Translations in Public Diplomacy (I): Walter Russell Mead’s Call to Action


A few years ago, Walter Russell Mead, professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor at large of the American Interest, proposed a “strategy to counter democracy’s global retreat.”  “Produce inexpensive, good translations of Burke, Locke and other thinkers, and spread the texts widely,” he urged.  His call to action should be considered by all public diplomacy scholars and practitioners.

Mead Makes the Case

Mead’s view of democratic change is realistic, chastened by many recent disappointments.  “The gloomy prospects for democratic self-government in many parts of the world should not come as a surprise. Building democracy took generations in much of the Atlantic world, and most revolutions didn’t succeed in establishing stable democratic regimes.”  “We need to think about promoting deeper social change over longer periods,” he continued.  “To become and remain democratic, countries need to develop cultural values hospitable to the rule of law, protection of private property, transparency and peaceful transitions of power that are grounded in their own religious and cultural identities.”

“A more sustainable and effective democracy agenda would start with education,” he continued.  “This doesn’t just mean offering more students more opportunities to study abroad. . . .  Founding new schools, helping existing ones, and promoting partnerships between Western and foreign institutions can go a long way.”  There’s an important role for English teaching, he noted.

However, “People who don’t read English or a handful of other languages live in a different information universe.  John Locke, Edmund Burke, Thomas Macaulay, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin — the works of these thinkers need to be well-translated and widely available.  People who read only Urdu, Burmese, Arabic or Punjabi need readily accessible editions (cheap print or Web-based) of important books in their own languages so that people beyond elite circles have access to the ideas and the histories that matter.”

Translation by itself is insufficient, Mead said.  “Smart people from different cultural backgrounds should be commissioned to write introductions and other materials that can give readers in nondemocratic countries the context they need to make sense of these crucial texts. . . .  And leading magazines, opinion journals and policy reports should be translated into languages where they can be more widely read.”

The 2002 Arab Development Report cited a 1999 study that “The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.  The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.”  The population of Greece is less than 11 million; 200 million people speak Arabic.  Sixteen years have passed since the study, but the ratio will not have changed much.

On the case:  U.S. Public Diplomacy

For years, Mr. Mead’s important vision was implemented in a big way by the U.S. Information Agency, and it continued, though on a smaller scale, in the Bureau of International Information Programs of the Department of State.

USIA implemented a robust books and magazine diplomacy which included translations of fundamental American documents into many languages.  Though the Agency never, to my knowledge, translated Burke, Montesquieu, or Adam Smith (they were not, after all, Americans), Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Lincoln were always well represented.

Translation diplomacy was a partnership between the Agency and its Foreign Service posts.

Washington specialists gathered materials that addressed issues in foreign policy and the realm of ideas.  If trade was an issue, the magazine specialists at USIA combed through American newspapers, the opinion magazines, and academic journals to identify materials that would engage foreign influencers.

The Agency’s team of Wireless File writers – to use Professor Mead’s characterization, they were really “smart people” – wrote articles and tailored introductions and essays in ways that would speak to foreign audiences.

For longer-term efforts – understanding the United States and its government, or laying out the intellectual case for markets, enterprise, and democracy, for instance – other specialists were alert for book titles.

The Agency’s copyright specialists obtained the necessary all-language permissions to reprint articles in Agency magazines or to publish foreign language editions of key books.

During the Cold War, newspaper and magazine publishers regularly and quickly granted translation rights to USIA, and book publishers were satisfied to grant rights for USIA-sponsored translations for modest royalties.

The American Studies Division of USIA published many books on the United States that circulated overseas to students and faculty, libraries, high schools, and American Studies programs.  They commissioned leading scholars to prepare many of the titles.

“Living Documents of American History” – the first edition was compiled by Henry Steele Commager – was translated into dozens of languages.  Volumes in the “Outline Series” which described U.S. history, government, the economy, literature, and geography were translated into all of the major world languages.  There were many translations of books on democracy, enterprise, American literature, and culture.

In a parallel effort, USIA circulated hundreds of thousands of “ladder editions” for English learners, important titles rewritten with vocabularies of 1000, 2000, or 3000 words.

It was Foreign Service posts that usually issued the contracts to teams of local translators, and they arranged for printing of the volumes by one of the Agency’s Regional Service Centers (Manila, Vienna, Mexico City) or by local publishers.

The book editions were complemented by an active magazine diplomacy.  Some magazines were regional – Al-Majal in Arabic, Topic in French and English for Africa.  Other USIA magazines like Economic Impact and Dialogue (art, theatre, dance) aimed at specialty audiences.  All these were edited in Washington.  Many USIS posts published one-country magazines; Jiaoliu for China, Trends for Japan, Span for India, and America Illustrated for the Soviet Union were only the most prominent.

If they were gathered in one place, the full library of USIA and IIP translations would include several hundred books and thousands of magazine articles published in dozens of languages.  These translations would provide a substantial body of material to begin implementing Professor Mead’s evergreen vision.

Alas, there’s more to the story.


Donald Bishop

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.
Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years. Read More

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