On Language Barriers and Translation in Scientific Collaborations

Whether it’s drilling through meter-thick ice, surviving weeks without showers, or trying to get vats of liquid nitrogen past skeptical customs agents (but it’s for science!), working in Siberia comes with some pretty diverse challenges. One of the subtler of these challenges is that much of the science on Baikal is published in Russian, making it difficult for many of us to access. Given the 60+ years of regular monitoring that Russian scientists have done, that’s a rich collection of work that we have limited access to, and it is hard to do our own work without being able to read what came before. 

Cover of the sample processing protocol. It reads:
Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
Irkutsk State University
Instructions for processing plankton samples with a direct count method
Irkutsk 1978

Many of us on this project do not speak Russian, and much of the literature is available only in hard copy in Russian libraries and can’t be found online. Once we do get ahold of documents, those of us who speak Russian face the sometimes daunting task of translating them. Over the last few months I have been working on translating journal articles about the copepod Epischura baikalensis and a 50-page technical protocol for processing plankton samples in, well, fifty pages of detail. In the past Paul and I (mostly Paul) translated our grant proposal into Russian to share with our collaborators.

Translating scientific documents is hard. Dealing with technical language is tricky because, as in English, some words have well defined meanings in science that are different from their meanings in common speech. Dictionaries don’t always know the distinctions, so unless you studied science in the language you’re translating it’s easy to miss those nuances and end up with an inaccurate or nonsensical translation. Furthermore, some words aren’t in the dictionary at all (can anyone tell me what ценобионтный* means??). These are issues that come up regularly, and I have yet to really figure them out.

All of this work has caused me to reflect on some of the unanticipated (by me) challenges of working in a foreign country. How do you deal with language barriers preventing you from reading the literature on your topic, and how do you do justice to the Russian literature? And on the flip side if you publish in English how do you ensure that your own work will be accessible to those for whom it is most relevant? What are the broader implications of using English as a lingua franca in science? That last one might be getting way beyond the scope of this post, but the first two questions are not rhetorical ones. We try to address them by fostering strong collaborative relationships with our Russian colleagues and doing a lot of translating in both directions, but I would be interested to hear how others handle these issues when working internationally. If you’ve dealt with language barriers and international collaboration I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

*Update: It’s “coenobium“. Thanks very much to @PsiWavefunction on Twitter and to @artologica for putting us in touch.

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One Response to On Language Barriers and Translation in Scientific Collaborations

  1. Pingback: Serendipitous Lessons in Data Management | Lake Baikal Dimensions of Biodiversity

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