Link: Writing about science in an African language

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Sibusiso Biyela has a great essay in The Open Notebook recounting the challenges faced in communicating science about a South African dinosaur discovery in one of the major languages of South Africa: “Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa”.

My job was to write about the discovery for the South African website SciBraai—and to do so in my native language of Zulu.
But there’s no word for “dinosaur” in Zulu. Nor are there words for “Jurassic,” “fossilization,” or “evolution.” Despite the fact that Zulu—or isiZulu, as the language is called in South Africa—is spoken by some 10 million people, it simply doesn’t have the words for communicating science.
So my news piece wasn’t just a news piece. It was an attempt to tell a science story in a language that science overlooked—to help right a societal wrong. It was a small contribution among an increasing number that aim to help decolonize South African science writing. And it was rife with more pitfalls than I could have imagined. The task of describing science clearly, concisely, and accurately—already challenging in English—became exponentially more difficult in my native tongue.

I absolutely love how creating new translations and terminology provides the opportunity to escape the bad thinking of the past. For example, on “dinosaur”:

I encountered trouble, however, with the word dinosaur, which comes from the Greek for “terrifying lizard.” The term is a misnomer: Many dinosaurs bear little resemblance to lizards, and some ancient animals that looked like terrifying lizards, such as the dimetrodon, are actually more closely related to mammals than to dinosaurs. I didn’t want to introduce into Zulu the same misconceptions that already plagued so many English speakers.

It is one of the hardest challenges in writing about science to escape the worn ruts of past writers, which may be easier to follow, but lead readers off in wrong directions. The great opportunity of starting fresh is that a writer can build a new way of representing the science that aligns with today’s concepts and ideas.