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Scientific Translation: A Lost Art?

Despite the popular stereotype of the mad scientist working alone in his lab, science is a collaborative effort.  The ability to share research and knowledge with other scientists is vital.  As Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But what if those “giants” don’t speak your language?

In fact, translators have historically been an important part of the scientific community, translating, passing on and preserving knowledge from advanced civilizations like ancient Greece and Rome, ancient China and from the Islamic Golden Age.  But these days, according to The Times Higher Education, there are not enough translation resources to go around and language barriers are hampering scientists’ ability to share knowledge.

For scientists from non-English-speaking countries, translating their work into English is essential. However, to do this well, you need a translator who is both fluent in both languages and has some understanding of the nature of the work itself. As the Times explains:

“In an effort to disseminate their work, many foreign scientists spend precious research funds on private translation services. But standard translators may not understand the science, the structure of scientific papers or the technical language. The only alternative is to rely on bilingual colleagues to provide translation services as a favour.”

What’s the solution? The Times suggests that universities and other research institutions make translation more of a priority from the beginning, instead of putting the burden on individual scientists:

 “We suggest that university departments in non-anglophone countries could hire professional translators with a science background, just as they hire statisticians and technical specialists.”

It’s not just non-English speakers who need to step up their game. The Times points out that even English language research can benefit from translation:

Much less appreciated is the potentially important role of translators in universities in English-speaking countries. Translating research into any of the world’s main languages (Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese or French) could boost a paper’s citation rate…The translation of papers into different languages should allow more rapid accumulation of data supporting or refuting hypotheses and increase knowledge sharing in applied areas, such as agronomy or conservation, where, in some countries, English-language publishing and citation is not currently pursued.”

Any other ideas to make it easier for scientists to get their work translated? Share them in the comments!

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Horia Varlan