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Less than 6% of the world is considered “English speaking”, and there are somewhere between “a heck of a lot”, and “good heavens – that many?!” languages worldwide.  Yet science has almost universally adopted one – English – for its lingua franca.  As one of the <6% native English speakers, and also a scientist, this is a huge relief.  I have enough trouble expressing scientific thoughts in English; I can’t imagine doing so in another language (or even another alphabet).

But, throughout the world, there are heaps of non-English speaking scientists doing science in non-English, and reporting their results in non-English publications and conferences.  That doesn’t mean us Anglos should ignore that rich corpus of scientific thought.  And never before in the history of humanity has it been easier to work across languages in science (well, except before stuff went down, literally).

The general term for non-English scientific publications is often “foreign literature” (the English translation of the Russian “Иностранный литература” in the title of this post), which I dislike for a few reasons. Chief among them is that in Canada, we are ostensibly a bilingual nation yet less than one third are conversant in French.  So while a Québecois(e) researcher is decidedly not “foreign”, their research remains largely inaccessible* to most Canadians.  But in the absence of something more suitable (non-English literature doesn’t have the same ring to it), I’ll work with what I’ve got.

*I hope to show otherwise, but this is the prevailing thought.

Finding foreign literature

In the age of the internet, the search engine is king.  Databases like Web of Knowledge have excellent coverage of foreign literature (Scopus less so, but that’s also an artefact of the years it covers; see below).  Google Scholar is also quite adept at picking up non-English articles.

This obviously becomes more challenging when searching for concepts (e.g., species-area curves) rather than particular species (Linnean binomials FTW!), but all it takes is one reference to show you that what you want is “Curva espécie-área” in Portuguese.  Wikipedia can also be a fantastic reference if there are two articles on your topic: one in English (or a language in which you know the term), and another in the target language you’re after (just click on the links under “Languages” over on the left-hand side).

But many non-English papers also contain an English title and abstract (sometimes found at the end of the article), and some include English table and figure captions.  This obviously depends on the journal, and to a lesser extent, when it was published (the practice was less common in the past).

By and large, my main point of contact with a particular bit of foreign literature is that someone else has cited it.  Much like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, a single paper in Dutch will likely be peppered with many and sundry Dutch references.  Classic texts and reviews can be good places to start.

Reading foreign literature

Not everyone is a polyglot (though many of us might aspire to be; again, more on this later), but there are a few strategies that I’ve found to work rather well over the years (presented in order that I used them).

First off, there might be someone at your university/agency/workplace (not necessarily your department), or in your community that’s conversant in the language you need.  Colleagues elsewhere can also be a fantastic resource.  But, reading, translating, and interpreting a scientific text from one language to another is a fair bit of work.  As an example, I had one paper in Russian (Lobkov, E. G., and A. P. Nikanorov. 1981. Гибель животныхот вулканических газов в верховьях реки Гейзерной на восточной камчатке (Death of animals from volcanic gases in the upper reaches of the R. Geysernaya (eastern Kamchatka)). Byulleten’ Moskovskogo Obshchestva Ispytatelei Prirody Otdel Biologicheskii 86:4-13) and I had a particular set of questions (e.g., where was it, what are these species names, what was the main conclusion, etc) that I could take to my Russian colleague.  Even this took us about an hour to go through (and as a note, I found this through Web of Knowledge initially, and it had an English title, though poorly translated, and an English summary).

Google Translate is your friend. Unless you get exceptionally silly, it’s often enough to at least convey the general ideas.  To use Google Scholar, your non-English paper should (ideally) be in a PDF, and have undergone optical character recognition (OCR) processing.  This will be the case for many, but if it’s a scanned PDF, then you’ll need to OCR it yourself (easily done in Adobe Acrobat; but not Acrobat Reader – note that many universities have an educational discount for this software, and there may be other alternatives available elsewhere).  Even then, there may be some glitches (lowercase “f” and “l” are often confused, for example) that might require some manual intervention.  It’s also best to work in small chunks (1-2 paragraphs at most).  This is usually where I start.

