You’re Not Fluent Yet! Speaking the Language of Sustainable Development

Movements focused on sustainable development are rapidly gaining traction at the international level. Here are a few tips for getting up to speed to take advantage of this potential niche market.

As defined by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, and still applicable today, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1

Sustainable development is based on the interplay of two key concepts: 1) needs (specifically of the world’s poor), and 2) limitations imposed by technology and society on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

The term “sustainability” was first used in the 17th and 18th centuries in relation to “sustainable forest management” and “sustainable yield,” which eventually formed the basis of the environmental movement started by Aldo Leopold in the 1930s and 1940s. Considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the U.S. wilderness system, Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast. Among his best-known ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. The themes with which Leopold struggled in his work (i.e., the speed of industrialization and its impact on the natural world) dominated environmental discourse during the 1960s and 1970s.2

The first topic addressed by sustainable development that comes to mind is environmental conservation, but there are many interconnecting areas in the field of sustainable development itself, as listed below.

  • Social movements:
    • Historic preservation
    • Placemaking (the planning, design, and management of public spaces)
    • Sharing economy
  • Environment:
    • Sustainable agriculture
    • Renewable energies
    • Green building
    • Energy efficiency
  • International Development:
    • Social inclusion
    • Poverty reduction
    • Gender equality
    • Disease eradication
  • Circular Economy: Looking beyond the current “take, make, and dispose” extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimizing negative impacts. Such efforts include:
    • Recovering
    • Recycling
    • “Downcycling” (when waste material is converted into something of lesser value)
    • Reusing
    • Repurposing
    • “Upcycling” (reusing waste without destroying it to form something new)
    • Remanufacturing

Future of Sustainable Development

The good news for translators is that sustainable development is a growing field. For example, it’s estimated that there are only about 100 manufacturing companies worldwide who have truly adapted a circular strategy, but that the circular economy could add US$2.6 trillion to the European economy by 2030.3

Cross-cultural communication is essential in achieving the goals the world has set for itself in this area. As a case in point, researchers have argued that language serves as a tool for sustainable development, specifically in regions such as Africa, where local languages must be taken into account.4 By communicating in the local language, we switch the focus to the local community as a relevant source of development.5 As described by Thomas Bearth (University of Zurich, Switzerland) and Diomandé Fan (University of Kassel, Germany) in 2004, “Economists have traced the failure to achieve objectives set in overseas development cooperation to what they call the ‘broken feedback loop’ […] i.e., a deficit in the flow of communication from the local community back to the sponsors.”6 This is just another incentive for translators to step in to help close the loop.

Staying Up-to-Date: Terminology Research

Given that sustainable development is a growing field, there is an abundance of material available to the public that will allow you to gain knowledge about the basic concepts and build your vocabulary. I suggest reading articles in the news, journals, and on websites focused on new initiatives and research. It’s also a good idea to follow companies and individuals who promote sustainable development on Twitter or other social media and to participate in the discussion. In addition, I would recommend taking MOOCs (massive open online courses) on related fields and attending relevant webinars and expos with the goal of increasing your knowledge and growing your network. Conducting searches online to see how other organizations use certain terms and referring to online dictionaries is also an excellent way to increase your knowledge base. In addition to information available in multiple languages on the United Nation’s website, many dictionaries and glossaries have been compiled on sustainable development by different governments, as listed below.

Sources for Terminology in the Field of Sustainable Development

Dictionnaire environnement (French-English)

EnDic Environmental Dictionary
(English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, and Swedish)

Environmental Thesaurus
(English, German) Environmental Terminology and Discovery Service

GEMET—General Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus

Glossary of Environmental Health Terms (U.S.)

Glossary of Environmental Science

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations Environment Glossary
(Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish)

United Nations Sustainability Platform

Vocabulaire du développement durable (French Ministry of Culture)

Vocabulaire du développement durable (Government of Quebec: French-English)

Vocabulaire panlatin du développe­ment durable

Water Glossaries (multilingual)

In addition to the links above, a list of helpful resources in multiple languages has been posted on the website of ATA’s Science and Technology Division (

Avoiding Neologisms

When reading about sustainable development, there are often new expressions and terms that have not yet become commonplace. While it’s tempting to sound “cutting-edge,” using neologisms is a matter of walking the line between what constitutes specialist knowledge and what the general public will understand. Therefore, it’s crucial to remember the importance of good writing. Using plain language is key to communicating ideas clearly, regardless of the field in which you work. Avoid buzzwords and remember the following stylistic tip, as offered by the Canadian government in their 1991 style guide: “Trendy, fashionable expressions […] are used far too often. They can undermine the impact of what you’re trying to say because they are not well understood by the public. The fact that they are trendy will also mean that they will soon date your writing. Avoid them.”7

Taking Advantage of Computational Lexicology

According to a study by Google and Harvard published in the journal Science in 2011, about 8,500 new words enter the English language annually. This resulted in a 70% growth of the lexicon between 1950 and 2000.8 Stemming from this research, a number of online tools have been developed that use what is known as “computational lexicology,” which is the analysis of millions of documents to determine the frequency of usage of words and expressions. The following are a few examples of such tools that can provide a snapshot of a word’s usage.

  • Diatopix
    Developed by Patrick Drouin at the University of Montréal, this tool allows you to see the frequency of usage of words and expressions in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese according to specific regions. It’s a useful tool for making an argument to a client about why to use one term over another.
  • Google Ngram Viewer
    While the Google Ngram viewer allows you to specify a language and timeframe, it’s arguably not the best tool due to poor optical character recognition, as the corpus of work uses digitally scanned books on topics ranging from scientific literature to fiction. This means that the results only consider a fraction of new words that have actually made it into print.
  • Google Scholar
    This engine searches physical and digital copies of publications and is especially useful for academic research. With the option of specifying the search language, Google Scholar allows you to see how terms are used and in what context to verify that the translation you plan to use is suitable.
  • Le Révélateur linguistique (French only)
    This tool provides quick Google search comparisons according to French and English language variants.

