banner by Meghan Carlton

Science in Translation

by Ana Driscoll

Juliet may have told Romeo “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but what would happen if we called a rose a daisy? The resulting confusion could be the basis of a Shakespearean comedy. A rose may still be a rose if we describe it incorrectly, but we have lost the ability to effectively communicate the idea of it to others.  

Words are powerful. This is not only true in literature but also in science: a poor choice of adjective can completely change the stated implications of a study or a misunderstood term can lead to a serious medical error. Despite this fact, the importance of language outside of the humanities is often overlooked. The stakes become even higher when we consider the increasingly global, collaborative -- and, paradoxically, monolingual -- nature of science in today’s world. English has monopolized scientific discourse in a way we have never seen before. Some 80% of publications indexed in Scopus, one of the largest databases of peer-reviewed literature, are written in English.  Nearly 40 times more papers in the Netherlands have been published in English than in its official language, Dutch.  

While adopting a common language certainly makes communication easier, it presents a variety of problems for non-native speakers. In science, technical issues of translation and larger impacts on the evolution of language itself must be considered. Both problems are serious and have far-reaching implications.

Translation of scientific ideas into English is usually accomplished when foreign scientists spend research money hiring private translators or rely on bilingual colleagues to translate their manuscripts.   In either case, non-native English speakers are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to advancing their scientific work. Translation costs time and money -- the average American interpreter or translator charges $22.14 per hour of work, and translators with scientific expertise often command even higher wages. This means non-English speaking labs must dedicate money to translation that native English speakers can funnel to their own research. Alternately, if bilingual colleagues complete translation tasks, groups based in non-English speaking countries lose time that could be put towards conducting experiments, writing grants or other tasks that more directly advance their goals.

Additionally, it is important to consider that translating scientific texts is difficult even for those who have received formal training in translation. Translators must have both complete fluency in the source language and English, as well as enough technical knowledge to understand relevant jargon. Otherwise, the meaning of scientific results could be misrepresented. For example, a mistranslation of a 1901 German physiology textbook is responsible for the misconception that the tongue has “regional sensitivities” -- that is, each area of the tongue is especially sensitive to a particular type of flavor, such as sweetness or bitterness. You may have even seen a “tongue map” in a cookbook. However, the original textbook only claimed that some regions of the tongue are “very slightly” more sensitive to some of the four basic tastes. The translation grossly overstated this claim, and tongue maps are still used in America today.

While in some cases poor translations make their way into the scientific mainstream, in others there are no translations at all. Some technical words are written in English if there is no comparable term -- for instance, the words ”quark” and “chromosome” are often simply transliterated. The number of scientific terms lacking direct translations from English in any given language will only increase as time goes on, making the nearly ubiquitous use of English in science a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As new discoveries are made, new words must be invented to describe them. These words are often in English and, as we have discussed, often do not have direct equivalents in other languages. Scientists therefore face the challenge of communicating these concepts without having the prerequisite vocabulary. Clearly, this complicates translation of English texts. Even more concerning is this problem’s contribution to a phenomenon called “domain collapse” -- as a language stops adapting to new developments in a given field, it becomes obsolete in that context. As more scientists rely on English to describe their discoveries, it becomes more likely that they will not be able to choose differently. The nature of scientific discourse therefore creates both issues of translation and larger problems of linguistic deterioration.  

The implications of these complications are far-reaching, especially because science is inherently collaborative. Peer review, the process by which studies are vetted by a group of experts in the same field before they are published, is a cornerstone of modern science. Experiments are replicated in order to re-test results, ensuring that the original findings are valid.  Even decisions regarding which questions are worth exploring are made based on the state of current knowledge, which is determined by what other scientists publish. Thus, it is logical that larger amounts of accessible and intelligible data would lead to more innovation.

 The inherent disadvantages faced by non-English speaking labs, the implications of poor translation, and the deterioration of technical vocabulary in other languages all decrease the availability of accurate work and are barriers to scientific progress. In short, it may be true that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But without the right descriptions, both flowers and science become harder to appreciate.