The recent Nobel Prize nod to traditional Chinese medicine has bestowed a degree of respectability on what was previously dismissed as superstitious nonsense by the most progressive of Chinese intellectuals. Now government officials and research scientists alike are dreaming of a veritable “pharmucopia” (not just in China, but also in India). Still, translating traditional knowledge into the language of modern science is a task that has only recently begun and has some way to go.

Such knowledge transfers are hardly unprecedented however. It was not even a hundred years ago that Chinese and Indian scholars were struggling to translate Western scientific concepts to make them accessible to local populations.

Imagine, for example, trying to translate “isochronous” and “semi-cubical parabola” (and I have no idea what they mean) for the peasantry. That was precisely the challenge faced by reformers and educators in the princely state of Hyderabad in pre-independence India.

But why translate at all? At the time, scientific knowledge in India was confined to a miniscule English-educated elite. To bring enlightenment to the masses, you had to use the language of the masses: not English, nor classical Sanskrit, Persian or Arabian (all courtly languages), but Urdu.

The concern (then as now) was that many scientific terms were nothing more than “a string of mnemonic words to students who have not a smattering of Greek and Latin, from which languages most of the terms are derived. For instance, when we know that ‘dorsal’ and ‘ventral’ come from the Latin ‘dorsali’ and ‘ventralis’ –pertaining to the back and belly respectively—these terms live in our imagination.”1 To really understand these concepts, students had to encounter them in a context and a language with which they were familiar.

It was tempting, however, to translate into Arabic: for one, the Arab world had its own scientific traditions, and some of the classical words could still be applied to modern science (especially where modern science had borrowed from Arab science). As an ancient language, Arabic also had an expansive vocabulary. Urdu, by contrast, was a young language.

Still, according to the (dumb then and dumb now) thinking of the time, science could be learned better in “rational” Indo-Aryan languages (like Urdu and English). This was because Urdu, unlike Arabic, could be used to create new words through combinations of words and the use of prefixes and suffixes. Ironically, in the end, much Urdu scientific terminology ended up borrowing heavily from Arabic.

If translating into Urdu was challenging, one can imagine how much more challenging it was to translate into a logographic system like Chinese. Pictograph for magnesium, anyone?

The Chinese had had experience with massive translation projects when they translated Buddhist scripts into Chinese many centuries earlier. A similar technique was used in translating mathematics, physics and chemistry into literary Chinese, whereby a Chinese scholar would transcribe the oral translations of a foreigner who knew enough Chinese to transmit the gist of the meaning of a text.

When it came to new scientific terms, the scribe had seven options:

  • He could leave the word as is, in English script embedded among Chinese characters, thus highlighting its foreignness—not a good idea in a culture already resistant to new ideas;
  • He could transliterate the sounds into Chinese characters, but this was thought to be the clumsiest of methods;
  • He could use Japanese loanwords;
  • He could use archaic Chinese characters—with almost 50,000 characters, surely one of them was bound to fit;
  • He could create a new character;
  • He could juxtapose two or more existing characters to create a new word; or
  • He could use existing terms, emphasizing the continuity between modern science and a Chinese past.2

The Urdu translation bureau in Hyderabad translated fifty five thousand words over twenty-eight years. Unfortunately, as an official language, Urdu fell out of favor for political reasons and so much of this effort came to naught.

The Chinese effort was more successful–as attested to by the rising status of Chinese research institutions globally.

 

The more interesting question raised here, however, has to do with the nature of secular/ scientific thought itself. Does secular thought reside in the European languages? The Chinese and Urdu experiences show otherwise.

 

Moreover, in a world of rising intolerance and fundamentalism, shouldn’t the scientific translation project be revived so that more people everywhere have meaningful access to these ideas?