In a previous post I drew a happy picture of translated books and magazines in Public Diplomacy. USIA and then the Bureau of International Information Programs translated many books into foreign languages, complemented by an active magazine diplomacy. Now, the translation project is a shadow of its former self. What happened?
America Illustrated – the magazine for Soviet readers – published its last issue in 1992, and the intellectual journal Problems of Communism ran only two years longer.
The USIA magazines edited in Washington – Topic, Al-Majal, Dialog, and Economic Impact among them — were terminated without warning in 1994. When USIA’s budget was reduced as part of the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” they were deemed too expensive, and zeroing out the magazines dovetailed with Vice President Gore’s initiative to reinvent government. Only English Teaching Forum continued under the auspices of the English Teaching Division. Ending the magazines was a major, self-inflicted rout in the competition of ideas.
Speaking of Economic Impact only, the effect of termination was notable. Professors who taught economics, international trade, and business – and officials in trade and economics ministries — in LDCs had access to few journals in their fields. Subscriptions were too expensive for their libraries. Economic Impact had given them a steady stream of articles from American business and economic publications; the magazine thus provided important support for U.S. policies – markets and enterprise, free trade, GATT and WTO negotiations, and international economic cooperation.
With the end of the magazines, the staff that had identified articles and books for translation was given other work. The huge inventory of photographs – all with rights paid for – were retired. The end to Washington support did not completely end posts’ desires to use translations in Public Diplomacy, but it shifted much more of the burden onto Public Affairs Officers at embassies.
The blows to translation diplomacy were not all self-inflicted. At one time, the USIA magazines frequently ran translations of articles, op-eds, and editorials from The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers and magazines. Gradually, however, these copyright owners stopped granting permissions to USIA, lest their standing be tainted by appearance of their articles in “propaganda” publications.
Of the many single-country magazines of the USIA era, only Span – for audiences in India and Pakistan – remains. Successive Country Public Affairs Officers at the American Embassy in New Delhi bravely defied all calls to cease publication, and their comparatively large program budget allowed the magazine to continue. It has proved its worth by publishing new versions in Urdu and Pashtu.
The Bureau of International Information Programs and the American Embassy in Beijing support a webzine, New Jiaoliu, that serves some of the need of the original print magazine that published its last issue in 2005. The Public Affairs Section in Abuja launched a Hausa-language magazine, Magama, after 9/11. In Tokyo, the Embassy publishes American View in English and Japanese online, replacing its longtime magazine, Trends.
For some years after the end of the magazines, USIA and IIP published Electronic Journals that were compilations of subject matter articles written or commissioned by USIA or State. Not general interest magazines with something for every reader in every issue, each journal addressed a theme or issue. Few, however, were translated into foreign languages. The full run of the Electronic Journals no longer seems available on the internet. An Agency veteran told me “several ill-considered changes in media and operating systems caused many translations to fall off the radar and get lost.”
Dominic diPasquale, rummaging through SA-44 in 2008, found a set of hard copies of the Electronic Journals someone had printed out, which were sent to the National Archives. So was the complete run of Span. The University of California’s Annenberg School and the University of Maryland received sets of America Illustrated, and the University of Southern California received copies of Al-Majal. In theory, copies of every USIA magazine were sent to the Agency’s headquarters in Washington, so the National Archives may be the only place to recover the translations done in the USIA era.
The book translation program also shriveled.
After 1999, when the State Department absorbed USIA’s overseas printing plants, a new accounting system increased costs charged to posts, placing a larger burden on their budgets in a time of austerity.
Obtaining copyright permissions became slower and more difficult as publishers began to realize that translations could be a profitable revenue stream. Even when publishers granted permission to USIA for print runs of a few thousand copies in a foreign language, it was impossible to obtain permission to use the illustrations, photographs and art works in the original American editions. It usually takes several years to complete a translation, and projects lost headway when people moved. With each decade, translation diplomacy with its long implementation times proved sluggish. It could not easily respond to new trends, let alone each day’s crises.
USIA also relinquished its rights to the Ladder editions for ESL learners.
One program continues. Under the Nouveaux Horizons imprint, the Africa Regional Services office in Paris still publishes books by American authors translated into French for Francophone Africa, the Maghreb, and Haiti. The office also manages another program of translations into Portuguese.
Because the Smith-Mundt Act barred circulation of the USIA books and magazines in the United States (the bar ended only in 2013), USIA’s books and pamphlets were never given Dewey or Library of Congress classification numbers or ISBNs. As a result, very few foreign university or public libraries ever catalogued their copies, and they are now hard to find. My own look through amazon’s listings of used books shows very few copies of the English editions for sale, let alone the translations.
It would be difficult to assemble the translations made in the past. In all the books and magazines of the USIA years, there were hundreds of articles on Martin Luther King, or John Kennedy, or separation of powers translated into foreign languages. Students, faculty, or journalists working only in their own languages would now be hard-pressed to find them.
The years of work and investment are thus scattered or lost, a casualty of budget trimming and organizational turbulence. As this step by step collapse of long-form translation diplomacy occurred, I often thought to myself that those who were fixated on the prospect of a “peace dividend” by cutting USIA’s translations knew cost, but not value.
Some of the more recent IIP titles in English have now been reprinted by private publishers or issued in Kindle format. (As works produced by a government agency, they were never copyrighted. The new providers charge for material that was free.)
The Past is Past
The Bureau of International Information Programs has many writers and translators, but in this century new factors also worked to question Public Diplomacy’s decades of focus on translations.
First, Congress focused on quantifiable measures of effectiveness, “metrics.” No one ever found a way to count how translations of books and magazines “moved the needle.”
Second, in the USIA days, American publishers made very little money from foreign language translations of American books. Now U.S. copyright holders know that foreign language translations of their new books can be a significant revenue stream.
Third, the rise of the social media utterly changed the contours of international communication. During the Obama administration, the Bureau of International Information Programs transitioned to “all on policy, all on the web” as its basic posture.
Advocates of translations like Walter Russell Mead are right when they say that those who do not read English cannot access thought that created modern societies, human rights, and the democratic order. In its time, USIA aspired to do this with its translated books and magazines in foreign languages. Today’s Public Diplomacy has moved on.
If Congress believes translations are still useful, it probably needs to earmark funds for dedicated organizations that can undertake this highly specialized task.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity 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.