Why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages

Over the last year, I’ve been doing research into the intersection between effective altruism in China (see our recent article on the topic). I participated in a retreat in Hong Kong on this topic, and oversaw the funding and mentoring of someone to work full-time on research and advising to help Western organisations learn about the country. I also speak basic conversational Chinese, have lived for almost a year in the country, and was heavily involved in our first efforts to promote effective altruism in the West.

All this has made me very cautious about trying to translate effective altruism materials into Chinese, or do broad based outreach in the country.

I think many of the arguments behind this position also apply to translating effective altruism materials into other languages. So, I think most efforts to do this translation work should probably be delayed. The more different the language, culture and politics, the longer we should wait.

Instead, I think that efforts to expand effective altruism into other languages should initially focus on person-to-person outreach to a small number of people with key expertise.

In the rest of this post, I outline four reasons why, and sketch an alternative approach.

1) Doing mass outreach in another language creates irreversible “lock in”

We made many mistakes doing outreach in the UK and USA, which have been difficult to unwind. For instance, even today many people think 80,000 Hours is primarily about earning to give, despite us saying many times we don’t think earning to give is typically the highest-impact option.

In this way, any kind of broad based outreach is risky because it’s hard to reverse. Once your message is out there, it tends to stick around for years, so if you get the message wrong, you’ve harmed years of future efforts. We call this the risk of “lock in”.

Lock in is partly caused because once there are websites and media articles about you, they stick around. But it’s also because first impressions are difficult to shift.

The existence of lock in means it’s worth delaying broad based outreach to increase the chance of getting the messages right first time.

China faces especially high risk of lock in, because you also face the risk of government censorship, but the consideration applies in any language.

2) It’s very difficult to translate effective altruism

There’s a huge amount we still don’t understand about how to explain effective altruism in English, and translating it into a different language creates a whole host of other problems.

Making translations with the right nuance is difficult. For instance, the direct Chinese translation of “effective altruism” that was initially used (有效利他主义) had the following problems:

1. Used a term for “altruism” that implied a great deal of self-sacrifice.

2. Sounds obviously foreign, which we expect would make it less appealing.

3. Sounds like a political ideology, which may not be viewed positively by the government.

Likewise, one of the possible translations of “existential risk” (生存危机) is very close to the the name of a computer game (生化危机), so doesn’t have the credibility one might want.

What’s more, each culture is different, and ideas often need to be presented in different ways depending on the context. For instance, Chinese writing makes a much greater use of historical analogies and ancient quotes than similar English writing. Rather than quote Peter Singer, we might consider quoting Mozi—arguably the earliest consequentialist philosopher in history who in wrote around 400 BC of the importance of “universal concern” () towards all people.

Likewise, many materials in the West focus on the value of donating to charities in Africa, but internationally focused philanthropy is much rarer in China, and the Chinese government has prohibited foreign nonprofit organisations fundraising in the country, so this doesn’t seem like a promising route.

The ideas can also combine in unexpected ways with the local culture, leading to surprising results. For instance, effective altruism culture is fairly different in Oxford, the Bay Area and the German-speaking world.

It’s unlikely we’ll successfully navigate these kinds of problems unless we have people who are both excellent writers and marketers in the new language and have an in-depth understanding of effective altruism as it currently exists. But these kinds of people are often in short supply, and it would be better to wait until we find some.

This problem is greater the more culturally different the country of the new language is, so the greater the difference the longer we should wait to translate. My guess is that French is relatively safe (though likely still worth delaying), while we should wait longest to translate and promote materials in Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Arabic.

3) Existing English language materials are often out of date

Our views have changed significantly in just the last couple of years, so many existing materials don’t reflect our current views.

For instance, personally, I think Doing Good Better is too focused on donating to charity, contributing to the widely repeated assertion that effective altruism is “about how to donate to effective charities,” when actually it’s about all ways to do good, and where we think decisions about your career or policy change are often more important than decisions about where to donate.

Likewise, Doing Good Better is focused on global health and short-term issues, when today we think global catastrophic risks, emerging technologies and long-term issues are more urgent.

