The Wycliffe Science Project?

Wycliffe Bible Translators has translated the Bible into one hell of a lot of languages (with plans for many more):

It prompted reader Brian to ask (via email) whether we can do something similar for books about science:

… Wouldn’t it be great if there was an initiative like this one, only instead of the Bible, it worked to translate science textbooks and casual science books (i.e. Universe in a Nutshell, Galileo’s Finger, etc.) into all known languages, so that someday the entirety of the globe will have access to the words of Feynman, Sagan, and others?

Even if such an initiative were to closely parallel Wycliffe, all it might take are some basic teachings of math, physics, biology, and geology combined with some casual text explaining scientific evolution and scientific marvels to get a book or body of work as big as the New Testament or even the Bible, which could then be translated into hundreds (if not thousands) of languages.

I feel like most (if not all) developed countries have (or should have) a basic science/math/logic curriculum, so I don’t know if I’m overreacting because Hawking’s book exists in only 20 or so languages while The Little Prince exists in 190 (and the Qur’an in 112). Maybe spreading these words isn’t immediately necessary. But then there’s the spreading of science texts to less developed or “indigenous” peoples, in the same manner that the Bible has been spread.

Are people everywhere ready for The Pale Blue Dot? And if science is too much, then what about the spreading of non-Bible religious or philosophical texts?

Wycliffe says they only translated the Bible for a community or people when the “spiritual” need is recognized by the Translators and/or the native individuals. Why answer such a need with only the Bible? Why not also the Tao Te Ching or Meditations on First Philosophy or An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals?

It’s an interesting idea and I don’t know if it’s been actively pursued before.

If a group of people don’t have access to books in their native language, giving them something educational seems much more worthwhile to me than giving them false hope steeped in mythology.

Any thoughts on whether something like this should happen at all and, if so, how to go about making it happen?

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  • Miko

    I recall an old story that back in the old days, when computers shipped as motherboards and the end user was supposed to be a hobbyist savvy enough to set everything up, Steve Jobs donated a bunch of “computers” (i.e., motherboards) to a school. The school graciously accepted them, concluded they had no idea what to do with them, and stuck them in a closet to gather dust.

    The moral of the story? As much as I love The Pale Blue Dot, I don’t think it’s a top priority for people who struggle with maintaining access to fresh water and are still performing subsistence agriculture without access to any sort of significant mechanical devices. For many people in the third world, a translation of a popular science book would be just as worthless as a translation of a religious text. I’d much rather see translation aimed at the provision of appropriate technology.

  • CaptOblivious

    Also, doesn’t this mean that it is impossible for a good portion of the population of the planet to know the “good news”? Therefore a good portion of the population of the planet will be damned to hell for eternity, through no fault of their own? What kind of benevolent all-loving god would set things up that way? Oh wait…nevermind 😉

  • Lxndr

    While I agree with Miko in that appropriate technology would be the best goal – I submit that critical thinking and logic are probably some of the most appropriate technologies for most anywhere and anyone.

    Pale Blue Dot would probably not be the best choice for subsistence cultures… but I’m sure some creation could be.

  • Another idea is to translate a well-written book that simply discusses what religion is and isn’t and the merits of critical thought. There could be some comments on “cargo cults” and the dangers of falling pray to magical thinking of all stripes.

  • I’m just finishing up a linguistics BA, and this topic is very important/interesting to me. I actually have thought that translating science-y stuff would be a good goal for linguists.

    I think the difference between translating the Bible (the way Wycliffe does – culturally relevant, with descriptions of things like “sheep” or “redemption” etc.) and translating a beginning science book is that it does not take as much prior training to understand what the Bible is saying, but it takes a fair amount of background science/math to understand much of what is written in the sciences.

    I think the appropriate technology as Miko suggests is imperative (and I believe is something that Wycliffe does as well). It would also be useful to translate other philosophical works (Plato or Aristotle or more recent guys). That would give people a choice between the Bible and other philosophies.

  • Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything would be a good book to distribute.

    Or at another level it would be great to compete with distribution program of the Gideon bible. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a simple book explaining things in every hotel room?

  • Franco

    The problem is that there’s hundreds of great classic science and philosophy works. Which ones get picked for translation?
    As opposed to there being only one Bible, which makes the question an easy one for the other guys.

  • fiddler

    @Miko
    Why do you separate the concept of science from that of technology? While a book is teaching new technologies, there is no reason it can’t go into the sciences behind the concepts involved.
    That aside, I think books on critical thinking would be a great idea for nearly every society to read more of.

  • In many countries the people who want to read science books and the heavy hitters of political philosophy are the same ones who have the intellectual wherewithal to learn a second language to read them in.

