University of Oxford

Translation Of Scientific Terms

The theme of language in relation to science can be developed in different ways. An interesting and potentially useful thematization is through the idea of translation.

The notion of translation occurs sporadically in philosophy of science, but much of this literature merely glosses over the issue of translation. Even where translation is explicitly invoked, it is mostly understood in terms of what is usually called the naïve view of translation. Such an approach does not do justice to the philosophical complexity inherent in the idea of translation. It is by paying heed to the complexities inherent in the ‘idea’ of translation, which one realizes the intrinsic link between science and translation. Similar to the suspicion which science has towards language, language itself harbors a suspicion towards translation. This has contributed to the view that translation is essentially a secondary activity, derivative and dependent on the idea of an original text. As much as the scientific discourse likes to believe that it can distill ideas outside the purview of language, so does the naïve view of translation believe that translations only change the language of the text but continue to keep its ‘essence’ intact. These beliefs reinforce the naïve view of translation, which, according to Andrew Benjamin (1989: 60), has ‘two dimensions’:

First it involves the idea of recovery; of the recovery of a meaning, or truth, and the subsequent re-expression of what has been recovered. Second this understanding of translation also involves the idea of free exchange; of an unmediated and unrestrained economy in which signifiers are the object of exchange.  


     The basic ground of a scientific study is the continuous relationship between a cause and its effect. In other words, wherever there is a cause there is an effect. In the modern context the term ‘Science’ is moved away from its original definition and is presently used for areas of study which do not show the relationship between cause and effect in traditional sense. Sciences such as political science, psychology etc. fall under this category.

     In the modern world the areas of knowledge are divided mainly in three categories: 1. Natural sciences, 2. Social sciences and 3. Humanities. The Natural sciences study natural phenomenon which are not man-made. Social sciences concentrate on the study of human behaviour. The areas under Humanities try to explore aesthetic and creative aspects of human mind. In fact these three categories are not mutually unrelated but one finds a narrowness of approach in these areas of study. For instance, Psychology on one hand is related to the Neuro-science and on the other to Social sciences since the human being is created as the result of a natural process and the society controls his social behavior. This to certain extent affects his psychological behavior. Similarly, in the case of sculpture and architecture the tools of measurement are derived from physical sciences. While Humanities deal with its aesthetic aspects. So far as the process of translation is concerned, it can also be treated as a scientific activity. ‘As a scientist weighs his chemicals in an accurate balance and uses instruments such as microscope, telescope and the like for deciphering knowledge a translator also uses instruments in his job such as dictionaries, grammar books, encyclopedias etc. A good translator makes a judicious use of his instruments as a scientist does of those available to him. A scientist exhibits scientific temper of mind. He has an open mind on issues and problems and seeks evidence from all sources. A translator, to be successful in his work, must exhibit openmindedness and consult all resources available to him. He can’t afford to be circumscribed, whimsical or emotional.’ (Wanchoo, 1965, 52).


     A scientific text, whether in original or in translation, is different from other texts because scientific text is factual and information-oriented. The language of a scientific text is clear, simple and unambiguous. Since science is objective in its approach, the language of a scientific text is also more objective and subjectivity of the author is kept out of it. It is said for the style of writing that ‘Style is the man’, implying that the personality of the author is reflected in his style of writing. This may be true in case of literary genres such as poetry, short story, novel, essay etc. But it is not applicable for scientific writing, specially in the case of natural sciences. That is why it is said that the language of scientific texts is not subjective but is objective.

     Within sciences itself the language may vary according to the area under study. For example, the language of mathematics may vary from the language of physics. However, both are objective in their presentation of the subject. In other words, the language of scientific texts is more specific making the texts more clear and unambiguous as opposed to the literary text where language is often subjective. A Plant-scientist in his effort to understand the structure of a flower disintegrates it into smaller units. In his descriptions of the structure of the flower he has to be specific and objective without any scope of deviation from facts. A litterateur, on the other hand, in his appreciation of beauty personifies a flower and is always subjective in his descriptions. Therefore, the language of a scientific text, as opposed to the language of literary texts, if factual in its content. Every word is concrete and real. The style is not figurative and the language is semantically single layered and less ambiguous.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of translation can be found in the discourses on science, as in history and philosophy of science, although it has not inspired the detailed discussion that it should have. In the context of interpretation, there has been a more sustained engagement with this issue that has led to a substantial body of work on hermeneutic approaches to science.1 Here the idea of translation is implicit. Science is seen as reading the book of nature. This reading immediately implies the notion of translation and interpretation, which are usually used interchangeably in this context. Translation has also been explicitly invoked in the context of the incommensurability thesis.2 This thesis responds to the belief that theories in science are ‘built’ upon each other, thereby implying that the concepts and entities referred to in one theory remain the ‘same’ when used in another theory, although in a different context. Incommensurability about theories maintains that it will not be possible, in general, to translate a term from an old scientific theory to a new one, if by translation is meant the complete carryover of meaning in these terms.

