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Poor translations undermine efforts to promote science in Arab countries, says science translator and lecturer Ehab Abdelrahim Ali.

Arabic was the language of science during the Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation (mid-eighth century to around 1258), when scientific and medical texts were written in or translated into Arabic.  However, in modern times, Arabic science literature became heavily dependent on translating science articles from foreign languages, mainly English and French.

But translations often lack coordination or standardisation regarding the terminology used, or even how words are spelled, and no agreed-upon sources for terminology or translation style guides exist to regulate this.

No clear guidelines

During the first science translation movement, which began in the 1940s, translations were performed by either dedicated translators or by journalists with knowledge of foreign languages. A second movement came in the late 1970s, when scientific, mainly medical, journals published in Arab countries, written mostly in English, began adding 'Arabic Abstracts' to content.

For one of these publications the practice was based on a personal predilection of one of the editors-in-chief, so it was abandoned soon after a new editor was appointed. The lack of an institutional policy was a barrier to sustaining the practice.

Most of these journals did not publish clear guidelines on how to translate abstracts or on sources of Arabic terminology.

A third movement began in 1986 with the publication of a fully licensed Arabic edition of Scientific American magazine by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences. This new wave of Arabic translations is characterised by translating articles from a single source, rather than collecting articles from a number of sources.

For more than 20 years, Scientific Americanwas the only science magazine fully translated into Arabic. A few more have now launched Arabic editions, including National Geographic, Science (abstracts only) and, most recently, Nature.

There is big potential for more scientific publications to be translated into Arabic. But if they are not translated with a vision of both simplifying complex scientific terms and maintaining an attractive context for readers, the text may look good but actually convey mistaken statements. This will breed aversion to reading science in Arabic.

A job for specialists

How editorial teams are selected is a key contributing factor to the success of these efforts. Translating science is not a job of 'generalists', i.e. translators without a science background, or writers without proven translation capabilities in both source and target languages — even if they have a scientific background.

Recently, while preparing the translation of a prototype issue of a scientific journal into Arabic, I allocated more than 30 articles to translators with experience in science translation. The results were disturbing — more than 90 per cent needed re-translation, fully or partially.

For example, while reviewing an article on physics, there was mention of an apparatus "small enough to fit into the back of a truck". It was translated into an apparatus "shaped like the back of a truck".

Instead of discovering such results post-mortem, a well-known project management principle should be applied: DIRFT — do it right first time. This involves conforming to the principles of quality translation, which include accurate use of terminology; using only qualified translators and editors; adopting a performance standard of zero errors; and building several checks into the editorial process before final publication.

Looking ahead

For large translation projects to be successful, a number of factors should work together in tandem.

First, science translation must be recognised as a regulated profession in all Arab countries. One way of achieving this is to establish a society for science translators that would be affiliated with an educational body that provides specialised science translation courses.

Second, after completing a foundation course, junior science translators must take an 'entrance' exam to become members of the society and cannot become certified before establishing a portfolio of published works, completed under the supervision of a senior certified translator. 

If publishing houses and research organisations recognise this new certification, this will create a market for certified translators which, ultimately, will be reflected on the quality of translated scientific content.

Establishing this system would best be done by governments and/or research institutions in Arab countries, with technical help from international organisations such as the UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.

Potential for success

Finally, a survey should be conducted to scan potential science publications to be translated into Arabic, based on target audience needs, with priority given to those demanded by younger readers. The ultimate goal should be widening Arab youths' scientific horizons.

If done right, translations of science journals and other publications into Arabic will increase public awareness of the importance of science and keep the public abreast of the latest scientific discoveries.

Most importantly, this will allow Arab scientists and researchers to understand science in Arabic. The fact that science is taught in English or French may be one factor for the paucity of significant research studies originating from Arab countries.

Many scientists may have a bad experience of reading poorly-translated science materials. I was once reviewing a medical article describing a bone disease manifested as 'rocker bottom feet', which means concave, but the translator translated it as 'rock base feet', which is both meaningless and misleading.

Overcoming this barrier is essential to help scientists believe again that they can do research in Arabic without being isolated from the mainstream international science community. And in professions such as medicine, it can help doctors communicate more effectively with their patients.

Ehab Abdelrahim Ali is a science writer, journalist and certified translator. He is also lecturer at Scientific Translation, Arab Higher Institute for Translation in Algeria. Ehab is based in Ontario, Canada. Ehab can be contacted at [email protected]