The main challenges of translating scientific materials

Idea TranslationsBest PracticesThe main challenges of translating scientific materials
What are the main challenges of translating scientific material?

Since the beginning, scientific information has been closely related to translation. Sharing, making something available to the public, is a fundamental goal shared by both science and translation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “popularize” means “to cause to be liked or esteemed“, as well as “to present in generally understandable or interesting form“.

Ethics and responsibility are key also in translation and in science. What are the challenges of translating scientific materials and how does a good translation impact society and science professionals?

English as a lingua franca

Scientific translation not only aims to share and disseminate knowledge among people of different languages and cultures, but it has also served to collect and communicate points of view and discoveries, as well as to encourage reflection and dialogue among scientists from different cultures. And this has been fundamental to the advancement of science.

At various times, translations have been involved in changing scientific concepts and paradigms, while enabling scientific revolutions in several countries and leading to the global expansion of science. In this manner, the adoption of a lingua franca such as English was of great help. At present, an article that is not published in English can go unnoticed by the international public and even by the scientific community of the author’s own country.

73% of Americans say science has had a mostly positive effect on society. And 57% say they have more confidence in scientific research findings when data is openly available to the public. Source: Pew Research Center

While each language possesses its own tone and style for each genre of scientific text, related to the specificity of each branch, the conventions of scientific English have provided precision, conciseness and an impersonal style that is ideal for this type of material.

Popular science material: what are the challenges and responsibilities?

As with other types of translations, when dealing with scientific materials, the translator may encounter several obstacles during the process due to the differences between languages in terms of sound, lexicon, grammar and style. In turn, challenges include specialized terminology, domain-specific knowledge in question as well as cultural differences.

On the other hand, when it comes to scientific and medical content, the important thing is not to correctly deliver the material in the target language, but rather to do so in such a way that the recipients receive information simply, appropriately and with the proper content.

China and the U.S. lead among the countries with the largest scientific publications, with 20.6% and 16.5% of the sector at a global level, respectively. Source: Statista – U.S. National Science Foundation

In this regard, the U.S. biomedical technical writer, Bethany Thivierge points out 9 requirements that a scientific translator must observe:
1. Work with the recipients in mind.
2. Preserve the author’s choices.
3. Understand the science.
4. Know all the background of the information in question.
5. Master the source and target languages.
6. Ask constructive questions.
7. Work expediently for the publication.
8. Learn current practices.
9. Deliver the translation on time.

In fact, the time factor is essential in the scientific content, where discoveries are made rapidly and in large amounts. It is essential that this information reaches all recipients, whether civilians or specialists, as quickly as possible and with the highest possible level of precision and objectivity.

Global events and crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated the important role that translation has as a provider of scientific knowledge for millions of people around the world. The democratization of scientific information is a primary factor in making sure that everyone benefits from new discoveries regardless of what language they speak or understand.

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