The Importance of Scientific Translation

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Today, the countries at the cutting edge of scientific research are the US, China, Germany, the UK, Japan, and France. When it comes to furthering scientific knowledge and cooperation, this can be a problem.

Because English has been accepted as the language of science for well over a century. But that puts researchers – often geniuses in their own field – on the back foot if English isn’t their first language.

Plus, the scientific research of today is rarely siloed by country. Modern science is a global network of cooperation and innovation. Researchers are chosen by institutions for their scientific merit. Not usually where they grew up or the languages they speak.

Global organisations like the World Health Organisation know how important it is to be truly multilingual too. The WHO publishes health information in multiple languages to ensure critical data reaches the people who need it.

All of this makes high-quality, accurate scientific translation an absolute must for researchers, institutions, and organisations around the world.

What is scientific translation?

Scientific translation is the act of translating documents such as research, academic articles, the results of clinical trials, and more – any document on a scientific subject – into another language.

Most scientific documents feature complex terminology. They are often characterised by very specific language use too. The topics may also be extremely specialised. This means that any linguists involved in the translation need to be experts in this specific field. Otherwise, they may not understand how terms are being applied.

The same is true of signed or spoken translation – interpreting. For events like scientific conferences, seminars, and webinars, interpretation should only ever be entrusted to a linguist who is also an expert in the specific field. If they’re not, you risk confusion, miscommunication, and concepts being conveyed poorly or inaccurately.

Why translate scientific research?

There are many reasons why scientists and researchers of all kinds around the world have their scientific research, results, and other published content translated:

1) Reach the English-speaking world

In the world of science, those who have English as their first language often overlook how lucky they are. With English as the current de facto global language of science, most native English speakers are unaware of the additional challenges that many of their non-native speaking colleagues face on a daily basis.

For instance, as an English-speaking native, it’s often easier to find an editor or proofreader willing to review your work. They do so safe in the knowledge that there should only be some minor errors or grammar mistakes that need attention.

For a non-native speaker – even someone with fluent English – the challenge is to find an editor with enough experience to correct the language mistakes possible in such a complex, precise field. But also to recognise when meaning and concepts are actually being expressed as intended.

This usually calls for a professional editor and proofreader skilled and experienced in scientific translation.

2) Find collaborators

Non-English speaking scientists and researchers who are looking for collaboration partners will find it much easier to do so if they can make their ideas known in English.

It is perhaps an unfair outcome of the current consensus that English is the language of scientific cooperation. But it’s one that effective scientific translation can help you solve.

3) Get funding

The same is true of one of the greatest challenges in any scientist’s life – getting the funding you need to do your work.

Looking for research grants and venture capital is best done with the biggest possible pool to choose from. Sometimes, this means translating your proposals and plans into English. But equally, it can mean translating into languages like Chinese, Russian, German, or French if you want to appeal to truly global investors, organisations, and philanthropists.

4) Understand your competition

Do you know if there are teams around the world competing to achieve the same breakthroughs you are? Find out – and discover how much progress they have made – by having their published research accurately translated into your mother tongue.

This can help you set your research apart from theirs. Or find opportunities to collaborate.

5) Share data

The biggest challenges in science require data to be shared. Consider emergencies like COVID-19 vaccine development. Or the building of the Large Hadron Collider, a project which involved the collaboration of over 10 000 scientists and hundreds of institutions.

Being able to easily share data across language barriers is vital for a great deal of scientific work. The more different minds can look at and interpret findings and then find ways to improve, apply, or extend them, the more progress is made.

That one bit of data gathered by an obscure study can have massive repercussions when translated into a language that a scientist working on the same problem on the other side of the world understands.

6) Spread knowledge and ideas

Translating your work can help spread data inside the scientific community. But it can also help you spread your knowledge and ideas to the wider world.

A large number of scientific journals intended for both those with a science background and the relative layperson are available in English. But there are well over 9000 scientific journals that aren’t. French, Chinese, and German alone have thousands of well-regarded journals between them.

Non-English journals may often have a more limited readership. But this is often only competitively speaking. It still might mean thousands more interested, knowledgeable people receiving your ideas and considering them.

Translating your research and other findings can also be beneficial for business reasons. Plus, it can be a great help to groups who might otherwise struggle to find translated versions of papers they need. This might include people like university students or graduate researchers.

7) Gain recognition

It’s not the highest goal in the minds of many scientists, but it’s always nice to be recognised for the hard work you put in.

Translating your work into other languages helps you reach more people, get more citations, and gain greater recognition.

8) Future-proof your research

English is enjoying its time as the go-to language of scientific progress and cooperation. As are those in the scientific community who grew up speaking the language, whether they have actively considered this to be an advantage or not.

