Sunday, May 11, 2008

On technical competency and literacy

I had a good laugh when a fellow grad student in the department sent out the following (in pdf) asking for help in translating Russian. He wanted to know the chemicals listed. There aren't any native Russian speakers in my department, although I know a few in physics. As it turns out, universities (and by extension, colleges) are one of the best places to source for competent technical translators, especially if the said personnel had completed at least a Bachelors degree in their home country.

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...Our work is critical to the scientific community, and yet remains largely invisible and poorly understood.

From individual scientists to multinational corporations, clients routinely need materials translated into many languages for information, publication or patent filings. Machine translation can't handle such complex material except for crude "gisting", often with incomprehensible results in our fields. Poor translation is costly. Errors compromise safety, intellectual property, and image as well as bottom line. Incorrect terminology in translation makes research disappear in keyword searches. Therefore choosing the right translator can ultimately save money and grief.

Being bilingual is no guarantee of written fluency or translation skill, and highly technical material requires highly developed subject area knowledge. If you don't know an alkane from an alkene - let alone understand a reaction scheme or patent abstract - chances are you can't translate it.

Translating Chemistry, CENEAR, 2008, 86 (3), 6

On a side note, I just discovered that German was required for graduation up till the 1970s in many of the chemical and physical sciences' departments around the country because so many important discoveries were published in German. Until WWII, Germany was the center of the chemical world. Already, in my research work, several important references were written in the language. Given that English is the almost universal language of science today, consider the communication problem for scientists of whom English is a foreign language. What if their native tongues is the dominant language for science and engineering? How will we feel trying to publish in their language?

As of now, I can't even write a decent Chinese essay, or a blog entry, let alone describe my experimental work using Chinese.

1 comment:

L'oiseau rebelle said...

I'm too lazy to check up the Russian alphabet but I'm willing to bet that you could figure out that list if you know (1) the transliteration between the Russian alphabet and Latin alphabet and (2) Latin names for chemical compounds.

When I was working in (math) research as a ugrad I had to read papers in languages other than English. Once you understand the syntax of the language it isn't too difficult. The technical terms are for most part obvious.

The harder part was trying to understand what the paper actually said, which would have been the case even if it was already translated into English for me.

By the way, many math programs still require a reading knowledge of French, German or Russian.

Now that I'm away from the world of math research, I still require translation abilities for my work: from legalese to English.