got my Bachelor's degree in Engineering Physics and my Master's in Electrical Engineering. I am what one would call "a scientist." But do I call myself a scientist? Or rather, do I like being a scientist? After years of studies and research in the domain of science, I have come to realize that my heart is not in the world of Science and Engineering, but rather in the magical world of Translation. "Magical world"... Am I exaggerating? Or are these the words of an outsider who has just started to study Translation, and who has not yet experienced the harsher side of the profession?
The world of Science, at least the side of it that I have seen, has always lacked peripheral vision. Most scientists that I have known are only familiar with their own work domain; the domain of letters, including literature and languages, is unknown to them. They do not know the pleasure of familiarity with foreign languages and, through them, with foreign cultures; they are not acquainted with the beauty hidden in each and every word. Is it lack of time? Lack of interest? Scientists usually speak English, the language of technology, and this is the language they use to let people know of their work and findings. Few are those willing to learn an additional language, because most scientists simply don't feel the need to do so. This situation is worse in the United States, where I have lived for the past six years. "Americans haven't developed the tradition of learning foreign languages in order to understand other people's writings. The predominance of the English language has led science into neglecting foreign languages. So, in order to be recognized, a researcher from another country needs to publish his/her work in English" [Aubin, 1999].
Americans haven't developed the tradition of learning foreign languages in order to understand other people's writings.
I have been doing research in the field of Space Physics for the last two years. Scientists with decades of experience in the field, who can explain in detail the motion of ions and electrons in the Earth's atmosphere, or the technology used on a spacecraft, keep confusing the Greek letters used every day in science, or do not make any effort to pronounce the names of their co-workers correctly. They are familiar with the instrumentation and the experiments performed on the Mir space station, but they do not know a very basic thing (because they never tried to find out): that "Mir" in Russian means "peace," a name that expresses the motivation and ambition of the designers of that mission. I don't mean to accuse scientists of ignorance, I would be insulting myself if I did. I realize that there is so much research to be done, new technology to be explored and designed, that there is no time to dedicate to learning languages. What I cannot excuse though, is the attitude of many scientists toward the profession of translation. I have talked with scientists in my field, both physicists and engineers, about my plans to become a translator; I faced the same attitude again and again: if you know a second language you don't need a translator; you can transfer any text to that language yourself. Others seem to believe that there is no need for translators due to the existence of good bilingual dictionaries, especially the easy-to-use online dictionaries.
There are two issues I would like to address here: according to Marie-Christine Aubin, whom I have quoted above, there is the need to publish in English, because otherwise scientists risk not having their work studied, cited and recognized. On the other hand, there is the lack of interest and motivation to learn foreign languages, which is what I have faced in my work field.
Why do we need to publish our work in English in order to be cited? Why do we run the risk of remaining unknown if we try to use another language? These questions do not arise from selfishness, but from a simple need, or rather duty, to protect our language, if we are non-English speakers. We have the right to express ourselves in our native language, without being forced to use English. Forced, because a scientist's career is limited if he or she does not speak English. The dominance of the English language is in my opinion what causes many scientists not to appreciate the importance of translation as a profession; why are translators needed in the science field, they ask, if everyone agrees to communicate in English?
As far as the second issue I mentioned is concerned, i.e. the lack of motivation and interest, would it be wise to blame parents or educational systems? Even though sometimes these are responsible, I understand that many people simply do not like to learn foreign languages. Computer languages are often much more appealing to a scientist. I am not criticizing this lack of interest. What I am criticizing is the lack of appreciation of a translator's effort to help scientific work to be published in other languages. These are the two problems that reinforce my motivation to become a translator. My goal is to contribute as much as I can to other foreign languages not being neglected, especially in the domain of science.
My colleagues never understood why I chose the world of translation over science. To them I could be a very successful, well-paid scientist; science offers the pleasure of discovery, your discovery, while translation deals with the simple and mechanical task of looking up the meaning of a word in another language and writing it down. How wrong they are! "Mechanical" task? Magical, I would say. I look up the equivalent of an English word in French, and I find usually more than one in a bilingual dictionary; I look at every one of these equivalent terms, and I realize that each one has a different meaning from the rest. Then I submerge myself in the different meanings, in that richness, that treasure of each language. Being of Greek origin, it is always interesting, challenging, and simply natural for me to look for the etymology of words; I look at the root of a word and think of its evolution. Of course it is needless to say how many things I have learned about various fields through documentary research which is usually needed for the translation of texts. This personal satisfaction was never offered to my by science. Being involved in a spacecraft launch or researching the acceleration mechanisms of ions in the Earth's magnetosphere is very interesting. But translation to me is much more than an interesting field. After every text I translate I feel like a different, more complete person; I feel that I have gone up one more step in the staircase of knowledge.
Is it a beginner's passion? Or am I not a beginner? As far as professional translation is concerned, I have only climbed the first few steps. I've studied languages all my life though. My goal has always been to speak seven languages fluently before reaching the age of 21. I achieved this goal, and therefore I don't consider myself a beginner in the domain of languages, but someone who knows the beauty and the secrets of learning and practicing a language. I have only had the chance to know very few of the secrets of translation, since I only started working towards my Certificate in Translation a few months ago. What I am realizing though, is that my passion to learn more and more of these secrets only increases. It is not only science and technology that evolve, but also languages, cultures and translation techniques. It is because of these realizations that I have decided to cross over to a different professional world, as well as because of my will to learn more and more languages. What I am leaving behind are sleepless nights of studying quantum mechanics and space vehicle dynamics, endless hours of experimenting in a laboratory, as well as the opportunity to continue working with world-renowned scientists. Only when I become a successful and recognized translator will I stop wondering if I made the right decision. But there is something that follows me and gives me courage to start a new career from the beginning, reminding me of the importance of translation in helping people to communicate; that is my mother's words that I'll always remember: "Knowing a foreign language is like saving a life."
Aubin, M.-C.: Notes of the course Introduction à la Traduction, Module 6, Exposé 4, 1999.