But that doesn’t mean English is guaranteed to be science’s lingua franca forever. Latin was the language of science for hundreds of years. After that, French and German had relatively brief heydays.

Many great minds in modern science hail from countries such as Spain, China, and Russia as well as the US, the UK, France, and Germany. Who knows what tomorrow’s “language of science” will be?

Translate your research and results in order to future-proof them.

How to carry out scientific translation

Scientific translation is a smart idea for any number of reasons. But there are a few key dos and don’ts involved in the process itself. These include:

1) Don’t rely on bilingual colleagues

The language skills of bilingual and multilingual team members are often impressive. But when it comes to the rigour and specificity required for scientific translation, being bilingual isn’t enough.

Handling the translation of precise scientific concepts and topics calls for a master of both languages in question.

Plus, translation isn’t something you automatically become good at just because you speak both languages. You should always use a skilled, qualified, and experienced translator for your translation project – or have your chosen Language Service Provider (LSP) source one for you.

2) Do use a subject matter specialist translator

As any scientist knows only too well, precision and accuracy are vital. Any vagueness in a translation can result in concepts being conveyed in a way that is not as their originator intended.

This leads some scientists to avoid the translation process altogether. They are too concerned that mistakes will be made. But that means you miss out on all of the advantages of scientific translation.

Instead, use translators who have qualifications or experience in the specific scientific field you work in. This is something you should insist on if you are using an LSP. Some do this as standard. For example, Kwintessential only ever uses linguists who are subject matter specialists for any project.

Because using an expert is the only way to ensure the highest levels of accuracy when doing things like presenting data. An expert in the field will also understand the times when you need to be persuasive and be able to present ideas and concepts in as clear a manner as you do.

3) Don’t use someone who isn’t a native speaker

Any good LSP will use a linguist who is a native speaker of your target language for a project. If you’re using an internal translator, you still can’t afford to skip this requirement.

Only a native speaker of your target language will be as intimately familiar with the many possible meanings and options for expression available in it. Even a linguist with a high level of mastery will not have the cultural reference points or understand how your particular field of science “works” in the local region.

Without this understanding, even theoretically accurate translations can lead to errors and miscommunication.

4) Do insist on expert editing and proofreading

Having a full Quality Assurance process is a key part of ensuring any scientific translation project is going to be successful. This means having a separate, skilled editor and proofreader. The roles of these two professionals are different from one another:

  • The role of an editor – is to comment on things like the readability of a document or the accuracy of the word or phrase choices the linguist made when translating.
  • The role of a proofreader – is to check the document for grammatical errors and mistakes of other kinds to prepare it for publishing.

How to fund scientific research and translation

The benefits of translating scientific research are many. It can even make good business sense. But high-quality scientific translation isn’t free.

This means that preparing for translation costs in the funding stage is a smart move. Including this kind of detail in a budget proposal is also frequently viewed as a plus by many groups and institutions that are possible sources of funding.

This is because the person or institution might not necessarily understand the intricacies of the theory you propose or the implications of the research you are going to do. But they are likely to understand concepts like maximising your reach, collaboration, and gaining recognition – all things that scientific translation allows you to do.

Some of the best sources of scientific funding which translation appeals to include:

  1. Universities – universities often understand the business case for translation. Not only are their own students likely to be direct beneficiaries of scientific translation, but the institutions themselves are also always keen to promote the work their researchers are doing to the widest possible audience. This can attract future talent and further funding to the university.
  2. Foundations – you might be able to improve the chances of successfully submitting a letter of enquiry and proposal to a foundation by mentioning that you plan to translate the results for a global audience.
  3. Businesses – some businesses are actively looking to fund research in their field. Sometimes this is because they have certain interests they want to promote. On many occasions, they would simply stand to benefit from further knowledge in the field. If anyone will understand the business case for translation, it’s a commercial enterprise.

Scientific translation and globalisation

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” And it’s this concept, perhaps more than any other, that speaks to most scientists when they think about translation.

The modern field of scientific progress is a globalised one. Think of the rapid progress that was made on the COVID-19 vaccine by teams working across language barriers and borders. On the other hand, think back to 2004 when the publication of certain research papers in Chinese delayed the World Health Organisation from publishing certain vital findings for months.

Among other benefits, scientific translation offers great opportunities for collaboration, competitor investigation, data sharing, recognition, funding, and future-proofing your research. As long, that is, it’s carried out by trained and qualified native-speaking translators who have the same kind of expertise in your field that you do.

Need to translate scientific papers, documents, research, grant proposals, clinical trial results, and more?

Kwintessential helps scientists and researchers around the world communicate with audiences in more than 200 languages.

Get a free, no-obligation quote or discuss your scientific translation project with an expert today.

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