Speaking in Tongues

Today, a two hour delay at Bangalore airport provided me ample time to study the bookshop before concluding there was nothing worth buying. The last decade has seen an explosion in Indian writing in fiction, economics, management, marketing and even (thankfully) history. There is however, one underdeveloped frontier, science. Nestled between celebrity biographies and start-up sutras, a single narrow shelf carried august names like Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, but no Indians entered this seeming final bastion of white man’s rule.

At first glance this may seem odd, a nation that dubs itself an IT superpower, that mass produces engineering and science graduates, India would seem an ideal place for popular science. Yet few high quality mass market books beyond the obligatory children’s Tell Me Why series (bought by ambitious and optimistic parents for decades) are visible.

Why the paradox? It is true that most Indians enter technical professions due to job prospects rather than love for the field, but even this does not explain the odd public disregard. Television channels like Discovery and National Geographic have turned away from the sunlit uplands of science and nature into the swampy morass of reality TV. Why isn’t science part of our culture, the way politics or movies are? Is it just too advanced, too abstract or just boring? Or is it simply presented wrong?

A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast on the life of the medieval Arab scholar Al Kindi (available here) when a possible answer struck me. Al Kindi lived during the Arab Renaissance in the 9th century when Baghdad led the world in art, culture, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. What struck me was that the many Arab scholars of the time earned a living translating works from Greek and Latin into Arabic. Translation was a thriving industry heavily patronized by the rulers of the day.


Arabic representation of Plato and Aristotle

Similarly, when the Japanese decided to modernize at the turn of the last century, one of their first activities was to translate all technical and scientific literature into Japanese. In Europe, science ceased to be a plaything of the aristocracy with the Enlightenment. This was also accompanied by a decline of Latin as the language of learning and a rise of vernacular literature. Especially scientific and technical literature.

In my first year at college, a professor remarked that for all the government time and funds spent in ensuring Indian languages did not decline, we had yet to produce a single world class technical journal in Hindi. The fact remains that in order to be an engineer, doctor or scientist, proficiency in English remains a prerequisite.

Consider any nation that has remained underdeveloped decades after shaking off colonial shackles. You will find an acute shortage of scientific literature in their common language. In contrast, countries like S. Korea and Japan which have aggressively taken the world’s knowledge and indigenized it into their own tongue have been able to reach a wider audience among their own people. This radical increase in the available talent pool in turn contributed to research, technology and the level of public awareness.


Poverty and the world (per capita GDP)

Let me be clear, anyone who studies English will continue to enjoy an advantage as long as most of the world’s research is done in English and moving away from it is almost certainly a retrograde step. But education is not a zero sum game. Not all engineering is software and there is no reason why beam stresses or planetary motions cannot be calculated in Hindi, Marathi or Tamil. As yet, there are not enough good technical books in these languages beyond the undergraduate level. At the same time, there is a shortage of popular science literature aimed at readers of all ages.

After the Iranian Revolution, all teaching moved away from English into Persian. The first result was that immediately research was stunted (there were other important reasons for this like sanctions and a war with Iraq) and many university professors started making a living by translating English texts into Persian. But after thirty years, an western Professor found that he could discuss European philosophers with ordinary Iranians on the street. The level of discussion might be lower than in a University campus, but the awareness was there, it was part of their life.

India is one of the few places where newspaper readership is rising. But it is in the local languages where most of the gains are seen. People want to know the world around them. Can a nation of 1.2 billion produce an Indian Asimov or Sagan?


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Kindi

[2] https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwju5q34u5nRAhWMgI8KHemaAQcQFggbMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fprogrammes%2Fb01k2bv8&usg=AFQjCNFTP9QThfyTK5opp2AuVHv6WTQYjQ&sig2=fphO4w7t6cdhHUkwzGUpiw


4 responses to “Speaking in Tongues

  1. While I agree about the importance of translations, I wonder if there is any willingness to do so in India. Unlike Meji Japan or China, there is a substantial English speaking population and the language is still seen at a distinct advantage in everyday life.

    And… The reality show horror that one endures this side of the Atlantic in the name of “documentaries” is probably just the same as in India.

    • I love the English language. Sadly it has resulted in a very real divide in India amongst people who do and don’t speak it. The English speakers are primarily concentrated in tier 1 and to a much lesser extent in tier 2 cities. So long as technical literature remains in English, it is difficult for it to penetrate deeper. it therefore becomes very difficult to mobilize masses towards technology and achieve real broad based progress.

    • As a final point, the day I can speak in English with my maid is the day I will start considering whether translation is unnecessary. So long reas the internet functions in English it will continue to be an advantage. But the apalling limiting of horizons that results from not knowing the language creates an inherent class divide. Historically, so long as learning was in Latin, it remained the purview of the aristocracy.

  2. I also remember how much some of my small town classmates struggled in college and the effort they put in to improve their language skills. To improve the standard of English skills throughout India in my opinion will be more difficult and take longer than to actively translate key material. But I have heard otherwise as well.

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