Close Menu

To Solve the World's Biggest Problems, We Need to Become Better Translators

April 19th, 2012
By: Becky Lang

Recently, I was talking to someone who works in the field of child literacy. She’s constantly worried that her school’s program, where teachers work one-on-one with kids who are behind on reading, will get cut.

When you think about it, child literacy is one of the most important things in the world. It’s one of those ungreased wheels that allows generations held back by class, linguistic differences and poverty to grow up missing educational opportunities to escape those problems. If we dramatically improve children’s literacy, we could start to significantly reduce racial and class disparity in future generations. Yet programs to address this issue are constantly under threat of getting cut.

“So what do you think would help your program avoid getting cut?” I asked her.

“We would need to make them actually understand what we do and why*. And that’s impossible.”

This problem is one common for almost every industry. Physics. Legislature. Charity. Marketing. Something takes a lot of effort to understand, so people simply don’t try. But we need to stop waiting for them to try – we need to bring that information to life for them in new ways.

We live in a society where millions of complex systems run by highly-specialized people work together in unison every day. And we make big decisions about these systems without understanding them, because a) the outside world doesn’t bother to and b) people aren’t sure how to translate what they actually do to the outside world.

If we could all become better translators, the world would get better. And we are learning new ways to do this. While infographics are affectionally disdained, they have shown that we can get people to want to learn by making statistics more visually digestible. And digital culture is helping us share more information every day.

For marketers, translation should be at the center of helping good businesses gain the reputations they deserve. At the heart of every business is a product or service that is carefully designed and created. If businesses could find ways to translate all the thinking that goes into that product, whether it’s the physics that go into a car motor or the agriculture processes that go into orange juice, they could start to gain public trust.

Historically, brands haven’t talked much about any of that, other than just a euphemistic glaze in a commercial. But the Internet gives us a chance to really educate the public with the knowledge that businesses hold. And some are already doing this, like G.E.’s Ecomagination project.

Translating these complex processes isn’t just about helping a brand sell more product, it’s about being a responsible brand. Businesses can help the world get better if they give consumers the tools they need to make better choices. If we all step back and understand how big words like sustainability, education and innovation work on a specific, technical level, we can encourage systems that work and fight myths that prevent progress from moving forward.

-Becky Lang

* Like many industries, the forces at work in child literacy programs are not the ones you would expect.

The people controlling the budgets tend to blame schools for illiteracy, but according to this teacher, these programs are bandaging problems that started much sooner. In her opinion, the biggest reason kids get behind is because their parents didn’t read to them often as a child, usually because they’re working too many jobs to keep their family afloat. Without this experience, many kids don’t understand how a storybook works. How are the words on the page different from what’s in real life? How are they supposed to react to these words?

Beyond that, the kids also lose out on the emotional comfort most kids develop toward books when they are used to confronting them with their parents. The parent reading makes them feel safe and guided through the process, and only with a one-on-one teacher can they get a similar feeling of trust and comfort toward the written word. But explaining these problems opens up many discussions that go beyond reading. It’s complicated, but it’s worth understanding.