    A better and larger target might be the next tier of intellects down; those with the curiousity but not the ability to read complex works in a second language. For them it would be sensible to translate popular works of science and philosophy.

    In the Third World especially there’s a crying need for understanding the basic concepts of human rights that are our legacy from the Enlightenment. And I know no better popularizer of those ideas than Thomas Paine. Books like “Common Sense”, “The Age of Reason” and “The Rights of Man” were written in language accessible to everyone and they can still get one’s blood boiling over injustice and tyrrany against individual liberty.

    I’d love to see copies of “Common Sense” put into the hands of Arabic-speaking high school and college students. It’s short, doesn’t say anything in particular about religion but it’s incredibly subversive and incendiary.

  • Richard P.

    This idea of a science bible is magnificent. An old testament of science basics and facts. a new testament of new and developing science.

    The only problem is it would have to be constantly updated. Not like the real one that is kinda stagnant and growing mold.

  • Emily

    The moral of the story? As much as I love The Pale Blue Dot, I don’t think it’s a top priority for people who struggle with maintaining access to fresh water and are still performing subsistence agriculture without access to any sort of significant mechanical devices.

    I saw a documentary the other day (okay, it was a Wallace and Grommit one aimed at kids, but still!) featuring a guy who, using a basic kid’s book about how electricity works and featuring different electricity production methods, built a windmill which pumps water and provides electricity for a couple of hours a day to his entire village, using wood and a dynamo he found in a nearby junkyard. Knowledge of science begets problem-solving, and in a much better way than giving people a windmill would have. (Now, some kind of equivalent to missionary work, where engineers go out and teach people How Things Work In Practical Ways? That would also be awesome.)

    The issue with translating a lot of the texts in question is that, unlike the Bible, they’re copywrited. Disregarding ethics, it’s legal to make and distribute copies of the Bible without getting permission from or paying the original publisher and authors. If it were to happen, then the texts available would depend heavily on the laws of the country in which the translation/distribution is taking place. Darwin and Newton would be a good place to start; I bet there’s nowhere left where they’re copywrited still. Likewise Galileo.

  • Brokenleaf

    Seems moot. Isn’t teaching English a far better way to export knowledge to the developing world? I mean, if you teach a person English, just think about all the books you didn’t have to translate.

  • Noel

    Translating most philosophical works isn’t any better than translating bibles. You’re just substituting one poison with another.

    It’s easy to translate the emotional nonsense of bibles. They contain no concepts or abstractions to convey that would require an extensive normative mapping between the source and target languages. They contain emotional anecdotes and moral codes easily rendered with mundane, imprecise lexicons.

    How would we translate the periodic table of elements? Or the language of calculus?

    And if we could, would we really want the polyglot mess? In religion, edicts flow in one direction; in science, theories flow in all directions. A common language is a virtue.

    Teach them the language of math. Teach them the language of the most proximate scientific civilization. The rest is up to them. First lesson: No gods to give us wings; here’s a bootstrap, child — pull.

  • gsw

    I love the idea.
    All it needs now is a synthesist to write the book called “What every child should know”.

    @Miko: A book on basic arithmetic, science and logic would of necessity contain enough biology to explain why water from the river should be boiled and cuts washed.
    It might also contain enough physics to see the beauty of the universe and humanism enough to learn to care about their fellow humans.

  • Stephen P

    One problem with this idea is that almost all science books worth reading are still in copyright. (Whereas books like those of Darwin are worth reading, I think it’s fair to say that they now count more as history of science than as science.)

    Anyone got any idea how difficult it is likely to be to get publishers to go along with this?

  • Mihangel apYrs

    Rick
    people would be more likely to walk off with an interesting book than a bible

  • Wazaghun

    I think this is a tremendous idea. Especially for the ARAB world (science) books should be made available.

    Since regimes often censor even those (like the translation of Dawkins book that is forbidden in some places) distributing them over the net would be fantastic.

    It might be possible to rally some people to translate books provided one could get an “allowance” to do so.
    It is a question of copyright and the will of some authors to be less strict about it. Since the arab market is actually nonexistent they wouldn’t actually “loose” anything.

  • I would think that decent engineering texts would be of most use. Engineering uses mathematics, physics and chemistry to solve problems. Explain the concepts as you go, include cautionary tales about the overuse of resources, about replanting and recycling and such. Add some economics of scale in for good measure.

