Thursday 6 May 2021

We launched a new group to promote the translation of the scientific literature

Tell your story, tell your journey, they say. Climate Outreach advised: tell about how you came to accept climate change is a problem. Maybe I am too young, but still not being 50 I have accepted climate change was a risk we should care about already as a kid.

Also otherwise, I do not remember suddenly changing my mind often, so that I could talk about my journey. Where the word "remember" may do a lot of the work. Is it useful not to remember such things to make it easier on you to change your mind? Or do many people work with really narrow uncertainty intervals even when they do not have a clue yet?

But when it comes to translations of scientific articles, I changed a lot. When I was doing cloud research I used to think that knowing English was just one of the skills a scientist needs. Just like logic, statistics, coding, knowing the literature, public speaking, and so on.

Working on historical climate data changed this. I regularly have to communicate with people from weather services from all over the world and many do not speak English (well), while they do work that is crucial for science. Given how hard we make it for them to participate they do an amazing job; I guess the World Meteorological Organization translating all their reports in many languages helps.

The most "journey" moment was at the Data Management Workshop in Peru, where I was the only one not speaking Spanish. A colleague told me that she translated important scientific articles into Spanish and send them by email to her colleagues. Just like Albert Einstein translated scientific articles into English for those who did not master the language of science at the time.

This got me thinking about a database where such translations could be made available. When you search for an article and can see which translations are available. Or where you can search for translated articles on a specific topic. Such a resource would make producing translations more worthwhile and would thus hopefully stimulate their production.

Gathering literature, bookmarks on this topic and noticing who else was interested in this topic, I have invited a group of people to see if we can collaborate on this topic. After a series of pandemic video calls, we decided to launch as a group, somewhat unimaginatively called: "Translate Science". Please find below the part of our launch blog post about why translations are important.

(To be fair to me, and I like being fair to me, for a fundamental science needing expensive instruments such as cloud studies it makes more sense to simply do it in English. While for sciences that directly impact people, climate, health, agriculture, two-way communication within science, with the orbit around science and with society is much more important.

But even in the clouds sciences I should probably have paid more attention to studies in other languages. One of our group members works on turbulence and droplets and found many worthwhile papers in Russian. I had never considered that and might have found some turbulent gems there as well.)

The importance of translated articles

English as a common language has made global communication within science easier. However, this has made communication with non-English communities harder. For English-speakers it is easy to overestimate how many people speak English because we mostly deal with foreigners who do speak English. It is thought that that about one billion people speak English. That means that seven billion people do not. For example, at many weather services in the Global South only few people master English, but they use the translated guidance reports of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) a lot. For the WMO, as a membership organization of the weather services, where every weather service has one vote, translating all its guidance reports into many languages is a priority.

Non-English or multilingual speakers, in both African (and non-African) continents, could participate in science on an equal footing by having a reliable system where scientific work written in non-English language is accepted and translated into English (or any other language) and vice versa. Language barriers should not waste scientific talent.

Translated scientific articles open science to regular people, science enthusiasts, activists, advisors, trainers, consultants, architects, doctors, journalists, planners, administrators, technicians and scientists. Such a lower barrier to participating in science is especially important on topics such as climate change, environment, agriculture and health. The easier knowledge transfer goes both ways: people benefiting from scientific knowledge and people having knowledge scientists should know. Translations thus help both science and society. They aid innovation and tackling the big global challenges in the fields of climate change, agriculture and health.

Translated scientific articles speed up scientific progress by tapping into more knowledge and avoiding double work. They thus improve the quality and efficiency of science. Translations can improve public disclosure, scientific engagement and science literacy. The production of translated scientific articles also creates a training dataset to improve automatic translations, which for most languages is still lacking.

The full post at the Translate Science blog explains more about who we are, what we would like to do to promote translations and how you can join.