The Art of Translating Science


A recent New York Times magazine profile of Emily Wilson, celebrated as the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English, quotes her as saying, “All translations are interpretations.” The author of the profile, Wyatt Mason, offers as evidence of that claim a dizzying range of descriptions of the poem’s hero Odysseus from previous translations. Based on a single Greek word, “polytropos,” Odysseus has been described variously as cunning, deep, shifty, full of resources and many-sided, among many other things.

Wilson translates the word as complicated. It’s not just the directness of her choice that sets her version apart, notes Mason; it is that her approach to the character embraces an ambiguity that the others lack. In choosing this word, she invites the reader to view Odysseus’s actions—and indeed, the rest of the poem—through a significantly different lens. It could be argued that her choice of that word changes the story. In fact, she is quoted later in the profile as saying, The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.”

The ability to tolerate ambiguity is a hallmark of health humanities, the field in which I find myself after years in both public health and creative writing. Among the many goals of public health practice, translating scientific evidence for use in the development of public policy is one of the most central. Much of what this involves falls into the broad category of science communication—the literature of which also frequently employs the word “translation.”  

The most recent American Public Health Association meeting centered on the public health impact of climate change, an unfolding catastrophe that offers perhaps the most vivid contemporary example of the ways in which policy-makers and the public that elects them, fail to take science seriously in drafting legislation.

The literature around why this is the case is evolving. Earlier discussions of science communication acknowledge how difficult it can be for laypeople to understand the jargon that scientists use, or the desire of scientists to pack all the relevant data into any given discussion rather than selecting just enough to convey an accurate understanding of the findings. Others lament the diminishing science literacy of the general public. The models undergirding this approach have variously been referred to as a rationalist-instrumental model of communication, in which “scientific information passes unchanged into political discourse and initiates change or a “deficit model” that emphasizes the lack of science literacy among the public.

Translation in this context involves teaching scientists to speak and write more plainly and helping the public understand a complex scientific concept communicated clearly. Science communication literature continues to evolve, however, and in recent years these models have been challenged vigorously by scholars who point out that, when it comes to politicized topics, our ability to understand is often overwhelmed by our inability to hear. No matter how clear the findings and how scientifically literate the audience, if the information poses a threat to one’s identity then the scientist might as well be speaking, well, Greek.

During the American Association of Public Health meeting, Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, linked to a CNN video that featured some citizens in Woodward County, Oklahoma. It was while listening to the views of these people, in a community with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, that it hit me that science communicators too often use the word translation as a metaphor. I am a huge fan of metaphors and am aware that metaphors have been used effectively in science communication, and in the related discourse around framing, but if we accept that translation is literally what we are doing and not a metaphor for it, then two additional things happen.

First, it requires us to take seriously that we are engaged in an artistic enterprise, one that relies centrally on the nuances of language and imagery to tell a story. Aesthetic choices are high-stakes decisions in this enterprise. As Odyssey translator Emily Wilson reminds us, a single word may change the meaning of the whole story. In the Oklahoma interviews the most powerful image was not one of a future environment ravaged by climate change, but rather the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when uprooted soil was so thick in the air that, “there were times when the sun would be blotted plum out.” 

Poet and translator Martha Collins, writing in Lit Hub, teaches students about nuance by asking them to place translations on a continuum of most literal to most free. In the art of translation, simpler and more literal may be a less effective option in conveying meaning and promoting understanding.  The translated version, to put it bluntly, should not be just a dumber version of the original.

Which brings us to the second thing translation taken literally asks of us: to consider science communication as an activity requiring as much listening and learning on the part of the scientist as on the part of the public. Writing in the Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2008), Massimiano Bucchi argues that, “lay knowledge is not an impoverished or quantitatively inferior version of expert knowledge; it is qualitatively different.” I’m not suggesting that a post office worker or a veterinarian knows as much about subsurface ocean temperatures as a climate scientist. I’m suggesting that the act of translation is at least as much about meaning as it is about facts. A French translation of a German poem is not a lesser, simplified version of that poem, but rather its most true expression in a different but equivalent language. If you are translating something from Greek to English, it is not because Greek is better than English. Greek is one bank of a river, English is another, and translation is a bridge that can be reached from both sides.

If we accept that what we are engaged in is translation in a literal and not metaphorical sense, then art becomes not just accessible to us in our work, but necessary. The tools we use must extend beyond facts to include the leaps and turns of language and image that can set new meanings spinning in the human mind and heart. That can allow us, potentially, to render an even truer thing from the science, a more understandable thing, a thing that can move us.

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