Vasconcelos public library in Mexico City

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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.

Potential translators

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.

Journals

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. 

Databases

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

Publication ethics

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:

ICMJE [International Committee of Medical Journal Editors] advises that translations are acceptable but MUST reference the original.

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: 

The title of the secondary publication should indicate that it is a secondary publication (complete or abridged republication or translation) of a primary publication.

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.

Translate Science is interested in the translation of the scholarly literature. Translate Science is an open volunteer group interested in improving the translation of the scientific literature. The group has come together to support work on tools, services and advocate for translating science.

The groups members have different background and motivations. Hydrogeologist Dasapta Irawan would like scientists to be able to write in the language of the people they serve. Ben Trettel works on the breakup of turbulent water jets and regrets that so much insight from the Russian turbulence literature is ignored. Victor Venema works on observed climate trends and needs information on (historical) measurement methods, which are kept in local languages; his field needs to understand climate impacts everywhere and quality data from all countries of the world. Luke Okelo, Johanssen Obanda and Jo Havemann are working with AfricArxiv – the community-led Open Access portal to promote African research output. They are interested in seeing scientific literature in African languages transcend traditional scholarly publishing barriers that indigenous languages come up against and will soon launch a collaborative effort to translate African scholarly manuscripts into various African languages.

For the group the term “scientific literature” has a wide spectrum of forms and can mean anything from articles, reports and books, to abstracts, titles, keywords and terms. Summaries in other languages are also helpful.

We are interested in a range of activities to help translations: providing information, networking, designing and building tools and lobbying for seeing translations as valuable research output.

We have this blog, our Wiki, our distribution list and a micro-blogging account for discussions on what we can do to promote translations and to provide information on how to make translations and find already existing ones.

Various tools (and communities using them) could help finding and producing translations. A database with translated articles could make them more discoverable. This database should be filled by people and institutions who made translations, as well as with precursor databases and articles from translation journals (from the Cold War era). With appropriate interfaces (APIs) reference managers, journal and preprint repositories and peer review systems could automatically indicate that translations are available. Such a database could also help build datasets that can be used to train machine learning method for the translation of digitally small languages.

There are great tools for the collaborative translations of software interfaces. Similar tools for scientific articles would be even more helpful: translating an article well requires knowledge of two languages and the topic; this combination is easier to achieve with a group and together translating is more fun. Automatic translations could provide a first draft and save a lot of work.

If we could determine which articles are most valuable to be translated that may increase the incentives of (national) science foundations to fund their translation. With the use of the multilingual Wikidata knowledgebase we could improve searching the literature with multilingual tools, so that also relevant articles in other languages are found. In addition we could make text mining multilingual and non-native speakers could be presented with explanations in their mother tongue of difficult terms.

Rather than being appreciated, translations sometimes even lead to punishments. Google accidentally punishes people translating keywords because their software sees that as keyword spamming, while translated articles are often seen as plagiarism. We need to talk about such problems and change such tools and rules so that scientists translating their articles are instead rewarded.

English as a common language has made global communication within science easier. However, this has made communication with non-English communities harder. For English-speakers it is easy to overestimate how many people speak English because we mostly deal with foreigners who do speak English. It is thought that that about one billion people speak English. That means that seven billion people do not. For example, at many weather services in the Global South only few people master English, but they use the translated guidance reports of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) a lot. For the WMO, as a membership organization of the weather services, where every weather service has one vote, translating all its guidance reports into many languages is a priority.

Non-English or multilingual speakers, in both African (and non-African) continents, could participate in science on an equal footing by having a reliable system where scientific work written in non-English language is accepted and translated into English (or any other language) and vice versa. Language barriers should not waste scientific talent.

Translated scientific articles open science to regular people, science enthusiasts, activists, advisors, trainers, consultants, architects, doctors, journalists, planners, administrators, technicians and scientists. Such a lower barrier to participating in science is especially important on topics such as climate change, environment, agriculture and health. The easier knowledge transfer goes both ways: people benefiting from scientific knowledge and people having knowledge scientists should know. Translations thus help both science and society. They aid innovation and tackling the big global challenges in the fields of climate change, agriculture and health.

Translated scientific articles speed up scientific progress by tapping into more knowledge and avoiding double work. They thus improve the quality and efficiency of science. Translations can improve public disclosure, scientific engagement and science literacy. The production of translated scientific articles also creates a training dataset to improve automatic translations, which for most languages is still lacking.

As you have read this far you are probably interested in translations and science. Do join us. Write us any time: we have 2-weekly calls and a mailing list. Leave a comment below. Add your knowledge and ideas to our Wiki. Write a blog post to start a discussion. Join us on social media or add this blog to your RSS reader. Spread the message that Translate Science exists to anyone who may be interested as well. …