If you end up delving into a fair deal of foreign literature, eventually you’ll be able to pick out key phrases, like concepts of species names.  It’s amazing how quickly it can happen.

Examples from ornithology

As someone who’s primarily an ornithologist, my examples will come from that field, but are equally applicable to anywhere.

Much of my work has been on community ecology and breeding biology of seabirds, and often including species that are found in both North America, and Russia (both the Atlantic and Pacific sides).  There are a few “classic texts” in seabird ecology from the 1950s-1990s in Russian (some of which have been translated into English):

  • Dementiev, G. P., R. N. Meklenburtsev, A. M. Sudilovskaya, and E. P. Sapengeberg. 1951. Птицы Советского Союза (Birds of the Soviet Union, Volume 2). USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow.
  • Kozlova, E. V. 1957. Фауна СССР: Птицы. Том. II, Вып. 3: Ржанкообразные, подотряд Чистиковые (Fauna of the USSR: Birds. Vol. 2, No. 3: Charadriiformes, suborder Alcae). USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow.
  • Uspenski, S. M. 1958. The bird bazaars of Novaya Zemlya (English translation). Russian Game Reports 4:1-159.
  • Belopolskii, L. O. 1961. Ecology of sea colony birds in the Barents Sea (Экология морских колониальных птиц Баренцова Моря). Israel Program for Scientific Translations, Jerusalem.
  • Flint, V. E., and A. N. Golovkin. 1990. Птицы СССР: Чистиковые (Birds of the USSR: Auks). Nauka, Moscow.

These all contained information that I needed, and I’ve cited them all in various papers.  Thankfully, the (now-defunct) Israel Program for Scientific Translation covered some of these, but the translation isn’t perfect (some species are mixed up in figure/table captions, for example).  These are all books/monographs, and I found them because others had cited them.

Much of the ornithological work in the Neotropics occurs in Spanish- (and Portuguese-) speaking countries, and can be found in journals like Ornitologia Neotropical or Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia.  Neotropical migrants (those that winter in South America/Caribbean and breed in North America) link English and Spanish/Portuguese researchers, and they have largely been successful in bridging the communication divide.

Lastly, the proportion of non-English journals in ornithology appears to be decreasing.  Journal für Ornithologie, of the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (German Ornithologists’ Society) is now Journal of Ornithology, and published entirely in English (with German Zusammenfassung).  Similarly, Acta Ornithologica, a publication of the Museum and Institute of Zoology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, is now in English.  Don’t get me wrong – there are still heaps of non-English bird journals, but their number (and scientific influence) is dwindling.

En cas d’urgence…

During my PhD, it became readily apparent that, because the birds that were the focus of my studies were also found in Russia, and that there was a significant amount of research in Russian, that I’d have to pick a bit up.  More than I could get by using Google Translate, and pestering my poor Russian colleague (sorry Andrei!).  I was lucky enough to find someone who gave 1-on-1 lessons,  who tailored them to my ornithological needs, and charged a reasonable rate.  I was exceptionally lucky.  After about a year, I became somewhat proficient, at least enough to read and pick out key words that I could pair up with Google Translate as a second step.  I recognize that this may be seen as an extreme step, but I don’t think it was.

As scientists, we invest considerable time learning new analytical techniques, new programming languages, and understanding new systems.  New languages can benefit all of these aspects of our research, both directly by making more information accessible, and indirectly from the general advantages of learning languages.  I know this isn’t possible for all, but I bet it’s more possible than one might think (why not audit a language course at your home institution, for example?).

Final thoughts

For some of you, this post provides nothing new, but for many living in largely-monolingual North America, accessing foreign literature hasn’t been the norm in the past, at least not as much as it is in Europe.

As our search strategies for scientific literature change (both as a community, and individually), it’s important to not neglect science that’s not in English (or even–gasp!– not available as a PDF online).  Non-English academics have enriched our world considerably.  Ignoring these parts of the science literature is no excuse.