The Scientific Translator as a Covalent Bond
“After all, science is essentially international.” — Maria Skłodowska-Curie
When I tell people that I hold university degrees in both chemistry and Russian, they sometimes joke “Wow, TWO foreign languages!” In some ways, it’s true that scientists use a language all their own—symbols that have their own meanings and symbols that can combine to form new meanings. Chemical and structural formulae are universal, and chemists can use diagrams and graphs to communicate some ideas without words.
But scientists must use language to communicate, and whether it’s academic research or chemical business, science is international. So how do you find a translator for your project?
Chemists know that valence electrons are those located in the outermost “shell” of an atom: the electrons that can interact with other atoms to form covalent bonds. The number of valence electrons determines an atom’s properties and behavior. But the word valence has other meanings as well. In immunology, valence is the number of antigen-binding sites on an antibody molecule. In linguistics, valence is the number of satellite noun phrases with which a verb combines. According to Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, valence also means “the attraction or aversion that an individual feels toward a specific object or event.” Another definition is “the ability to unite, react or interact successfully with another.”
Experience and education are like a translator’s valence electrons: they allow him or her to make the right connections between the source language and the target language, and concepts and words. Just like an atom needs the right number of valence electrons to form a stable compound, your translator needs the right combination of linguistic and scientific qualifications in order to form a quality translation.
Why is this combination so important? In order to translate accurately and fluently, the translator must be able to decipher both the source language and the subject matter. Translating the words is not enough. For this, linguistic resources alone do not suffice and a simple word-for-word approach will fail; subject-matter understanding is just as important. The translator will need the scientific foundation to find and understand background material, plus the linguistic ability and cultural understanding to take the ideas from the source text and clearly express them in the target language for the intended audience.
Many translators have education and experience in a specialized field, in addition to their linguistic studies. A translator working on an international legal dispute may also be a lawyer, and a company’s annual report may be translated by a linguist who holds a degree in economics or business. So if you have a scientific text that you need translated, you will need to find a translator with a firm understanding of the science.
Consider an example of an error made by a translator who didn’t understand the text he was translating. The source text (Russian) contained the terms “сильная кислота” [strong acid] and “слабая кислота” [weak acid], but the translator mistranslated them as “concentrated acid” and “dilute acid.” A chemist knows that an acid’s strength and its concentration are two completely independent properties: strength refers to the acid’s tendency to dissociate (lose a proton, or H+ ion), while concentration refers to how much of the acid is present per unit of solvent (usually water). To a layperson, this distinction is insignificant, but to a chemist it’s a fundamental difference.
In 1999, a failure to convert from English to metric units caused NASA’s $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter to crash and burn. A misplaced comma in a translated contract can cost a million dollars. You can imagine the consequences of mistranslating “weak acid” as “dilute acid”: anything from a procedure that doesn’t work, to an industrial accident with immediate fatal and long-term environmental consequences.
So where can you find a professional translator? The American Translators Association, the largest professional association for translators and interpreters in the world, is a great place to start. You can use its directory of translators or interpreters to find the person with the exact combination of skills you need. When discussing a project with potential translators, be prepared to discuss the subject matter with them and send them the documents you need translated, so that they can determine if they have the right qualifications for the job and can give you a firm quote. In terms of timeline, think how long it took you to write the documents; it might take just as long to translate them. In terms of price, consider what you think a professional with these skills should be earning per hour, and consider the maxim that if you want “good, fast, and cheap” service you are likely to be disappointed: you can have any two of those at once, but not all three. I wish you success in finding a translator with the right number of valence electrons to help you form a strong bond between source-language author and target-language reader.