Your silent collaborator

September 29, 2015

Dr. Nigro, Filipodia Editor


I always wonder when I am reading a book originally written in another language whether something has been lost in translation. It isn’t because of the person translating. It is because there is a certain rhythm in each language as it is that is not translatable. And perhaps more importantly, some words or phrases simply cannot be translated into another language. There is no good way to translate “å kose seg” from Norwegian into any other language.

My job as an editor of articles from non-native English speaking scientists is a little different because I am only working in one language. It is still in some respects a form of translation, depending first, on the authors’ ability to write in English and second, on the topic.

The language used for science is probably more precise than for literary disciplines, so nuances of different words do not necessarily impede the process. The real challenge is to understand the topic of the article in order to present it clearly and in a storyline.

I have a PhD, and I am a basic research biologist. My career focus has been cancer biology with an emphasis on human brain tumors. Cancer is essentially a disruption of normal cellular processes involving mutational events at key genetic loci. Some mutations are revealing something potentially unique about a tissue type while others target molecular processes that play an important role in all cell types. It is inherent in my field thus to know a little something about diverse biological processes, anything from RNA splicing to metabolism (ugh!).

Methodology is more universally applied in biological research-sequencing a genome is sequencing a genome, whether it is from a squid or a human tumor. So today any basic cancer biologist has a fairly broad background to work from as an editor.

I may still have to do some research on my own in order to clarify a protocol or a section of an article. This is especially the case for edits of medical or surgical studies. For example, I don’t know anatomy. Here I must consult another source-usually a physician or a surgeon that I happen to be related to.

Word usage in medical articles is also slightly different than for basic biology. In biology, you might talk about evolution, whereas in medicine you are more likely to talk about progression. I can’t think of another situation where I would use the word insufflation other than in a laparoscopic procedure. Clinical studies are also presented more often like a history and physical-patients presented with some kind of symptom-whereas biologists tend to use a narrative style-we irradiated flies in order to find genes associated with eye color.

It is an especially dynamic time in science and medicine, as we have the ability to easily communicate and interact with scientists and physicians worldwide wherever we are (maybe even while on a boat in the middle of Indonesia). The editor plays a key role in this process, and yet, we will never meet. I am effectively a silent collaborator.

So what might be lost in the translation of articles by an editor from the Internet? Perhaps something, maybe more related to personalities and culture (English mistakes have their own charm in the telling of any story), but not as much as if we did not make the effort to present the work taking place around the world in a common language.