way. In fact, sometimes it can be really problematic information up there. So that’s something that’s sort of a very little baby first step. But these are little things publishers can do in order to make first of all, it’s good for business because they’re expanding the reach of their own research, which is their end goal. But second of all, I think it’s good for science to expand, maybe to choose. Every year, every journal chooses two or three articles that they’re going to publish in another local population. We’re doing this now for a journal based out of NYU. They came to us and wanted to translate a number of their articles from English to Arabic. And I really love it because I think it really helps the local population in a real way.
Jo: Yeah, this is also what we assume would be easy with Africarxiv or easy adopted, rather not so easy for us. We made it open for submissions in any especially African language, be it French, English, Arabic and also I’m not saying but for reason, and also any traditional African language, Swahili, Yoruba, but I should be able to mention like several thousand more. But we don’t have the time for that. So I’m not sure if I know that more from the top of my head. And then that never happened. We have a few submissions in French and one another regional Botswana language and that’s it like everything else is in English, but there’s also in Francophone, Arabic and Russell Fauna Africa. People are incentivized to publish in English for the most part, or they are not aware of any venues or probably aware, but they’re not so commonly using English speaking venues. And then we also said that unless the landscape has institutionalized that if you see your research relevant, just please provide at least the title and the abstract and maybe keywords also in another language, be it your mother tongue. Or if your article is in English and provides a French translation of these and even the title would already be what’s your experience because we said earlier, of course I’m also aware because my aunt is a translator that the translation is hard work and time consuming and is more than just translating. You also need to convey the information into another language. But it depends how skilled the researchers themselves are in a language. And we also had the mother tongue to translate from English into that language. And as a German, I have to say I have difficulty translating any bio research that I’m used to from English. I would struggle for words to find in German, but to some degree that’s still possible. Would you say or would you rather say talk to the experts?
Avi: Meaning are you asking can we self translate or should we be?
Jo: Yeah, I mean I’m not for a whole research article, but maybe the abstract. Otherwise keywords are probably doable and the title, but already titles are oftentimes so thoroughly defined and designed, or they should be there might be difficult to put them not randomly but into another language and they might end up being super lumped.
Avi: But anyway, the issue with translation is that keywords I agree with usually scholars are familiar with keywords that they need. The issue with the other parts is that there’s translation often, if not always, includes some sort of cultural adaptation. So even if you can find the right words, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have the impact that you want it to have. And it’s really important to have someone who if it’s your own native language you’re translating back into, then go for it and you’re entrenched in the population. But we even see issues with for example, we had a German translation from a good German translator but she was in the stage for the last 25 years and it seems like she from not being in Germany, it actually impacted her ability to really understand the cultural nuances that were needed. So I think that’s really important when you’re going to think about whether you’re going to translate something yourself or send it off to a professional translator. Do I feel like I have the language skills in order to do this without making embarrassing mistakes? But B, do I understand the local culture, population research enough to actually say something with meaning for them so that they will then go and want to continue and especially if it’s something small like an abstract where it’s not very costly to begin with. I think it’s just worth the potential upside of having people access and benefit from your research. I think it’s worth seeking out, knocking down the doors of your head, of your research dean and saying this is something that’s important that I want research funding for. In my experience, I don’t want to oversimplify things because I know it’s not that easy. But in my experience scholars who really take their translation projects seriously and turn around to the research department and look for funding and maybe this is something we share in the show notes Jo. I have a list of funding bodies and are willing to apply for funding. Especially for longer projects such as books. Eventually they’ll get it and eventually you work hard enough and you’ll be able to do it. So it has to be a priority. It has to be something you’re willing to dedicate time and effort to, but there are opportunities out there to publish your research and start with your own local kind of dean for research or your research coordinator. And then if that doesn’t work out, then start looking around online because that’s really important. And like you said, Jo, the best thing to do is when you’re applying for any sort of funding, for any sort of fellowship grant, stipend, whatever, make sure to put in a line there about translation, editing, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to be using it for now, it will benefit you in the long run.
Jo: I’m not on the budget for that item because it’s usually more expensive and more time required to get it done properly, as you also experience.
Avi: Yeah, and people come to me, by the way, people come to me all the time. Can you just help me figure out how much this is going to cost? Even though the project is not going to happen for another two years, we’re happy to help people kind of consult with them and say, here’s an approximate of what that’s going to cost if you’re trying to include it in your research budget. So you don’t need to be shy, as you see here, you don’t need to be shy. You can always approach me and ask me for help with working out your budget, specifically with the line item that has to do with language services.
Jo: It’s great to know that company service providers like yours exist because we need you as a scholarly community, increasingly globally inclusive and also in both directions from English to other languages, from other languages into English and maybe like concealing with or coming to an end because we’re almost reaching an hour by now. It feels like I could continue or could continue forever as a huge topic. Or are you referring to the Helsinki initiative at times? Is it like providing good arguments for I don’t know, I mean, your service is self explanatory and by the time people approach you, it’s just that I became very much lingua myself or speaking English, German, of course, Swedish, a little bit of Kiswahili. French, I have French in square. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent anymore, unfortunately. I think it can be warmed up again. And then when I came across Helsinki initiative, I was like, what? Of course it’s not so obvious, unfortunately, but it should be. Has that influenced the work that you do at academic language experts at times?
Avi: Yeah. So why don’t you share with me? I don’t know if all of your readers necessarily are familiar with the Helsinki Initiative. Do you want to say a few words about it?
Jo: Of course, sure. Yeah. So the Healthy initiative is basically a declaration of some sort on multilingualism and scholarly communication, giving several reasons why it’s necessary and which stakeholders in the academic system should consider it. For the obvious reason, like we said throughout this conversation, funding systems and funders should of course provide budgets that are super important to consider, to have not only but especially for regionally and locally relevant research and also to serve a global research community. We cannot consider ourselves global if you only communicate and accept English as a language for science that’s not global.
Avi: Yeah, obviously I fully support the Helsinki Initiative and have signed it myself. Put it this way, I don’t know that necessarily to me, the Helsinki Initiative is really most powerful when brought to funding bodies and when brought to bigger publishers. I don’t know if we need to convince the authors of this. I think authors would love to do this. I don’t think they need convincing twisting their arms. I think what we need to do is enable the systems, empower them to have access to funding, to be able to really do this properly. So it’s definitely something that I bring up in my conversations with executives in the academic publishing industry. That’s where I think the conversations need to be had. Because I think as soon as you have that opportunity and opening, I think, scholars well, aside from the importance of it and aside from it being valuable, is another way for people to accept it. I think people can express themselves in a really deep, meaningful way that they might not be able to in English even through translation and b take pride in writing in their own native language, especially when it’s something that represents their country, something that they communicate with their peers and with their family. So I think that we’re sort of preaching to the choir if we’re talking to authors. But I definitely think that this is something that we should be pushing out more into the public mindset so that people are kind of aware of it and sign on and it gains steam over time.
Jo: Yeah. I feel the researchers, also myself, might easily buy into the idea of multilingualism but then be stretched for the time, the capacity, the skills, the budget for doing the translation and for that. But we might need researchers to advocate with us for English.
Avi: Yeah, you’re right about that. I agree entirely, Jo. I think you’re entirely right about that.
Jo: And the lands are now providing a good example of how this can be easily achieved also from the publisher side. And then funding should be automatically there and it should just be a matter of checking a box or not even. I guess it’s obligatory to consider at least one other language to translate outcomes into.
Avi: How great would it be if publishers actually paid for that? I think there’s a business case actually we made for publishers translating their research if they were intelligent and smart about it and could figure out how to upsell additional languages that are relevant to their readership. I think 100% there’s a business case to be made. The cost for translating a handful of articles that are already being published is small compared to the potential reward of an additional benefit of localized research. But that’s going to take some more building out a real business case that really supports that.
Jo: I think some small publishers already do that naturally because they publish regional research, which would be in the regional language and English on top, or the other way around. But the other big publishers have a lot of opportunities here. I think that whoever jumps on the opportunity of foreign language publication. Either translating foreign language and publication into English as a business strategy for a publisher to be able to expand their titles or flipped taking research they’ve already published and translated into local languages that will actually read it and have an impact. I think that whoever does that first will really benefit both in a scholarly sense but also in a financial sense.
Jo: I agree. Cool. Thank you so much for your time. Is there any last call to action you would like to shout to the listeners? Any last segment? Concluding remarks?
Avi: Yeah, two things I would say. First of all, anyone who wants to reach out and connect, I’m quite active on LinkedIn, so Avi Staiman is my name, A-V-I-S-T-A-I-M-A-N. Feel free to connect with me there. You can follow us on Twitter, that’s @ale translation. And also we do a monthly publication success interview series where we interview thought leaders about publication. It’s really trying to bridge the gap between authors on the one hand and academic publishers on the other. So I really highly encourage you to check that out as well. You can just Google that and it’ll come up. And obviously if anyone does want any individual help with translation editing, academic review, anything having to do with academic language services or publication support, you can reach out to me via email. My email is email@example.com. That’s avi a v firstname.lastname@example.org you’re also welcome to reach out through LinkedIn networks just as well. And yes, looking forward to that. I hope that our conversation today has been of interest. People who made it this far, clearly we’ve done something right. Jo, I thank you for the invite. I’m honored to be on here and I hope that this is the beginning of a series of conversations on important topics.
Jo: Yeah, I hope so, too. I’m pretty sure it will be and the honor is all mine. And again, thanks for your time, for sharing your wisdom and I’ll speak to you soon again.
Avi: Thanks, Jo.