Science: Lost in Translation, Found in Collaboration

Science: Lost in Translation, Found in Collaboration

A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Foret shared a childhood story that made an excellent point about communicating science to the public. He was speaking at the Education Symposium of the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorology Society in Austin, Texas. Jonathan is a director at the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center and I know him as a mentor to one of our SOARS students.

Jonathan described that, in a Cajun community, he was raised to speak both English and French. As a toddler he didn't understand there were two separate languages spoken in his home. Yet he did recognize that his great-grandma would only address him in French. To communicate with her, he assumed that, by adding the French preposition "a la" in front of any English expression, she would understand him. For example:

"Où est tu mama?" great-grandma would ask him (meaning “where is your mother?”).

"A la…she went to the store," he would answer.

This confused and worried his family, until later when they understood what he was trying to do and helped him learn both languages properly.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_small","fid":"1796","attributes":{"alt":"","border":"0","class":"media-image","height":"263","style":"float: right;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"350"}}]]Jonathan likened his struggle to speak to his great-grandma to today's scientists’ efforts to communicate with the public. For example, even communities that speak the same actual language such as English will have their own language to describe environmental change. Without making the attempt to learn that language, scientist efforts to engage and relate science to others might get lost in translation.

Last summer, two of our SOARS students made great strides towards becoming scientifically bilingual. For eight weeks, they worked in southern Louisiana and learned how local communities experience and adapt to the dramatic changes in their coastal environment. Together with the communities they identified research questions and started projects driven and guided in partnership with the community. In large part that was possible because the students first took the time to learn how the communities describe their own realities of land loss, and with it, loss of homes, livelihoods and potentially loss of cultural identity.

How did the SOARS students learn the cultural language? They spent nights on boats cleaning the shrimp catch. They beat the afternoon heat on someone’s front porch peeling green beans, talking, laughing, and most importantly - listening.

When I travelled to Louisiana to visit the students, I noticed that they were giving talks at community gatherings and interviews on local TV stations. They had learned the new language. Yet they would find it challenging to then shift and write about their work in the standard language of science journals.

Learning a new language isn’t easy and switching back and forth between two even harder. I know that myself, juggling three languages every day, between my home, work and talking to my parents. Since they finished the field work and had some time to reflect on the experience, they have written excellent papers and given well-received presentations about their findings. No matter what they end up choosing as a career, I hope this expedition into a bilingual world will helped them in communicating with any audience; students of their own one day, collaborating colleagues in another field or local communities and the public.

Back in Austin, Jonathan concluded his talk by thanking the SOARS students for not entering the south Louisiana communities of Terrabonne Parish and announcing, "A la – People, you have a problem with subsidence and salt water intrusion", but for having made the effort to learn a new language by listening, observing and asking for translation.

While science may sometimes get lost in translation between scientists and communities, it need not be. Collaboration between a community and scientists and an effort to learn a new language can help.