Translating scholarly works can contribute enormously to a scientific community. Famously, Albert Einstein translated articles into English so that Anglo-Americans could contribute to state-of-the-art science. The modern tendency to ignore scholarship that is not in English leads to lower quality studies and double work. Translation can help overcome linguistic barriers, and is thus an important means to increase accessibility and participation as well as to counteract fragmentation of the literature into linguistic islands.
Translation also opens science to society, to the seven billion people who do not speak English and many more who do not use it as their first language. Among them are many people who contribute directly to science by collecting data, people who point to problems that need research, or people who need to use the fruits of science (teachers/trainers, architects, engineers, doctors, activists, policy makers, journalists, etc.) and amplify the societal benefit of science.
This translation can be done by professional translators and published in dedicated journals, by translators employed by universities or institutes of the authors, by the authors themselves, or by volunteers and published in a repository or journal. We have found thousands of translated works published in journals in the CrossRef DOI database. Searching for translations on repositories, it looks like there are thousands more there which are most likely produced by scholars for their community. With this post we would like to encourage scholars to translate and publish their own works and works of colleagues, and to connect the translation to the original document.
One of us (Victor) is a climatologist working on the quality of climate station data and it would be useful for some of his articles to be translated into the languages of higher education all over the world so that weather observers are more aware of quality issues. However, Victor does not speak or is not fluent in the non-English World Meteorological Organization languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish). Colleagues who have the expertise in the field and do master these languages would have the necessary core skills to translate them.
On the other hand, there are cases like geo-scientists working on a specific region who will speak the language of that region as well as languages with higher diffusion such as English. As geoscience information can be very local, e.g. geohazard information in remote areas, it would be highly beneficial to the local community to understand the nature of geohazard in their area. In order to make their work available to a broader audience, they could translate their work into a language with higher diffusion they command. Even more outreach could be gained by crafting the translation in a non-paper product, like a short video or podcast. It would, on top of this, increase the chance of journalists and bloggers writing about these topics if a version of this non-paper product was also available in the local language.
Scholars and authors
If you aim to produce a translation, you could get a jump start by means of using machine translation which can offer a decent first draft for quite a few language pairs. Publishing translations makes the work more worthwhile as more people will more easily find it. (We are working on a Translations Switchboard to make finding translations even easier.) The translations can be published on a manuscript repository; nearly all repositories support this. Even better would be the publication of translations in journals. This would make them part of the academic credit system that can be classified in community outreach category, would make it easier to find them, and a peer reviewer revising the translation would increase trust in the translation quality. Even just writing a translation of the abstract already adds a lot of value as it makes the article more findable. If the article is published in a repository, one can add multiple abstracts. An abstract would also make a nice short blog post.
In the publish-or-perish madness of the current research evaluation system it may be profitable for (national) journals That do not yet do so to publish translations. The Journal Impact Factor (JIF) is calculated as the citations of issues published in the two previous years divided by the number of ‘research items’ published in that two-year period. This is one reason why journals publish increasingly many editorials where you wonder why someone wasted their precious time on Earth to write them. Editorials are cited, but do not count as ‘research item’. It is always up to a ‘negotiation’ between the bibliographic database and the journal what counts as a ‘research item’, sending some chocolate may help, but you could make the case that a translation is not original research and should not be counted as a ‘research item’, while their citations do count for the journal.
Many journals in non-English languages already have English abstracts. This should be encouraged.
Makers of bibliographic indices and databases, such as the Web of Science, as well as university rankings, could stimulate the production of translations by including the citations of the translation in the citation count of the original. If the translation is in an indexed journal, this would not increase the citation total for a research, but it could increase their h-index.
In this age of publish-or-perish, sometimes authors try to sell a translation as an original study and do not clearly mark the document as a translation. This has given translations a bad reputation in some quarters, which should be avoided. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) advises scholarly journals and mentions in their guidance of redundant publication that translations should not be seen as duplicates, which would have been an ethics problem, but as valid publications. COPE notes that such secondary or derivative publications should be marked as translation by referencing the original version. COPE writes:
Even if the translated article cites the original, this is not apparent in a publication list. It is thus good practice to mention in the title itself that the work is a translation. The ICMJE recommends:
Spread the word
So whether you are author, editor, peer reviewer or hiring scientists, please see translations as research output and open science by producing more translations to speed up progress in knowledge dissemination.
* The photo at the top is the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, the Megabiblioteca (“megalibrary”) in the downtown area of Mexico City.