Lost (and Gained) in Translation

The international movement of scientists and the internationalization of science rank among the most striking trends in today’s scientific world. Crucial to both has been the emergence of English, over several decades, as science’s undisputed world language. This recent linguistic hegemony presents challenges and opportunities for both non-native and native English speakers, says a provocative new book,by Scott L. Montgomery. 

In an English-speaking world, non-natives must spend considerable time learning the language that will admit them to world-class science. But for native Anglophones, the challenges are subtle and paradoxical: to avoid complacency—specifically, the belief that one’s native mastery of the world’s lingua franca confers an inherent and permanent advantage—and marginalization as billions around the world who also know other languages master and colonize our native tongue.

So entrenched has English become that ‘America no longer finds itself a required participant for the prestige and spread of its native language in science. A global tongue … is a language at once denationalized and supranational.’

Not so long ago—in fact, during the student days of today’s most senior faculty members—getting a Ph.D. almost anywhere required reading proficiency in French and German, then the main languages of research and scholarship. By the 1970s, some American departments, mainly in the physical sciences, were also accepting Russian. Today, native English speakers in the United States can generally—except in certain language-linked fields—don their doctoral hoods without cramming irregular verbs or pondering grammatical gender.

Still, these native Anglophones err if they overestimate their natural advantages, which will become increasingly tenuous as ever more millions diligently work to decipher our tongue, warns Montgomery, a multilingual geological scientist, scientific translator, and author of several books on scientific communication. Native English speakers can, however, gain important intellectual and career opportunities by following Montgomery’s example and acquiring at least a working acquaintance with other major world languages. (Montgomery knows Japanese, French, and German, but he suggests learning Spanish and/or Chinese.)

Monolinguals miss out

“The people who have learned English and don’t have it as a native tongue” nonetheless have access to everything in the scientific literature that native speakers do, Montgomery tells Science Careers in an interview—and in addition, they have access to the materials written in the other languages that they speak. Monolingual Anglophones are blind to a great deal of information, some of which may be crucial for research. “[During] the avian flu epidemic in Southeast Asia [, for example,] important papers on the threatening nature of the disease ‘went unnoticed because they were published in Chinese-language journals,’ ” Montgomery notes in the book, quoting an article by David Cyranoski in .

The Industrial Revolution and much of the early scientific revolution happened in Britain during a period when English shared the scientific limelight with German and French, Montgomery writes. American achievements in the early 20th century enhanced English’s prestige, but until the late 1930s ambitious American students and scientists still flocked to the great universities of Europe, often publishing their work in European languages. 

The collapse of those unsurpassed centers of learning during World War II, and the escape of many important scientists to England and the United States, brought English unmistakably to the forefront. Like other intellectual refugees of his generation, “Albert Einstein began his scientific career in German and ended it in English,” Montgomery writes. The man who had remade physics in his perfectly phonetic native tongue struggled with English spelling but nonetheless “learned to write simple, sometimes elegant, English sentences.”

More recently, “China’s economic and scientific rise … has depended on English as the medium of global contact and publication and so has strengthened the language’s importance in turn.” And today, “no country with ambitions to advance in the scientific realm can hope to succeed without use of the English language.” 

So entrenched has English become that “America no longer finds itself a required participant for the prestige and spread of its native language in science. A global tongue … is a language at once denationalized and supranational.”

This undermines the advantages of native speakers in two ways. First, with many millions using the language in so many places (many of them rarely interacting with native speakers) and with native speakers constituting a minority of those who use it, people are less concerned about whether they sound convincingly American or British, or write with colloquial perfection. Second, as usage and the numbers of users grow in various countries, local varieties of English emerge, both written and spoken.

Combining language and science

The world’s English speakers are now so numerous—and often sufficiently skilled—that they can get along pretty well without us natives, Montgomery writes. Still, he believes that the rise of English as the language of science opened career opportunities for him and can do the same for others.

After 3 years as a chemistry major, Montgomery changed course, earning his bachelor’s degree in English. He then discovered the Alps and the volcanic Greek island of Santorini on a post-college European sojourn, sparking a fascination with geology. He used his math and science background to enter graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and earn his master’s degree in geology. He then spent 3 years in Japan, where he added Japanese to his stock of languages.

Knowing the language of the then fastest-rising scientific power “gave me work as a translator when I came back to the U.S.,” he says.  The translating he did “was almost exclusively technical. There were very few translators in 1983 or ’84 who had technical backgrounds. … I had to do translations of many, many different kinds, everything from advertisements in scientific journals to patents on medical equipment to physics articles and nature journals.” Doing “mechanical engineering one week and physics the next week, then … a patent on copying equipment, and … defibrillators the week after that” eventually exhausted him. So, using his geology degree, he moved to the energy industry where he worked for more than 20 years. Today, he still combines his interests in language and science, teaching courses in scientific communication, energy policy, and other subjects at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies of the University of Washington in Seattle, while also writing books.

He encourages other technically educated multilingual Anglophones to profitably combine science and languages. “The number of translation agencies and the demand for translation both into and out of English and other languages is enormous and growing every year,” he says. Major, expanding areas include “business, computer science, [and] medicine … .” There is also “a great deal of translation in the engineering field.”

Because much technical and scientific writing is “pretty formulaic and stylized,” Montgomery says, non-natives (like Einstein) can often learn enough of a foreign language to do a perfectly acceptable job. It follows that skilled, native English speakers are not limited to translating into English—yet, their deep knowledge and rich, exact vocabularies gives those who do so an advantage.

Today the translation field remains “kind of open, though there are a number of universities that have translation programs.” A good source of career information, he says, is the American Translators Association.

The ascent of today’s global scientific tongue is providing enormous opportunities for industrious native speakers of other languages to enter the world’s scientific scene. By following their example and attaining skill in second and third languages, Montgomery says and writes, native Anglophones, too, can expand their scientific horizons, guard against parochialism, and turn the current situation to their career advantage.

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