Machine translation could make English-only science accessible to all

August 16, 2022

While still in high school, Xinyi Liu worked briefly in a lab at Beihang University in Beijing and was surprised to see Chinese researchers routinely using Google Translate to generate the first English draft of scientific papers. Translation is a must if scientists want to submit to high-profile journals, almost all of which are in English.

“It was normal for postdocs to just use Google Translate to first translate everything and then to modify and polish it. But after the first translation, the whole paper didn’t make sense,” said Liu, a rising junior at the University of California, Berkeley, who is majoring in molecular and cell biology. “Literally, all the words, all the terms were stuck together just randomly.”

There had to be a better way, she thought.

So last year, when she saw a new seminar being taught by Rebecca Tarvin about breaking language barriers in science, she signed up.

That class, which will be taught at UC Berkeley for a third time in spring 2023, was a trial balloon for Tarvin, an assistant professor of integrative biology. With renewed campuswide interest in diversity, equity and inclusion, she and working groups within her department thought that the class could help UC Berkeley address a long-standing issue in science: English, the dominant language of science, is a major obstacle to scientists who are not native English speakers.

Berkeley News