    As wonderful as the realisation is that we are but the latest iteration of a bunch of star stuff it is hardly a great comfort for someone who hasn’t got anything to feed his children for the next week.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Slightly off topic, but still related: I highly recommend that anyone here with an interest in anthropology (especially linguistic anthropology) read “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett. He was a missionary sent out to a remote area of Brazil to learn the language of a tribe there so he could translate the Bible into their language. Over time, he became the world’s foremost expert on their language and lifeways, made some revolutionary (but controversial) linguistic discoveries, and completely lost his Christian faith and became a secular humanist (mainly thanks to what he learned from the tribe, which practices no religion and refused to believe anything he said about Jesus). It’s a fascinating book both scientifically and as a de-conversion tale. Anyway, check it out.

  • Blacksheep

    I agree that engineering and science texts would be great to translate into the world’s languages – especially one with the kind of practical, day-to-day knowledge like gsw described, including things like access to fresh water, best food growing methods, resource management, etc.

    Wycliffe has the advantage of existing as a non-government, private organization that is self funded. Since they are a private organization with a shared internal vision, they’re less bogged down by committees who would undoubtedly become mired in things like trying to figure out which science texts to choose, etc. as was mentioned earlier.

    Wycliffe does offer benefits that go beyond Bible translation (Which I respectfully submit is not considered a benefit in this forum).

    In their words:

    “The benefits of translation and literacy for these minority language groups are many. They include better health as a result of access to medical information, economic growth due to the acquisition of marketable skills, and the preservation of culture thanks to a written history.”

    True, any group could have spent the past 70 years translating and distributing books, which would have had similar benefits as quoted above – but Wycliffe did it.

    I think Wycliffe could add a location-tailored addendum to all of their Bibles which could include much of what has been discussed here, in the same way that big coffee table Bibles used to have sections on ancient culture, maps of the holy land, weights and measures, etc.

  • Remember back in the day when it was death to possess a bible in any language other than Latin?

  • @Emily: Was it this guy you were talking about?

    http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/

    “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind”

  • I think instead of trying to figure out what books we think other people might want to read, just try to translate a wide variety of books and let the people take whichever interests them. If they take a bible, that’s fine. If they take a book about engineering or biology or even a copy of effing Twilight, that’s cool too. I think promoting the free exchange of all information is more helpful and exciting than only promoting certain books that someone else has deemed potentially the most useful.

  • Brian

    Thanks for the input, everybody!

    I’d agree that books on basic engineering and mathematics could be more useful to many societies than Pale Blue Dot or Tao Te Ching. And this is probably the biggest sphere to be attended to.
    What say you about the sphere of those who, as Hugh put it, “those with the curiousity but not the ability to read complex works in a second language”? My idea was also fueled in part by the story of Tibetan monks studying science in the USA–they’re learning English to do so, which is groovy, but recently the university that they’re studying at translated a biology textbook into Tibetan, so that they knowledge can then be spread back in Tibet. This is a newsworthy item, but nonetheless it concerns a single textbook (I think). Why not a similar project on a greater scale?

  • Drew M.

    @Emily: Was it this guy you were talking about?

    http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/

    “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind”

    I read her comment and wanted to post these videos. His story is so inspiring.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arD374MFk4w

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8yKFVPOD6o

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QkNxt7MpWM

  • Emily

    @cr0sh:

    That’s the guy, yep! Thank you for the link. What a great man.

  • Rollingforest

    I think that science textbooks from school would be the best choice to be translated because they are made for beginners. But we need to include books on critical thinking. Even some smart people fall prey to the emotional bait of religion and books on critical thinking would help.

  • Slightly off topic, but still related: I highly recommend that anyone here with an interest in anthropology (especially linguistic anthropology) read “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett. He was a missionary sent out to a remote area of Brazil to learn the language of a tribe there so he could translate the Bible into their language. Over time, he became the world’s foremost expert on their language and lifeways, made some revolutionary (but controversial) linguistic discoveries, and completely lost his Christian faith and became a secular humanist (mainly thanks to what he learned from the tribe, which practices no religion and refused to believe anything he said about Jesus). It’s a fascinating book both scientifically and as a de-conversion tale. Anyway, check it out.

    Totally agree! Great book, and the Pirahã culture is fascinating. I wish Everett had spent a little more time on his deconversion, though. If he ever writes a sequel, I’d love to read it.

  • Dave

    I met a Wycliffe Bible translator a few weeks ago. He’s Korean but learning English to interact with Wycliffe. He also learned Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Indonesian and a dialet in the south of Indonesia in order to translate the Bible. Often times learning the language and translation adds up to being about a 15 year commitment. I can’t see people being that commited to science text book translation. Especially theoretical scientific issues since in 15 years the concepts probably would have evolved or perhaps been discredited. Translating something only to have it discredited would suck!!