Scientific Research is Being Lost in Translation

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Scientific researchers from non-English countries often face challenges when they are looking to publish their work; as English is basically the only language used in the scientific field, they often find it hard get the subtleties of their research across in a language different than their native one.

Researcher Meredith Root-Bernstein gives an account of the existing and preferred methods scientists can use to do so.

Why is English so important in science?

According to Root-Bernstein, scientific researchers in today’s world can only become professionals in their field if they have a good command of the English language.

In her article on The Higher Education, however, she points out that this puts researchers from non-English speaking countries at a great disadvantage.

After all, she says, people who learn English later on in life often lack the subtleties of the language, which means they might choose the wrong words to get their message across. This can severely influence their chances of publication in international journals. Consequently, research from non-English speaking researchers might have a limited impact, which can be bad for the whole industry.

This is why Root-Bernstein believes science is in need of more people that can bridge this language gap.

This is especially true for the environmental and agronomical parts of the field, she says, as interventions on local and regional levels could have a global impact. Now, scientists use private translation services to translate their work, but Root-Bernstein notes that these companies might be unfamiliar with scientific language, the structure of scientific papers or simply the subject itself.

How is research being translated?

Thus, Root-Bernstein  says, the only option for foreign researcher to have their work translated is to turn to their bilingual colleagues. However, she refers to an article she co-wrote for Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, in which it was suggested that universities in non-English speaking countries should hire professional translators that are specialised in science. Moreover, Root-Bernstein thinks universities should also create attractive positions for bilinguals and require them to spend a portion of their time on translating or writing papers.

In the English-speaking world, translation is even less prominent than in non-Anglophone countries. According to Root-Bernstein, a paper’s citation rate could go up if it were to be translated another main language, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese or Mandarin. She even states that these four languages account for a fifth of all published research for the agricultural, biological and environmental sciences! If papers would be translated in more languages, Root-Bernstein says, data would spread faster and knowledge in applied areas would be more widespread.

What can researchers do for translations?

It is clear that the scientific field is in need of some improvements when it comes to translation, but Root-Bernstein says researchers already have a number of options when it comes to getting their work known to the world. Some English-language journals that deal with agricultural, biological and environmental sciences, for example, publish Spanish or French abstracts, and some journals create their own translations of foreign research.

Root-Bernstein believes it might be a wise idea for journals to publish translations of original papers online, which she says could be presented as an option for users of the pay-to-publish access model. This way, researchers can publish the translations on their own website or on scientific social networks and universities could create databases with translations of important research. Root-Bernstein this could help universities strengthen their international profile and create new academic networks.

Concluding, Root-Bernstein states that science is about more than just data. Confidence and the ability to persuade, she says, is influenced by the language that is used for communication, as are the expression of intricate and nuanced ideas and information.

Language also shapes our judgements about the value of authors and their ideas, she says. She believes that a day might come where computers can carry out the translations of scientific work, but that until then, scientists should to take advantage of all the help they can get their hands on.

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