Translating effective altruism into a new language gives us a chance to correct outdated views and avoid lock in with those old views, and it’s a shame to waste that opportunity by directly translating old materials.

4) Mass outreach is not a good way to promote effective altruism in general

The ideas of effective altruism are unusually complex, and mass outreach tends to oversimplify them, leading to misunderstandings getting locked in. We still have a lot of work to do working out how best to frame the ideas in English, and this favours small-scale outreach where you can get rapid feedback on how well you’re being understood.

What’s more, it’s usually higher-impact to have a small number of highly involved people than hundreds of are merely aware of the ideas, or only participating in a superficial way. This is because impact is a product of how much effort someone invests and how effective their efforts are. A highly engaged person might exert 10-times the effort (e.g. donate 20% rather than 2%) and work 10-times more effectively, making for 100-times the impact.

More concretely, if you’re running a local group, then finding one other dedicated volunteer can mean the difference between the group surviving and failing, which is more important than having hundreds of people who attend events but don’t help out. Likewise, finding one person who speaks the language and really gets the ideas, or has knowledge relevant to a top problem area, is more useful than having thousands of people know about the ideas in a superficial way.

For both reasons, we think it’s usually better to focus on in-depth outreach to a small number of people, ideally through person-to-person discussions, rather than widely promoted short-form content or other mass marketing.

This can feel a bit counterintuitive. We find that people new to building the effective altruism community often think they should focus on getting media attention, inviting famous speakers to events, and “partnerships” with prestigious groups. But these approaches don’t normally yield as many results as building strong person-to-person relationships with genuinely enthusiastic people, and they also pose greater risks.

If written materials are used, then it’s better to focus on books, academic articles and podcasts aimed at a niche audience. Read more about the “fidelity model, and “how valuable is movement growth, which argues that we should focus on how attractive the ideas are before spreading them widely. The approach we advocate here also has similarities with Y Combinator’sdo things that don’t scale advice.

What should we do instead?

Rather than “translating” effective altruism into new languages, it seems better to think in terms of creating a local movement from scratch that’s inspired by the ideas of effective altruism, but is highly adapted to the local context. Imagine that Will MacAskill was Chinese: then what would he have written?

To do this well, we’ll need people who are both experts in the local culture and effective altruism in the West. We’ll also need people who are excellent writer and communicators in the new language.

Initial efforts to expand effective altruism into new languages should focus on making strong connections with a small number of people who have relevant expertise, via person-to-person outreach instead of mass media.

Instead of creating irreversible risks, this strategy has two benefits.

First, it has a significant short-term impact, because finding even a small number of really engaged community members is valuable.

Second, it puts us in a better position to do outreach in the future, because these initial connections will better understand the new language and culture, enabling better translations and outreach in the future.

One counterargument is that you face a chicken and egg problem. Without mass outreach, you could argue that it’s hard to find anyone interested in the ideas, or gain credibility. However, I don’t think this argument holds up.

The recent survey of the community, showed that the media has played a comparatively small role in getting people involved. Rather, the biggest single entry route was personal referral. Some of these entrances into the community might have been aided by the existence of media, but I suspect many could have happened without.

For this reason, I expect that it’s possible to start getting people involved in new countries with more person-to-person outreach. This would mean speaking to and arranging smalls events with (i) friends (ii) existing community members who speak the new language, and (iii) connections of connections from the previous two groups.

Beyond this, you could find more people by targeting lectures and discussion groups at especially promising groups. With these, it’s better to have a small event where the ideas are accurately expressed than one with a well-known speaker who doesn’t quite get what effective altruism is about.

Once you have an initial community of around 100 people, you could start creating written materials to support these efforts. But these materials would initially be tested on people you already know rather than promoted widely. If you need more credibility to support these efforts, rather than seek new press coverage, you could mention the achievements of effective altruism in other countries.

Only after significant testing would you release public written materials. Even then, it would be better to focus on in-depth materials like books and podcasts, rather than short-form media articles.

Translating effective altruism into new languages has the potential to have a tremendous impact, but could also spoil future efforts if done badly, slowing efforts by many years. If we start with in-depth, targeted, in-person outreach, we can make significant progress while reducing these risks.