21 August 2007

mathematics-to-English translation

Some Words About Interpreting, from the NYT two weeks ago. (But I just found it today.)

Basically, as different countries become more interconnected, there's going to be a bigger market for translation between different natural languages.

This raises a question: as mathematics becomes more and more important in non-academic settings (and the general consensus seems to be that it will; it is not my purpose here to debate this question), will translation between mathematics and English (or whatever the natural language of the people in question is) become more important?

And what's the analog of "translator" in the mathematics-to-English domain, anyway? The obvious answer is "mathematics teacher", but that's not really correct; a mathematics teacher doesn't translate from mathematics to English, but rather attempts to teach people mathematics. A mathematics teacher is analogous to a foreign language teacher.

Perhaps the translator is the writer of expository books in mathematics for a populat audience. I'm thinking of books like, say, Duncan Watts' Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age or Steven Strogatz' Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, which treat mathematics that is obviously useful in real-world situations. On a different scale, whenever a mathematician (or other person doing work of a mathematical nature) struggles at a party to explain what it is they do, they're engaged in an act of translation.

But in any case, a translator attempts to explain a concept to a listener in the listener's language. The question here is one of efficiency: I choose not to learn, say, Chinese, because I do not need to deal with Chinese-speaking people sufficiently often for it to be worth my time to learn that language. (An ex-girlfriend of mine tried to learn Chinese in college. It's hard.) On those rare occasions when I have to deal with a monolingual speaker of Chinese, I hire a translator. More accurately, I never need to deal with such people directly. But I hear about China in the news a lot, and I presume someone somewhere is issuing statements in Chinese and someone else is translating on my behalf.

Will there evolve a market for a similar sort of translation from mathematics? For people who don't have the time to learn it, but want to know what mathematicians are saying?

3 comments:

frank said...

There are 2 major differences in translation here.

You can translate most of a language into any other language, allowing for some nuances that are culture specific. And there are many things in math that I don't think could be translated into common english (or any other language).

Secondly, you can't translate English into math.

Also, this idea of converting math into common english could easily be applied to many other fields, including all sciences. So while I don't think you'll see special math to english translators, you will see mathematicians (or scientists) who are particularly good at speaking to laymen.

John Armstrong said...

Secondly, you can't translate English into math.

But you can translate Lojban into math.

Chinese Study Adviser said...
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