Bilingual Future of Science Journalism

One language to bind them all?

English is the modern lingua franca of many scientists and journalists, but a wind of multilingual change is stirring

Is the future of science journalism bilingual? Photo credit: Romain Vignes on unsplash
By Gaia Donati

The European science media landscape is changing. Take Technologist magazine, for example, which is available in three languages – English, French and German. As Pierre Grosjean, the magazine’s Geneva-based publishing director, observes: multilingual journalism “is expensive but it’s worth it, as the reactions from readers indicate.” This new trend of bilingual and multilingual science journalism will feature in the discussions of the 4h European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ2017), held in Copenhagen between 2630 June 2017.

For Grosjean, the advantages of a multilingual technology magazine are indisputable. “Multilingualism,” he says, “is more efficient if you want to reach European readers who are used to reading the press in their native language.”

Of course, these multilingual editorial projects depend on an available budget. Sabine Louët, who is based in Dublin, Ireland, and is the CEO and founder of SciencePOD – a specialist platform for creating editorial content related to science – explains that publishing houses and media organisations provide limited resources (if any) for science journalism, with bilingual editions receiving even less support. Exceptions occur in historically bilingual regions and countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland and Catalonia in Spain, where, Louët notes, “resources are systematically allocated to translation.”

But translating content into different languages is not the whole story for a multilingual publication. In the case of Scientific American, the magazine is published in fourteen language editions. These “are not straight translations, each one tailors the content offering to local audiences,” says US-based editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina. “Providing accessible information in multiple languages is part of ensuring that science is for everyone,” she adds.

As multilingual science journalism reflects language diversity, it should also take into account cultural specificities. “It’s important to understand the cultural expectations of the readers,” says Louët. “In Europe alone, science reporting differs in the way arguments are articulated and supported,” she notes. For example, articles for German and French audiences tend to reach their conclusion at the end of the piece, after developing arguments chronologically. This contrasts with pieces appearing in the English-speaking press where the conclusion of the article appears upfront.

English may be the modern lingua franca among many scientists and science journalists, but Grosjean believes that “multilingual publications work as a common ground” for readers across Europe’s fragmented linguistic landscape. Even if scientists understand English, stories written in their native language can make it easier to keep up to date with the latest research. This, in turn, facilitates greater circulation of scientific information across national borders.

In fields such as biodiversity conservation and infectious diseases, local knowledge is precious for both scientists and journalists. The 2004 outbreak of avian influenza in China and, more recently, the Zika virus epidemic, highlighted how English-centred communications may hamper critical information exchange. Argentinian freelance writer Federico Kukso, who organised the ECSJ2017 session on bilingual journalism, believes that the Zika outbreak made “many science journalists open their eyes” and realise that “they need to pay more attention to what’s going on in other parts of the world,” including Latin America.

“Science reporting shouldn’t be constrained by language differences or geographical distance from the editor,” says Louët. Truly international science reporting might come through a global network of bilingual science journalists, as Kukso suggests, or through individual writers opening up to other languages and cultures. However it happens, science journalism seems poised for change.