Finally, intuition is the most important tool of all. While you must always be prepared to give a well-informed explanation of your word choice to the client (based on frequency of use, grammar and punctuation rules, and reference dictionaries), your personal opinion can be just as persuasive.

Censorship and Changing Behavior through Language

As any translator knows, language is at the center of culture and belief systems and contains elements that can shape our lives (e.g., empowering and disempowering women, dispelling fear or perpetuating stigmas, passing down knowledge of traditional medicinal plants, or seeing that knowledge, and those plants, die off). When it comes to achieving change, it’s important to keep in mind that banning words is far less effective than making a persuasive case for better words. In general, it’s better to use language we perceive to be neutral and clear.

For example, a campaign was run in 2014 to “Stop Using the Term ‘Child Prostitute’” in an effort to avoid censorship and make society more compassionate. Over 150,000 supporters petitioned the Associated Press and argued that the terms child prostitute, juvenile prostitute, and child sex worker “suggest criminality when none exists.” It was recommended that these terms be replaced with the expression “survivors and victims of rape,” in the belief that, “Children who are bought and sold will continue to be treated as criminals, instead of as victims and survivors of child rape.”9

We must therefore remember the power of positive language and consider translation as an opportunity to change the way we view the world. Your clients are most likely unaware of the subtleties of the English language, and it will please them even more if you can explain that you chose to express an idea using words and phrases that are intended to promote change. It may be as simple as referring to unemployed homeless individuals as “homeless individuals estranged from the job market” to remove the negative connotation association with the word “unemployed.” Many times, the source text will already convey these nuances, and so it may be an issue of simply conserving them in your translation.

Cultural Differences

The cultural nuances of language are essential in making different sustainability movements compatible in another country. As language specialists, we know that some words carry more weight than others in certain languages, which can make conveying their power in another language difficult. The same movement in one country may also focus on different aspects in another country. For example, the concept of écocitoyenneté in French has no equivalent in English. Reflecting the French value of being a good national citizen, this would most likely translate to “environmentally conscious world citizens” in English. Keeping these cultural differences and values in mind is important to have a greater impact on the target audience.

Tips for Getting Started

My first piece of advice is to follow your passion, since doing so will make you much more interested and engaged in your work. Developing a mission statement, identifying your target clientele, and fine-tuning your elevator pitch will make your efforts much more focused and help you find your own market niche. You should also ensure that your website, online profiles, and marketing materials clearly reflect your mission statement, as it will attract the type of people with whom you want to work.

To find and attract clients, initiate contact with potential clients by engaging on Twitter and LinkedIn and by attending industry events. My philosophy on networking, although energy-intensive, is that gaining one client through in-person networking or directed marketing efforts serves as a gateway to other clients, as word-of-mouth is the most effective (and effortless) way to get more clients.

If you don’t have prior experience, I suggest volunteering your services in the field of sustainable development, where a large number of clients are nonprofits that rely heavily on volunteers. This is an excellent way to build your vocabulary, become knowledgeable about basic concepts, and build your portfolio.

Finally, having an online portfolio and résumé that describe the projects you’ve worked on and how they helped clients advance their sustainable development goals shows potential clients that you’re forward-thinking and focused on their objectives. Listing your “ideal” projects or types of clients in your portfolio will help you attract more of the same in the future. It may help to come up with a list of issues that you’re passionate about, in addition to the key words associated with them, in order to better define what you’re looking for. Most of all, it’s important to remember that, in this field, expressing your values and goals can only help you.

Believe in What You’re Doing

The more you can show your clients that you understand and believe in the ideology of sustainable development, the more convinced they will be that you can provide them with quality translation services tailored to their needs and objectives. If you have this mindset and understand the sustainable development paradigm that takes an all-encompassing view of the world, you’ll come across to clients as a partner and someone who has the same goals in mind. As in any field, it’s important to focus on understanding the purpose of the translation, instead of simply trying to convince your client you can produce a “good” translation. You want to show them that your work is effective.

  1. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987),
  2. Aldo Leopold Foundation,
  3. Kiser, Barbara, “Circular Economy: Getting the Circulation Going,” Nature (March 2016), 443–444,
  4. Okafor, Monica, and Paulinus Noah. “The Role of Local Languages in Sustainable Community Development Projects in Ebonyi State, Nigeria,” European Scientific Journal (December 2014), 272–283,
  5. “Why Language Matters for the Millennium Development Goals” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2012),
  6. Bearth, Thomas, and Diomandé Fan. “The Local Language—A Neglected Resource for Sustainable Development,” Internet Journal for Cultural Studies (September 2004),
  7. Plain Language: Clear and Simple (Human Resources Development Canada, Canadian Government Publishing, 1991),
  8. Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, and Matthew K. Gray. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, January 2011), 176–182,
  9. Nunn, Gary. “Word Perfect: How Language Can Change Behavior,” The Sydney Morning Herald (April 25, 2016),

Natalie Pavey is a French>English translator specializing in sustainable development, marketing, and business communication. She has a master’s degree in French language and culture. Prior to becoming a translator, she spent two years participating in development projects in West Africa as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and worked in Katmai National Park in Alaska as a park ranger/interpreter. In addition to ATA, she is a certified member of the Corporation of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters of New Brunswick and the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec (Canada). Contact:

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