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Overcoming Language Barriers by Translating Scientific Research

Aug 08, 2017

For most of our lifetimes, English has been the international language of science. In historical terms, however, a scientific lingua franca hasn’t really existed since Latin lost popularity in the 18th century.

Among the first to break with tradition was Galileo, who in the early 1600s published the majority of his work in Italian (to the dismay of the Church and many of his peers). Isaac Newton began his publishing career in Latin, but switched to English in 1704 with Opticks. By the 20th century, international academic discourse was fractured into three main languages: English, German (e.g. Albert Einstein’s early work) and French (e.g. Marie Curie’s research).

Post-World War I, the geopolitical dominance of the U.S. had the effect of sidelining the German scientific community and establishing English as the international academic and scientific language. In the current century, however, as advanced scientific research and geopolitical power have spread across the globe, the dependence on English is proving insufficient.

Higher education

One issue is that around the world, college-level science is taught in English – which is not a natural mode of expression for non-native speakers. As Monseratt Lopez, a McGill University biophysicist originally from Mexico, told The Atlantic, “Processing the content of the lectures in a different language required a big energetic investment, and a whole lot more concentration than I am used to in my own language.”

Of equal concern is that discomfort with English conversation can inhibit genuine communication and innovation. “I was also shy to communicate with researchers, from fear of not understanding quite well what they were saying,” says Lopez.

Bringing professional interpreters into university classrooms and laboratories is one solution to help bridge the learning gap for students dealing with language and cultural barriers. Another is to offer course materials that are professionally translated and localized.

Scientific publications

While English is considered the language of higher education, a new study by Cambridge University shows this is actually far from universal. Researchers there used Google Scholar, a major repository of scientific publications, to examine over 75,000 scientific documents on biodiversity conservation in 16 languages for the year 2014. They discovered that about a third of the publications were in languages other than English:

  • 6% were in Spanish
  • 3% were in Portuguese
  • 6% were in Simplified Chinese
  • 3% were in French.

According to the study, this prompts two problems:

  • One third of today’s scientific knowledge is not understood by the majority of scientists because of the lack of scientific document translation.
  • Half of the non-English publications are unsearchable using English keywords (because they lack English titles or abstracts).

Study author Tatsuya Amano summed up the results, saying “Language barriers continue to impede the global compilation and application of scientific knowledge.”

Practical application

In a time when concerned English-speaking scientists are struggling to address climate change, the Cambridge study revealed that there are roughly 13,000 related articles that aren’t even a part of the conversation because they were published in a foreign language.

An even more urgent situation arose in January 2004 when veterinarians in China discovered that pigs had become infected with the H5N1 avian flu. They realized that the virus’ presence in pigs meant that the deadly disease could jump to humans. Scientists sounded the alarm in a Chinese veterinary journal, writing, “Urgent attention should be paid to the pandemic preparedness of these two subtypes of influenza.” However, their warning was published only in Chinese. Nobody outside the country noticed it until August of that year — seven months after publication — at which point the World Health Organization and U.N. hastily translated the article and disseminated emergency bulletins of their own.

Translations are the solution

“I believe the scientific community needs to start seriously tackling this issue,” Amano says. “Journals, funders, authors, and institutions should be encouraged to supply translations of a summary of a scientific publication — regardless of the language it is originally published in.”

Now, more than ever before, professional translation and interpretation services are critical to helping scientists solve the health, environment and technology issues that impact each of us as global citizens.


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