Nov 30, 2012

Science-communication - the role of the native speaker

You rarely find high-tech research institutes in the cultural center of a city. You should rather look for them somewhere near a freeway to the airport. The area is then labelled  'tech-campus', 'innovation-park' or the like to help ease the despair of those working in the wastelands. Language-studies, the arts and history on the other hand will be expected to reside in those awe-inspiring old buildings in the touristy areas of town. Some, like the german author Dietrich Schwanitz, are quite clear about the reason: the sciences, he writes, are no good for party-conversation and so they might be useful but they certainly don't belong to the common learning - and, by implication, do not belong to our culture.
Well, Dietrich, no.
Popular access to the field and the use for party-chatter can't be a measure of cultural value. If we take, for example, the wide spectrum of music - from the most emotionally accessible chirp to the intellecutally laden and rather closed theoretical musical constructions - would you want to kick out John Cage's 'Bird cage' for 12 tapes? Simply speaking, going from kitsch to 'serious art' can be classified by the relation between rational access and emotional access. The more rational, intellectually demanding access is possible, the more 'serious' the opus can be. The more emotional and the less rational the more 'kitschy'. Complete kitsch would essentially have only the emotional, vegetative component. A work of classical music would be emotionally accessible but with solid rational (theoretical) components as add-on, which is probably appreciated only by a few but certainly adds to the pleasure.
Now physics.
Emotional access appears almost impossible as the language (math) is not widely understood. Physicists do, however, experience considerable emotional highs and lows in their work - they have both access routes (vegetative and rational).
One aspect of science communication is trying to convey emotionality of the complex topic. When done wrong, science journalism substitutes the real thing by some compensatory hype. A complex story on experimental quantum physics almost inadvertently ends with a line on 'future computers', time-travel or the like under the pretext of a public demanding to know the 'what for' - however far-fetched it might be.
This is wrong.
Communicating science is a translation-process. And just like in the translation of literature, the translator has to be native speaker of the target-language. Translating Borges to german has to be done by a native-speaking german. Translating physics has to be done by a native-speaking non-scientist.
Get it right, the translator of course has to be firm in culture and language of the original work - but she has to know her mother-tongue very well.
While some brazenly demand 'every scientist should be blogging', the real, sensible translations can only be done by the well-educated native 'non-science' speaker.
This translator will be able to grill the scientist on all technical details and figure out the rational but, most importantly, also the emotional access to the story - and then transfer that to the public - of course with losses but without substitute shabang - more true to the real thing.

No comments: