If you’re one of those people who considers the US to be an inward looking nation, obsessed by border control and who can and can’t enter – a (mis?)conception that will only be intensified if Trump ever gets control of The White House – then it’ll come as a surprise to hear the Washington Post in using translation to try and grow its non-English speaking readership.


Image by Michelle Hunter on Flickr

In particular, the US capital’s oldest newspaper is looking to translate political explanation pieces as part of an attempt “to reach new readers who are interested in American politics — but perhaps don’t speak English or understand how American government works.”

So is this a genuine attempt to enlighten a new demographic, or a cynical push for readership figures?

Hola, Washington Post

The Washington Post’s December 2014 editorial on the Obama administration’s move to restore ties with Cuba became one of the first to made available in both English and Spanish online.

The paper has been specific about which stories to translate and how to distribute them, and a number of perceived ‘foreign interest’ stories have subsequently been translated, notably an interview with two former Mexican presidents on Trump’s plans for a wall.

Jeremy Gilbert, the Post’s director of strategic initiatives, said “We were convinced that there is a need for translated articles, but we hadn’t hit on the right formulation in terms of how to get a professionalized translation that’s turned around quickly enough for our purposes.”

He added: “At the base level, we’re experimenting with which articles we’re translating and how frequently we’re translating, to build a real audience for them. We’re looking at very specific articles that could have a little bit more life, that we could translate and just leave up there.”

And it looks like explanation pieces on US politics fits the bill in the run-up to the presidential elections.

Política Americana, explained

The US presidential election campaign is always a bit of a sideshow, but the 2016 race for The White House has become a full-blown circus – mainly as a result of Donald Trump’s, frankly racist, posturing.

And so it sets itself up perfectly for the Post’s translation pieces as people from outside the US welcome guidance and opinion pieces on the whole spectacle.

A recent article explaining low voter turnout is down to the fact Election Day isn’t a national holiday and voting isn’t compulsory (same system as the UK then) allowed readers to toggle between English, Portuguese, French, and Italian.

This type of article is perfect for the translation treatment as it explains things that may not be apparent to overseas readers but would be obvious to Americans.

Articles like “Why are there only two parties in American politics?” “Why do American elections last so long?” “What happens if nobody wins the nomination before the convention?” have also been given the same treatment for the same reason.

“Part of our challenge is, the things Americans learn in civics classes, we never explain in our articles. We just say there is a primary coming up, but not why is there a primary. We say the Republican or Democratic party, but not why there are two parties,” Gilbert said.

He added: “For the election-related explainers, we challenged our copy editors to re-edit the stories written by our politics team assuming no knowledge. They still have concepts and analogies and knowledge that might not translate smoothly.”

And while the sheer number news wire clients distributing these translated articles means it’s all but impossible to work out how many times each has been viewed, Gilbert is happy they’re being received well by international readers.

It’s not just about informing foreigners though, it’s also a question of clicks.

Click, click

Traffic from international areas is one of the fastest growing areas of the Post’s audiences – its website pulled in 19.5 million international readers in April alone this year. And the next part of the plan is to move into more langiages, including Arabic, Tagalog, and Russian.

Gilbert said: “One of the reasons we are publishing on our site is to see if we can start building an actual audience who will come to us. As we publish more in those various languages, we can start to link from one explainer to another within, for instance, Spanish or Italian or French,”

Adding: “We’re committed to winning the largest audience for all the kinds of reporting that we do, and that audience is going to be international as well as national,” Gilbert said. “And that probably will mean more translated stories.”

Even if it’s more a matter of clicks, anything that pushes diversity across the US has to be a good thing.