vAleria Ramírez Castañeda, a Colombian biologist, spends her time in the Amazon studying how snakes eat poisonous frogs without getting ill. Although her findings de ella come in many shapes and sizes, in her years as a researcher, she and her colleagues have struggled to get their biological discoveries out to the wider scientific community. With Spanish as her mother tongue, her research on her had to be translated into English to be published. That was not always possible because of budget or time constraints –and it means that some of her findings were never published.
“It’s not that I’m a bad scientist,” she says. “It’s just because of the language.”
Ramírez Castañeda is not alone. There is a plethora of research in non-English-language papers that gets lost in translation, or is never translated, creating a gap in the global community’s scientific knowledge. As the amount of scientific research grows, so does the gap. This is especially true for conservation and biodiversity. Research about native traditions and knowledge tied to biodiversity is often conducted in the domestic non-colonial language and isn’t translated.
TO study published in the journal Plos Biology found that paying more attention to non-English language research could expand the geographical coverage of biodiversity scientific evidence by 12% to 25% and the number of species covered by 5% to 32%. There is research on nine amphibian species, 217 bird species and 64 mammal species not covered in English-language studies. “We are essentially not using scientific evidence published in non-English-languages at the international level, but if we could make a better use of [it]we might be able to fill the existing gaps in the variability of current scientific evidence,” he says Tatsuya Amanoa Japanese biodiversity researcher at the University of Queensland and the paper’s lead researcher.
His team pored over more than 400,000 peer-reviewed papers in 16 different languages and found 1,234 studies providing evidence on biodiversity conservation which, because they weren’t in English, may have been overlooked. These included Japanese-language findings on the effectiveness of relocating the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl, the largest owl species, and a Spanish-language study on the use of guardian dogs to alleviate conflict between farmers and Andean mountain cats in Patagonia.
Although some non-English language studies don’t meet international standards, steps can be taken to help the community overcome language barriers, says Amano, who has published a guide in the journal Science.
Some experts believe English should be the lingua franca of science. Scott Montgomerya geoscientist at the University of Washington and author of Does Science Need a Global Language? argues that for the sake of the bigger picture, scientific knowledge should converge into one common language.
“Science is very globalized and becoming more so, so the use of a global language is enormous for that. It’s not just for efficiency, it’s for collaboration,” Montgomery says. “I make the point that learning English should be something similar to learning mathematics for scientists. It’s just a very basic, fundamental skill that you need to participate.” Where that isn’t possible, other languages should be translated into English, he adds.
Translating science into a more widely used language has been standard practice in history, according to Michael Gordon, a science historian at Princeton University. “This kind of chain of translations is a thing that’s been going on in the history of science for millennia,” he says. “Arabic knowledge, which was very prominent from about the ninth century to the 13th century, some of it was Persian translated into Arabic, but a lot of it was Greek and Syriac translated into Arabic, and more.”
However, the amount of scientific knowledge that needs translation is huge. One potential solution is to extend the use of machine translation, which was initially developed to translate Russian science into English, according to Gordin. Another option would be to have large international scientific organizations subsidize the translation and copy-editing of local science into a universal language. It also could be possible to transition to a world where, say, Chinese, English and Spanish are the three languages of science and scientists were expected to have a passive knowledge of all three, just as English, French and German were the languages of science in the 19th century.
It is a problem worth tackling because this language gap also widens the gap between the global north and south, argues nina huntera researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.
“Global south scientists and their science aren’t taken into consideration in the same way, because it’s all just based on the kind of criteria that are easy for the global north,” she says. In a recent papershe argues that in the fight to combat the climate crisis, researchers from Lusophone Africa (Portuguese-speaking African countries) are being marginalized.
Inequality in international influence is also a result of unequal access to knowledge, because of that language gap, according to Hunter. Many biologists from indigenous communities in South America or Africa, who have already had to learn the colonial language of the nation, are cut off from accruing more personal and professional knowledge for their research because so much of it is published solely in a language they don don’t understand.
Scientists can work with an English collaborator, or use a translator – but this ultimately strengthens the cycle of dependency on the global north, according to Ramírez Castañeda, who is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. After her initial publishing struggles, she went on to study science communication and published an article on the difficulties facing Colombian researchers.
The specific meanings of words can also pose a problem in translation, she says. For example, in the work she does with indigenous communities in the Amazon, many of the local languages don’t have one single word to describe forest snakes and frogs.
“So we’re losing observations for science, too,” says Ramírez Castañeda. “For me, it’s not possible to just have everything translated to English. We need multilingual science, and we need people who feel comfortable doing science in their own languages.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism