Translating scientific jargon into Navajo

An interdisciplinary team of biologists, linguists, and programmers has set out to create scientific terminology in the Navajo language.

The research project, Enriching Navajo as a Biology Language for Education (ENABLE), is currently working toward developing more precise scientific terminology in the Navajo language. As the scientific community largely publishes in high-resource languages, languages like Navajo have been left behind, making it hard to translate scientific work adequately — by creating new vocabulary, the researchers believe ENABLE could make scientific research more accessible to the Navajo-speaking community. So far, roughly 250 words have been devised and published in the project’s dictionary.

“They really could see the potential from this … as a way of better interacting with the global community and understanding the world around us a little bit more, while also maintaining our language,” said Sterling Martin, in an interview with local news outlet the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Martin was inspired to develop the project upon realizing that it was extremely difficult to translate his work into the Navajo language, due to a lack of native vocabulary for some of the academic jargon.

Martin and the team of researchers behind ENABLE say that the terms they’ve created may even be a bit more intuitive to Navajo speakers than the English counterparts are to English speakers. For example, the English word “bacteria” is ultimately derived from the Greek “bakterion,” meaning “small rod.” This etymology is quite far removed from the typical modern English speaker’s understanding of the word “bacteria” — a monolingual English speaker coming across the word for the first time most likely couldn’t intuit the meaning based on the word alone. 

On the other hand, the researchers’ selected translation of the word “bacteria,” is “chʼosh doo yitʼínii,” which literally means “bug you can’t see,” making the underlying meaning of the word a bit easier to understand without having to look it up.

ENABLE isn’t alone in its pursuit to make scientific language more accessible to speakers of low-resource languages — last year, MultiLingual reported on WikiAfrica’s efforts to translate Wikipedia articles into African languages and develop specific terminology for languages that would make information on the COVID-19 pandemic more accessible. For that project, researchers had to develop native terminology for words like “hand sanitizer” or “face mask” that didn’t have adequate translations into languages like isiZulu.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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