The short answer is “no.”

As early as the eighth century C.E., the leader of the Islamic world, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, built the Dar al-Hikma or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Iraq, where translators worked day and night to translate scientific texts from Greece, China and India into Arabic, a language that was increasingly understood by intellectual elites in the Islamic world. (Much of this knowledge might otherwise have been lost to the world in the Dark Ages.)

In other words, Arabic, and not English, was once the language of science.

Nonetheless, not even a hundred years ago, as China and India were playing catch up with the West, scholars struggled to translate Western scientific concepts to make them accessible to local populations.

Imagine, for example, trying to translate “isochronous” and “semi-cubical parabola” for the peasantry.

In India, scientific knowledge at the time was confined to a miniscule English-educated elite. To bring enlightenment to the masses, it was imperative to use the language of the masses: not English, nor classical Sanskrit, Persian or Arabic (all courtly languages), but Urdu.

The concern was that many English terms were nothing more than “a string of mnemonic words to students who [had] 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 to translate into Arabic, since the Arab world already had its own scientific traditions, and some of the classical words could still be applied to modern science.  Moreover, 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). 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 anyway.

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

Now, 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 already had experience with massive translation projects when they translated Buddhist scripts into Chinese many centuries earlier.

When it came to scientific terms, a Chinese 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

 

Overall, the Chinese translation effort was more successful than the Indian one. But the more interesting question raised here, however, has to do with the nature of secular/ scientific thought itself.

 

Does science belong to the modern, secular West? 

 

History shows us otherwise.

The Islamic world not only preserved for posterity much of the ancient world’s scientific knowledge, it also built upon it.

Today, we think of the scientific method as something that evolved during the European Enlightenment, but the Iraqi-British physicist Jim al-Khalili argues that evidence for the scientific method can be found as early as the tenth century C.E., in the work of the Iraqi polymath Al-Haytham.

Far from being an invention of modernity, science, through the ages, has been a cumulative endeavour, with each successive civilization building on the knowledge of those past.

In a world of rising intolerance and fundamentalism, it’s more important than ever that science should be translated into the vernacular, so that more people everywhere have meaningful access to these ideas.