Gained in translation?

As a former researcher and long-term research manager, I am thrilled when the results of my research and that of my colleagues is taken up. Whether the results are used by farmers in their practices, by policy makers to inform their legislation, by research collaborators to design centres of excellence or by companies to direct their investments, nothing beats the overwhelming sense of satisfaction a researcher gets from what is commonly referred to as adoption.

Over the coming months, I will no doubt frequently refer to research adoption as I take this blog in directions that I suspect will surprise me as much as it will the reader. I will also no doubt refer hand in hand to the process of participatory research and interdisciplinary research, approaches I have always found makes a great accelerators of the adoption process. It is axiomatic that I’ll largely, though not exclusively, focus on applied research.

And with those concepts in mind, I will start this series of blogs on an important element of the adoption process that is not always dealt with well, at least in my observation of many endeavours in research and science. As a former research-based consultant, company CEO and ministerial adviser on science funding, I often heard investors in research (potential adopters) use the term ‘translation’ in relation to their need for research to provide the evidence base for making decisions, be it in relation to farming practice, policy development, city planning, or risk management among other business.

More specifically, I often heard stakeholder criticism of researchers’ capacity to translate business needs into research plans and activity and to translate research results into something that fitted the context of the decision, policy or practice at hand. (So as not to upset researchers with this generalisation, I also frequently heard the frustrations of researchers who lamented the capacity of many professions to translate their needs into an articulate and coherent demand for research.)

At this point I could wax lyrical about the nature of research adoption, drawing on the history of research extension and technology transfer.

But I won’t.

Instead I will ponder on the concept of translation, drawing on my experience working across cultures and languages, presently in the context of Indonesia, and previously in China, Japan, Laos and elsewhere. Indeed, I am drawn to bringing together the concepts of language translation and research translation.

In the context of language, translation literally means a written communication in a second language having the same meaning as the written communication in a first language. Good translation maintains constancy of meaning from an original text into a translated text. Great translation enriches the meaning by capturing the true and not just literal essence of what was originally articulated.

In the research world, there is no shortage of good, original and important material to be translated. For the wont of time, expertise and translation, many researchers will have good material they would dearly otherwise love to see adopted. Some no doubt have tried, only to find that their potential adopters couldn’t understand the translation of results into implementable practice in their unique context or found their issues had somehow been lost in translation in the first place.

To my mind, the question of translating stakeholder issues into research that will lead to solutions is critical. This is essentially a challenge of problem definition, something I believe is best undertaken as a highly participatory and interdisciplinary process.

The question is fundamentally about how to provide research stakeholders with confidence that their issues are deeply understood to the extent that the eventual research results will represent a meaningful translation of what must be done with the new knowledge.

And it is here that principles for good language translation* may have broader applicability. According to Darnya Zakharenko, good translators:

  • are well equipped; possessing the right skills and tools for translation;
  • don’t jump into translating too quickly, but read the entire text to understand the component parts and their relationship;
  • seek to understand the style and nature of the text, so as to appreciate its purpose and framework;
  • focus on intended meaning, so as to capture the essence and nuances that distinguish the text;
  • state phrases aloud so that they hear their own translation to determine if it makes sense as they progress;
  • reread the translation upon completion, to determine if it makes both logical and intuitive sense;
  • and seek the response of native speakers, again to determine if the translation makes both logical and intuitive sense.

Maybe I’ve taken this analogy too far. To me though, good language translation essentially underlines the principles of understanding context, being prepared, acting appropriately on feedback and placing oneself into the position of the reader (in the case of language translation) or adopter (in the case of research translation).

Gains in applied research come through good translation; the kind of translation indistinguishable from that marked by good language translation. I see this as an opportunity for the research clusters of Australia-Indonesia Centre, particularly given that the bilateral, inter-cultural nature of the clusters will highlight the need for translation in both senses discussed here.

*These principles are taken from Darnya Zakharenko’s Seven Secrets of Good Translation, ( accessed 25 February)

Dr. Richard Price