in Localization Tips, Translation

Science Lost in Translation – To navigate the ivory tower of academic publishing, the English language is an indispensable necessity. For non-native English speakers, that necessity means hours of language study or being shut out of international research efforts and being kept from making major scientific contributions. But as all language-learners know, linguistic study – particularly beyond the bounds of traditional school systems – comes at great cost, both in terms of time and treasure. Even those able to make the required commitment may never develop the specific cultural and linguistic understanding needed to craft convincing scientific arguments. Usually, a language service provider (LSP) would be the ideal choice. But again, those services are costly, especially when translators with very specialized backgrounds are required. In this week’s Simply CSOFT, we’ll make the case that earmarking funds within research grants specifically for LSPs is worth the expense.


In the 2008 bestselling non-fiction book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell cites a study by Ericsson et al. originally published in the Harvard Business Review that referred to what is now known as the “10,000 Hour Rule”: in order to achieve expert-level – or fluency – in a skill (or language), 10,000 hours of practice are needed. That is to say, if a person were to study English for 3 hours a day, it would take s/he 9 years to develop fluency. In Science, for scientists who already need to master many complex skills, this is hardly an attractive option.

Alternatively, if every non-English speaking researcher were to enroll in a total immersion program in an Anglophonic country, they could achieve fluency in around 2 years. However, this would add 2 years on to an already extended education. This might seem trivial against the backdrop of a lifelong career but may, in fact, be critical. In the words of Albert Einstein: “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.” In the world of scientific research, the curiosity and creativity of youth are highly valued and often associated with the most groundbreaking discoveries. If grant money was routinely set aside for the purpose of translation, it would free the world’s researchers to concentrate on their investigation of the universe at the time of their life when they are most energetic and innovative.

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The most exciting and innovative research undertakings going on today are global projects that require the concerted effort of scientists the world over. Scientists must often rely on bilingual colleagues to interpret incredibly complex ideas for them and poor linguistic understanding can result in lost opportunities and prolonged processes. Particularly in the increasingly critical fields of environmental and agronomic science, where local and regional intervention can have global impacts, these losses and delays are incalculable.

By routinely setting aside funds within grants for the use of professional LSPs, research institutions will be freeing the world’s scientists to concentrate on their work and will ultimately improve projects – both qualitatively and quantitatively.


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