1. Scientific language is diachronic and it is not affected by temporal considerations.

2. Since technical terms are coined by use of roots and suffixes of classical languages the language of scientific texts, therefore, tends to be hybrid.

3. Every branch of science defines its terms in its own way and therefore, they are context-free and express single meaning.

4. Surface level meaning is more important in scientific’ language than deep level.

5. Its use is always restricted.

6. Subjective elements are avoided to the extent possible and therefore passive constructions are mostly used. (Sharma 1985, 171).  


     The translation of scientific texts is an essential need in the modern Indian context since most of the scientific texts are written in English, a colonial heritage, which is not the language of the masses. Consequently, most Indians are not in a position to take advantage of the scientific developments within the nation and abroad. They do not get even the preliminary knowledge of scientific achievements. Due to its dependence on a foreign language for scientific learning, Indian society has not made technical advances on par with the technically developed countries. To overcome this situation it is necessary that our scientists should be encouraged to develop scientific writings in Indian languages. Till such time, the only course left to us is to depend upon the translation of scientific texts which would not only contribute to our knowledge but also help us in the development and modernization of our languages. The language development not only means the development of vocabulary but also uses of language in the domains of science and technology. Within the Indian context, whenever the scientific text is translated, the gaps in the terminology are filled either by coining terms through borrowing Sanskrit roots, or adaptation of English words into our own language systems, or by borrowing terms from other Indian languages. In this way our languages develop scientific registers and become capable of expressing new ideas in new norms.


     As stated earlier, the translation of scientific texts also contributes in the modernization of our languages. For instance, the translation of an ordinary book of 18th centuries from English into an Indian language may only help in the development of the TL literature, but the translation of a modern scientific text not only enriches the TL but also helps in its modernization.

     Before tackling the problems of translating scientific texts, it is necessary to consider the ability levels of the target group which is a decisive factor in the selection of appropriate equivalents such as words, terms, styles, descriptions etc. in the translation process. It is obvious that the largest consumer of the translated scientific text is by and large the student community. Besides this group, there might be some smaller groups of people interested in understanding the happenings of scientific world for the sake of knowledge. From this point of view the scientific literature may be placed in three categories:


Text addressed to common masses (Journalistic writings)


Student Community (Text books, Reference material)


Expert group (Research papers, dissertations etc.)

     The first category, i.e., scientific literature addressed to masses may include reports, features, short notes, reviews, columns for general reading on scientific subjects etc. As mentioned earlier, in the Indian context the main source of scientific knowledge is English language. Therefore, to a certain extent the scientific information remains restricted to educated elite. To spread this knowledge to the masses the scientific text written in English have to be translated into Indian languages with non- technical terms and in expository style. In this type of translation the focus is on the message rather than on the structure and style of the original text.

     The second category i.e., the Student community studying through the media of Indian languages also requires instructional material including textbooks, reference books, work books etc. in Indian languages. The language to be used in such material has to be technical but should not be like the one used in the research papers written by scientists. All these textbooks and reading material have to be developed by translating or adapting or adopting from English sources.

     The third category, i.e., Expert group may not require translation as this group is already proficient in English language. As such whatever their research findings are, they contribute through English only. But if Indian scientists someday decide to present their research findings in their own tongue they will have to develop the necessary jargon and styles of presentation in it.

     Keeping in view the constitutional obligations and the growing importance of Indian languages in our national life efforts are being made by governmental and non governmental institutions to develop scientific and technical terminologies by preparing bi-lingual and tri-lingual glossaries, text books etc. in Indian languages. It is obvious that for all these tasks we have to depend upon translation only.

