The reign of English as the language of science

Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel prize only after his work was translated into English.

Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel prize only after his work was translated into English.  


Depending on which source you access, there are anywhere from 17,000 to 28,000 academic journals around the world and 2.5 million articles published in them every year. Of these, anywhere between 15% and 35% of the journals are not in English language. In this connection, three researchers from Cambridge, UK, have published a paper in the (English language) journal PLOS Biology, titled: “Languages are still a major barrier to global sciences”. They point out that research publications in languages other than English lose out. This is particularly relevant and worrisome, since in such papers, a lot is reported on biodiversity, ecology and related subjects. And many of these journals do not find any place in standard link sites. Like it or not, English has willy-nilly turned out to be the lingua franca or the language of science and technology.

And how has this happened? Several historical events have made this so. A major one is the migration of scientists from Europe and the Soviet Union, during and after the two world wars, to the two English-speaking nations, UK and USA, that welcomed them. Another is the result of colonisation of large chunks of the world, notably the Indian subcontinent, by Britain, and the introduction/imposition/gift/call-what-you-will of English to the local population. This allowed access to a cornucopia of material to the colonial subjects, many of whom took to learning and mastering English, and entering the larger world of science thereby. (An interesting reversal of this was by the Arabs who learnt and translated Sanskrit texts into Arabic and Persian thousands of years ago. Also interesting is the fact that two Indian scientists, Satyen Bose and Meghnad Saha translated scientific papers of Einstein and others, from German into (not Bengali but) English for their students). I still recall how in graduate school at Columbia University, New York, in the mid-1960s, we had to learn Scientific German, French or Russian. And my brother had to go through 3 months of German language course before his degree in Germany. Gone are those days. Today, you don’t need these language courses in the US universities, and many German ones use English for teaching! English reigns supreme today as the language of science and technology all over the world.

“Is there Science beyond English?” asked Drs R. Meneghini and A L Packer a decade ago in the journal EMBO Reports. They start their paper by pointing out that over the past 25 Nobel Prize winners in Literature, only 9 wrote their masterpieces in English. The remaining 16 had to wait to get their work translated in to English to gain the attention of the Swedish Nobel prize committee! (Note, too, that Tagore got his Nobel Prize in literature after his poems were translated into English.) As the authors mentioned earlier note, “The translators faced the arduous task of transferring the splendor of the original text into a different semantic, syntactic and sometimes cultural context to make it appeal to a wider audience”.

So it is with science too. Gems of knowledge and wisdom - be they in Sanskrit, Chinese, Spanish or Swahili - became available to the wider world of scientists only upon translation. Many of us learnt for the first time the genius of the ancient Indian doctor Charaka only upon reading the brilliant translation of the Sanskrit text into English by Dr MS Valiathan. Likewise, the translation by Drs K S Shukla and K V Sarma, who did the same with Aryabhatiya, the work of the fifth century mathematician - astronomer Aryabhata. And we came to know of Kautilya’s Artha Sastra, thanks to its discovery and first translation into English by R. Shamasastry during 1905-09. Taking a more recent instance, Dr. Tu You You, who received the Medicine Nobel Prize in 2015, found her clue in a centuries-old manual of clinical practice and emergency remedies, written in Chinese by Ge Hong of the East Jin dynasty. And most of Dr You’s papers, including the one that identified the anti-malarial molecule, are in Chinese.

This is the point that the three Cambridge authors emphasise in their PLOS BIOLOGY paper. They point out how important scientific information and research can be lost in areas such as in biodiversity, ecology, and conservation activities undertaken by local practitioners, and reported in their languages. For example, “the agency Wetlands International of Argentina has produced over 20 technical publications on the conservation and management of wetlands over the last 20 years, but only 2 are available in English…..Such knowledge generated by practitioners is often overlooked as ‘grey literature’ but forms a vital part of the evidence base”. Conservation biologists who ignore them because they are not in English may end up reinventing the wheel. This would be true of other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and medicine.

Initiatives to increase the quality and visibility of non-English publications might help to break down language barriers in scientific communication. One way, suggested in the February 4 issue of the magazine The Economist is the use of machine translation using computers and technological tools, designed specifically for chosen areas. Without such recognition and wider availability of local science, we would be poorer. As The Economist writes, local languages would be used socially and at home, but not for serious work. That would be a shame.

D. Balasubramanian

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 10:52:00 AM |

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