Lost without translation: scientific research

Accurate scientific translation is vital, say Meredith Root-Bernstein and Richard Ladle

June 26, 2014

Universities could hire translators with a science background, just as they hire technical specialists

We all know that if you want to be a professional scientist in the 21st century, you have to communicate in English. This is not a problem if you are lucky enough to be born to English-speaking parents, but spare a thought for the majority of the world’s scientists who are forced to communicate the subtleties and significance of their research in an idiosyncratic foreign tongue.

A misplaced preposition or poor choice of verb can ruin a convincing narrative, reducing the probability of publication in a top international journal and limiting the impact of the research. Not only is this bad news for scientists struggling to communicate their work, it is also bad for science.

Science needs more trained personnel who can bridge the language gap. The need is particularly urgent in areas such as the environmental and agronomical sciences in which it is increasingly appreciated that regional and local interventions can have global impacts.

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.

But in a recent article in the journal Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 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. Alternatively, they could offer attractive positions for bilingual or native English-speaking researchers, with a percentage of their time earmarked for assisting colleagues with translating, editing or writing papers and other research outputs. Such positions could be permanent or offered on a fixed-term basis to visiting academics.

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. Indeed, total productivity in environmental, biological and agricultural sciences for countries speaking those four languages accounts for a fifth of research published globally. 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.

While we hope to see such new roles develop, individual researchers can also turn to some of the existing models for publishing translations. Some English-language journals in environmental, biological and agricultural sciences, for example, publish abstracts in Spanish or French. Some journals produce translations of papers originally published in overseas journals. Others publish papers in multiple languages – although, regrettably, some have dropped this practice.

Another idea would be for journals to provide online-only versions of original papers in translation; this could be offered as an option under the pay-to-publish open access model. Researchers themselves could post translations of their articles on their lab websites, or on scientific social networks such as Research Gate. Universities could develop online, freely available archives of their most significant research publications translated into targeted foreign languages. This could be a way for them to increase their international profile, creating new academic networks and new spaces for collaboration.

Science is never just about the data. The language in which we communicate affects our confidence and our ability to persuade, our expression of complex and nuanced ideas and information, and our judgements of the value of new ideas and their authors. One day, computers may be able to do accurate scientific translations, but until then scientists need all the help they can get.

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Reader's comments (4)

As a professional German to English translator with a chemistry background I can vouch for the fact that there are specialist translators available to help. Scientific translation is a skilled service that adds value by enabling scientists to promote their research to a wider scientific community and collaborate with international colleagues. Often individual freelance translators are the best candidates for specialised translations. You can make sure their background is a good fit and collaborate directly with the translator to discuss the finer details of your work. A professional translation institute such as the Institute of Translation & Interpreting in the UK provides a database of qualified members that can be searched according to language and subject area and would be an excellent place to start.
I agree entirely that accurate scientific translation is vital, as Meredith Root-Bernstein and Richard Ladle say. Their opening sentence, that to be a professional scientist now you need to communicate in English, is applicable in reverse to professional scientific translators: If you want to be a professional scientific translator in the 21st century, you need to have command of the science, as well consummate linguistic skills in both your source and target languages. But there is a third skill that may well be overlooked in the rush to find someone who knows the languages and the subject area in sufficient depth. While mastery of two or more languages and an understanding of the science are two key elements, the act of translation itself is also a skill that must be learned and honed over many years of experience. It is not easy to dip in and out of professional translation. Using an active practitioner is the best way to obtain the results that the researcher desires, such as publication or citation in a foreign-language journal. In the UK, qualified members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI; www.iti.org.uk), the translation profession’s only dedicated association, hold the language credentials and the requisite sector knowledge, and have demonstrated their translation skills at a high level. They often work closely with authors to ensure the accuracy of their work, and provide added value, helping foreign authors to comply with scientific style and content requirements, and journal-specific issues such as spelling preferences, formatting, referencing etc. The Institute maintains an online directory of pre-assessed translators (professionals with English as a source language as well as those working into English). It is a resource that guides those seeking expert assistance straight to professional translators who have highly developed subject specialisations. In some cases the translators' expertise extends to a postgraduate qualification that they have obtained in their own right, not only in translation but also in their area of work, such as chemistry. Moreover, ITI’s members must all adhere to a Code of Professional Conduct in which they commit to undertake Continuous Professional Development in order to keep abreast of developments in their field. Accurate scientific translation is vital, and expert professional translators are ready and willing to bring new scientific knowledge to a wider audience.
There are some very good points raised in this article. Accurate academic translation is hard to come by and is more difficult to "police" than, say, English-language editing services. Journal Prep (the company I run) started off as an academic editing company in 2010 but has since branched into academic translation (particularly in multiple fields of medicine, science and business) given the constant requests we received from prospective clients. Moreover, publishers we work with have been "looking into translation services" over the past year or so, recognizing that language editing just won't cut it for many non-native, English-speaking researchers. In our experience, recruiting skilled and certified academic translators with field-specific expertise isn't easy, but it is feasible. What we have tried to accomplish at Journal Prep (and continue to work on) is the creation of a database of qualified scientific, medical and business translators who can translate info English from the ten most commonly requested source languages (Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish). I'm sure that teams of translators could be established within individual universities, at least for the most prominent source languages. I think this initiative would not only help many researchers but also increase the yield of published research papers for an institution. This, of course, could benefit the institution in many ways. Disclaimer: I am the co-founder and President of Journal Prep (www.journalprep.com), a research publication support company based in Montreal, Canada. The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the company.
?onsidering the urgency of interdisciplinary research and the increasing competition (real race) for highly –cited academic papers number it comes into the open the need in the highly qualified translators who are not only proficient in English and experienced in linguistics but who have professional scientific background as well. Apparently it is even worth to speak not about separated individuals but about the Centres for Academic Writing and Scientific Translation at universities that could unite professional translators specialized in different scientific fields and help academics and researchers with the papers preparation in compliance with scientific journals requirements, including accurate translation. Additionally, such Centres could accumulate the knowledge in translation systematically within the single quality control system and become the platforms for experience changing.

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