     There are many practical problems of the translation of scientific concepts and ideas from English into Indian languages. It is almost impossible to develop scientific material in our languages without overcoming these problems. In other words, for proper exposition, description, discussion and presentation of the scientific concepts and ideas in Indian languages, there are many practical problems which need to the combated properly. The following points should be considered before translating a scientific text:


The author,


The subject matter,


The translation method and


The reader. 

Galison (1997: 47-50, 803, and 816) offers a more sustained critique of the idea of translation in science, both at the level of discourse and praxis. Instead of a model of translation, he suggests that it is the formation of languages at the boundary of different disciplines that is relevant. He concludes that it is the notion of trading that illustrates the way scientific communities interact and languages so formed at the boundaries are more in common with languages like Creole and pidgin. But his reading of translation is also limited as attested to by his comments that the idea of temporality is not captured in the model of translation. He also believes that translation is insensitive to the sociological issues pertaining to the dynamics of language.

These are contentions that a serious view of translation will not allow. The link between translation and science that I develop below will make this explicit. It is clear that there has been minimum engagement between the discourses of translation and those of science. Also, this engagement, when it occurs, has been overshadowed by a dominant emphasis on the naïve view of translation.

Literature, translation and science

Jakobson (1966: 232-239) identifies three types of translation. The first is ‘translation’ within the same language, referred to as intralingual translation. We are immersed in this kind of translation whenever we use different words and phrases to communicate similar meanings. Translation within the same language also shares this problem of ‘equivalence’ prevalent in translation from one language to another. Jakobson points out those even synonyms do not capture ‘equivalence’ of words. Thus when we replace one word by its synonym we are already giving into the mode of translation. In the case of scientific discourse, the problems associated with theory incommensurability arise out of intralingual translation. Although theories may use words and terms in the same language, and in fact carry over the same words into different theories, the incommensurability may arise because of changing historical and differing social contexts in which the words first gained currency.

The second type of translation is interlingual translation. This is what we commonly understand as translation, where translation involves rewriting a text in one language into another. Thus interlingual translation converts a text written in the source language (SL) to one written in the target language (TL). The problems associated with this form of translation are numerous.

It is well illustrated in the simple example of translating yes and hello to equivalent words in French, German and Italian. This task, although seemingly simple, is filled with difficulties, even though “all are Indo-European languages, closely related lexically and syntactically, and terms of greeting and assent are common to all three” (Bassnett, 1991: 16). Both ‘yes’ and ‘hello’ are used in very specific contexts. In languages other than English, they convey very different meanings. For example, in the case of ‘hello,’ it is pointed out that English does not distinguish between face to face greeting or that on the phone, whereas the other three languages explicitly make this distinction. The third type of translation is intersemiotic translation, “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.” Although this seems to be of little interest to the practitioners of translation, this is closer to the translation mode present in the reading of scientific texts that are essentially multisemiotic in character.

What unites these three different activities into a common category of translation? Jakobson identifies the problem of ‘complete equivalence’ as a common category, which is never possible in any of these three types. This idea of complete equivalence, as also the notion of faithful translation, has been the bane but also the stimulus towards generating more complex theories of translation. All these three types are concerned with the notions of identity and change, whether it is the search for synonyms (re-wording), or finding other appropriate expressions in another language (re-writing). This suggests that the primary impulse to an activity we would name as ‘translation’ should first respond to an already-given, to an original. The concerns with equivalence and faithfulness arise after the initial acknowledgement of the original. It is this primary impulse which also allows us to gather the activity of science under the name ‘translation,’ where the ‘original’ is the world as presented to us. All these three types of translation can be clearly discerned in the scientific discourse. Although there is a predominance of translation in the discourse, there is almost no acknowledgement of this process. This is indeed startling and suggests that science must have strategies to erase this domineering presence of translation in its activities.

This would then imply that there is always a meta-discourse on translation, which the scientific discourse holds, upon which the erasure of translation is itself, based. The success of science in erasing the presence of translation has lessons for both science and translation. First, consider intralingual translation.

The case of interlingual translation in the context of scientific discourse is also interesting. Although, globally, the scientific discourse is increasingly written in the language of English, that was not always the case. Pioneering work in modern physics, including Einstein’s papers on relativity, was largely written in German. Russian mathematicians, as also their physicists, wrote almost exclusively in Russian. There has also been a large body of work in French, both in mathematics and physics. It is translation and science indeed remarkable that these diverse texts in different languages have all been rewritten and expressed in one language, English, with scarcely any mention of the problems present in translating from one language into another!

The facile acceptance of quantum and relativity theories, for example, without any mention of the problems of translation is remarkable for it points to the insistence by which science ignores the claims of translation. Why should the problems of translation not be present in translating scientific texts from German to English? Are the problems of equivalence, faithfulness, communication of meaning and so on not present in these texts? Or is it that they are seen to be unimportant in the context of science? If so, who makes this judgment? And why?

The neglect of translation in the re-writing of scientific texts is due to many reasons. Let me focus on one reason that recurs repeatedly in our understanding of the scientific discourse and which is related to a view of natural language that science holds. In theoretical texts, as in quantum and relativity theories, it is presumed that the ‘essential’ content of the text is contained in the mathematical sub-text. The natural language component of the text, whether in German or English, is seen not to have ‘substantial’ content as far as the meaning of those texts is concerned. This is also emphasized in the text in the form of the mathematical equations that remain the same whether the theory is written in English or German. And since these equations carry the ‘essential’ content, what does it matter what natural languages one uses?

This is, roughly, the argument that explains science’s total disdain for the concerns of translation. I shall not develop a response to this now; here, I merely want to mention that scientific texts are beholden to both mathematical and natural language sub-texts. And the concerns of translation are also not indifferent to mathematics.

4 This argument is also related to the third kind of translation, namely, intersemiotic translation. I think it is clear that in the case of mathematics, there is always the ‘presence’ of translation in the way we continuously interpolate from symbols to natural language. The semiotic system of mathematics does not derive any meaning without prior reference to natural language. In reading and writing the scientific text, there is always a movement from one semiotic system to another. There is no other mechanism, other than translation, that can effectively explain how it is possible for us to generate ‘coherent’ meaning of such texts. This will then imply that a scientific text, which glosses over the issue of translation in order to present a ‘unified’ text as if the problems of translation across different semiotic systems are absent, is only one translation among many other possible translations. The use of diagrams, figures, tables, charts and so on in the scientific discourse also relates the scientific activity to the concerns of intersemiotic translation. Since translation is translation of an original, the ideas of equivalence between the translated and original text arise naturally. There have been many attempts to find criteria for equivalence. As is well known, even word for word equivalence is problematic. The referential aspect of a word creates one possible criterion for equivalence, which is usually called denotative equivalence.

5. Equivalence can also be on the order of connotation, formal, pragmatic and so on. It may also be desirable to go beyond the orbit of the text and search for the notion of equivalence in the agency of the reader and the different cultures involved in translation. Nida’s (1964) idea of dynamic equivalence, for instance, argues for a notion of equivalence based on the ‘equivalent’ effect of the text on the reader.

In his influential work, Popovic (1976) distinguishes between four types of equivalence arising in translation—Linguistic, Paradigmatic, Stylistic and Syntagmatic.

Related to this is his emphasis on the ‘invariant core’ in each text, suggesting that translation function to transmit and transfer this core. The idea of invariance is very suggestive of its uses in other disciplines, particularly science. Invariance is essentially a concept associated with dynamics and change. It is only under the agency of some action that we can recognize the invariance of an object or system. Invariance is, therefore, specifically linked to an act as also to that element, in part or in full, which remains invariant. In the case of translation, the specific dynamic act is that of translation.

Under this action, it may be believed that ‘something’ remains invariant, perhaps the meaning of the text. The text by itself cannot be invariant, nor can the number of words or pages. This idea of invariance has striking philosophical similarities to the notion of invariance as it occurs in science. As is well known, the idea of symmetry in science is deeply implicated in the idea of invariance. Although I do not mean to suggest a facile analogy between the two, I mention this merely to draw attention to the close conceptual links between the concerns of translation and of science. In all these three types of translation, the problems of equivalence, identity and sameness are present.

It is important to emphasize here that the scientific discourse is not totally distinct from literary discourse. As a discourse, it has its own stylistics, aesthetics, rhetoric, metaphors and so on.6 But it also has something more—it is this extra space which needs to be delineated clearly. The nature of the scientific discourse, as a multiple semiotic system and in its use of multiple literary strategies, is already implicated within the notion of translation. Setting out some salient points related to translation, derived from the concerns of literature, will help broaden the understanding of the scientific discourse, as manifested in its written form. This task is indeed urgent considering the widespread belief that scientific and technical texts do not exhibit the problems present in literary translation. Even Susan Bassnett (1991: 79), who otherwise champions the need to acknowledge the complexity of translation, has this to say about scientific texts:

If the text is perceived as an object that should only produce a single invariant reading, any ‘deviation’ on the part of the reader/translator will be judged as transgression. Such a judgement might be made regarding scientific documents, for example, where facts are set out and presented in unqualifiedly objective terms for the reader of SL and TL text alike, but with literary texts the position is different.

This privileging of the scientific text is unnecessary and also untenable. Ironically, the sentence following the above quote is, “one of the greatest advances in twentieth century literary study has been the re-evaluation of the reader”. This shift to the reader reinforces the complexity that is inherent in scientific texts, which attain this status by being read as such. Barthes’ view of the reader as a producer of the text, and not merely a consumer, along with Kristeva’s positioning the “reader as realizing the expansion of the work’s process of semiosis” are comments equally applicable to the scientific discourse. In fact, this constant schizophrenia of reader/translator is a defining mark not only of translation but also of the scientific activity. If translators are readers of the source text that they translate, scientists are readers of the ‘book of nature’ which they then translate.

There is no getting away from the textual character of science. Being a collection of texts, written in natural and symbolic languages, there are various factors which regulate its form and, not so obviously, it’s content. It would be easy to say that scientific texts form one uniform genre. But like poetry and fiction, the boundaries defining the genre are constantly under pressure to change. Thus although texts can be ‘identified’ as belonging to the scientific (and/or technical) genre, this does not negate the possibility of overlaps with those characteristics which mark literary genres. This intermarriage of different genres creates further problems, as far as translation is concerned. Each genre deals with the concerns of translation in different ways.

Translators, drawing upon the practice of translating texts, have attempted to set some basic rules of translation for different genres. Lefevere’s seven strategies for translating poetry and Hilaire Belloc’s six general rules for translating prose are attempts in this direction. These strategies respond to the textuality specific to these different genres. Although, at this point, I do not believe that one can attempt a similar exercise for scientific discourse, more detailed analysis of that discourse might lead to such attempts in the future. Here I will only assert that the writing of the scientific discourse already, and implicitly, involves discursive strategies dealing with translation. Most, if not all, scientific texts are ‘structurally similar’ to prose texts. The text is bifurcated into chapters, sections, paragraphs and sentences. There is an apparent linearity to the text—the development of the text beginning with simple ideas and equations and proceeding to more complex physical (and mathematical, if required) problems and solutions. The first chapters are literally the foundation upon which the edifice of the text rests. In the text, we can find claims, arguments, proofs, suppositions, references and so on. All these elements go to constitute the style of the genre itself. Thus the process of translation has to negotiate with, build upon and integrate all these elements. It is also the case that the possibility of research itself is based on the ambiguities inherent in the activity of translation.

In spite of translation being one of the oldest professions in the world (or maybe because of it!), Venuti (1998: 8) observes that the “study of the history and theory of translation remains a backwater in the academy.” This observation points to a fundamental tension present in according due importance to the study and practice of translation, and highlights the need for a sociological perspective, which is already inherent in this activity. It also suggests an expansion of the academic stakes in translation.

In particular, one can read Venuti’s Scandal of Translation as a sign of growing pains. As a sign of the times, too, Venuti uses translation as a prism through which larger sociological issues are articulated. My focus on Venuti’s book here is an act of appropriation of certain conceptual categories that well suit my own reading and re-writing of the scientific discourse.

That they are ‘sociological’ makes it all the more relevant, because it allows me to connect this discourse naturally with issues in sociology of science and place them within the gambit of translation. Since my reading of Venuti is an explicit mode of appropriation, let me isolate two categories, minor literature and authorship, that he discusses in detail and which are also useful for understanding the scientific discourse.

Minor Literature: Venuti (1998: 10) begins with the theme of minor literature, which reflects his personal preference to “translate foreign texts that possess minority status in their cultures.” As a translator, he does not hold the position that language is “simply an instrument of communication.” Rather, he begins with a view of language as a “collective force” with “diverse cultural constituencies and social institutions.” There is a hierarchy in this diversity with the “standard dialect in dominance.”

But the standard dialect has to negotiate constantly and interact with the “regional or group dialects, jargons, clichés and slogans, stylistic innovations” and so on. These are minor variables that dynamically constitute the language and, furthermore, “subvert major form,” thereby “revealing it to be socially and historically situated” .Literary works can give into this majoritizing influence of the dominating aspect of the language and culture or they can increase the “radical heterogeneity by submitting the major language to constant variation.” In doing this, the literary work may succeed in releasing the ‘remainder,’ through which a minor literature “indicates where the major language is foreign to itself”.

Although the above remarks may seem to apply to very particular instances of literary texts that embody a minor literature, the issues they generate are relevant to a more critical understanding of reading, writing and translating. The emphasis on the minor, as forms of language and culture, responds to an integral aspect of all languages, namely, the tendency present in writing to gather around the domineering presence of the ‘majority’ and a concomitant subjugation of the minor voices. It needs a conscious act to release the minor from the overpowering presence of the major. This attempt to consciously release the remainder and to let the ‘minor’ exhibit itself introduces an ‘ethics’ of translation. Thus he notes Good translation is minoritizing: it releases the remainder by cultivating a heterogeneous discourse, opening up the standard dialect and literary canons to what is foreign to themselves, to the substandard and the marginal.

Explicitly invoking the foreign is a strategy that I find useful in a discussion of the scientific discourse. ‘Foreign’ is not just the site of a different language. Being foreign is not merely being different. It also suggests a perpetual possibility of conflict and a ‘distance’ that can never get assimilated entirely. The relevance of this to scientific discourse is immediate. The view of natural language (NL) in the scientific discourse is strongly suggestive of its role as a minor language in the dominant culture of scientific ‘language.’ Attesting to this is the belief that literary strategies, such as the use of metaphors and rhetoric are not ‘part’ of science but rather belong to the baggage of NL which is taken as a reluctant partner in the scientific discourse. The discourse always attempts to attain and sustain discursive homogeneity. Heterogeneity, in the context of opening up the foreign, is a problematic task in this discourse.

The relevance of NL sub-text, as minor literature, and the inhering presence of the foreign within the scientific discourse can only be released through attempts at translation.

What else constitutes the foreign for the scientific discourse? I think it can be persuasively argued that the discourses of history, philosophy and sociology of science constitute the foreign, in the context of being a minor literature in a dominant major (scientific) culture. The repeated suspicion of scientists towards the relevance of these fields, in the context of scientific practice, is a pointer to this.

7. As mentioned earlier, the presence of literary elements within the discourse, conceptual ideas like subjectivity and cultural mediation are seen to be outside the orbit of this discourse.

The literary elements are seen to constitute the space of jargons, clinches, dialects and so on of the scientific discourse. All these together form the ‘foreign’ as far science is concerned. The priority given to mathematics and the repeated attempts to claim that the language of nature is mathematics only succeeds in bracketing natural language as a tongue of the foreign within this discourse.

I am even prepared to go to one end of the spectrum to say this: it is only through acknowledging ideas of translation in the scientific discourse that the presence of the foreign can be made visible and legitimate. The suspicion of science towards language can now be expressed as a suspicion towards the heterogeneity of language. Venuti’s shift towards minor literature and the exhibition of the remainder are precisely what counter this suspicion and allow the heterogeneity of language and culture to be made explicit in the scientific discourse. In this context, it is worth recollecting Walter Benjamin’s citation of Rudolf Pannwitz (Benjamin, 1992: 81):

The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue… He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.

Authorship: Venuti explores the idea of authorship in the context of translation. I isolate this category mainly because the scientific discourse has a unique engagement with the idea of authorship and its association with the notion of original. This engagement once again reinforces the intrinsic link between science and translation.

The issue of authorship is significant in the formation of the scientific discourse. The world is the original, the touchstone around which scientific discourse emanates and by which it is sustained. The idea of authorship that derives from being associated with this given original is quite different from that of literary texts. It is in this sense that scientific discourse is always derivative and always a translation. Authorship in science, both in its writing and practice, mimics the secondary role it holds for translators.

The scientists are never the original authors. They can only write, rewrite and translate the world as original. The first authorship, the one who holds the copyright over the translation, is the world. Scientific discourse only opens up the text of the world, one that is already ‘written.’

I will discuss this issue through the literary form known as ‘pseudo translation,’ because it allows me to exhibit the unique relationship between science and authorship.

In order to expose the lack of critical engagement with the foreign, Venuti (1998: 33) introduces the discussion of pseudotranslation, which is “an original composition that its author has chosen to present as a translated text.” In the field of translation, such a move is useful, “since it involves a concealment of authorship,” which, “inevitably provokes a reconsideration of how an author is defined in any period, leading either to a reactionary imposition of the dominant conception or to an unsettling revision that sparks new literary trends”.

Something similar happens constantly in the scientific discourse. The claims of science, as far as authorship is concerned, are articulated in the following manner.

The world is the original author. Science merely speaks that which is already written in the text of this world. Thus science and scientists abdicate the responsibility that is due to the original author. This also implies that science speaks for the world and does not, by itself, add anything to what the world says. Therefore, the scientific narrative of the world is not a construction of the practitioners who are embedded in a history and culture, but is merely a ‘revelation’ of the text of the world. In contrast, the sociological critique of science tries to place the responsibility of the discourse on the scientists themselves by suggesting that scientific discourse is co-constituted by their narrative of the world, which is ‘contaminated’ by the historical and cultural positions they embody.

As far as the question of authorship is concerned, the scientific discourse presents itself on the order of pseudotranslation. The traditional displacement of the author in scientific texts, and the cultivated image of the discoverer as one who merely speaks about the wonder of nature, are best captured by this image of pseudotranslation. Pseudotranslation implies an abdication of responsibility. It also bestows an ability to say something on somebody else’s behalf. The discourse on technology, by scientists and technocrats, follows a similar argumentative pattern.

The explicit realization that scientific narrative should be seen as pseudotranslation implies that this narrative of the scientists should itself be acknowledged as ‘original’ rather than displace this ‘originality’ to the voice of the world. If this position of the scientific discourse as pseudotranslation is tenable, then it would be more in tune with the claim that scientific narrative is one narrative of the world; one translation of the world.

The final category that I want to introduce here, in the context of the link between science and literary concerns of translation, is the notion of dubbing. The process of dubbing is predicated on a particular conception of language and its relation to pictures.

Dubbing is usually a process associated with filmmaking. After the film has been shot, the sound track is overlaid so that there is synchrony of sound and vision. Dubbing of films is also associated with replacing the language of the ‘original’ film with the dubbed language. This process of dubbing has inherent presuppositions about the nature of the original and the role of language in visual media, and is closely related to translation.8 First, the language of the original film is removed and then the soundtrack of another language superposed on the film, largely following lip synchronization. In this translation, there is the assumption that the ‘essence’ of the film is retained, thereby suggesting that in visual media, language plays a secondary role in comparison to the visuals. There are two themes associated with dubbing that I shall mention here, which, I believe, are related to the scientific discourse. First, is the close link between dubbing and culture, both dominant (associated with the original) and derivative (that of the translated). Inherent in this is the issue of language and its relation to the film. This link between language and film in the case of dubbing can be contrasted with the case of subtitling foreign language films. Second, the example of dubbing also illustrates something intrinsic to the nature of texts and translation, and is related to the possibility that texts are multi-layered. This is obvious in the case of visual texts, but the possibility that there are ‘multiple layers’ even in written texts cannot be easily discounted. If there are multiple layers in a text, then what does the translation of a text mean? Does it imply that all the layers have to be translated simultaneously? Or is it that only those parts of the text implicitly associated with language should be translated?

These questions are important in articulating the link between science and translation. The scientific text is itself multi-layered in that it is primarily multisemiotic. In moving from one semiotic system to the other, the activity of dubbing is present. Dubbing does not occur across the expanse of the text, but only in certain parts of the text. Labeling of diagrams, figures and tables, for example, is similar to the process of sub-titling. Just as language is changed but the visuals are retained in dubbing, mathematical equations are many times retained but the ‘language’ related to the specific problems is changed. I believe that this is a fertile way of understanding how similar mathematical structures are taken over to model, describe and explain different physical situations.

The world is manifested through various means. One is by ‘reading’ nature; others correspond to various forms of visual presentation of the world. The world is converted to the text of science through continuous translation—at the level of language, no doubt, but also at the level of visual, auditory, tactile and other sensory media. Different scientific theories translate the world at different levels, while always ‘retaining’ something of the original. This is as much a reflection of the scientific discourse as it is of the world. The consequences of such multi-layered translations are crucial to an understanding of the meaning and practice of science. The different semantic domains created with the use of pictures, diagrams, geometry and mathematics, as part of the scientific texts, imply the essential multiple layering of these texts. The notions of translation and dubbing therefore play a crucial part in transmitting and communicating with such texts. 


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