This post was co-written by A. Tarrant and H. Rivera. (* Giving an 8-minute presentation exhausted the limits of Ann’s Spanish proficiency. Someday we might write some posts in Spanish, but not quite yet).
On September 16, 2017, WHOI hosted a special symposium titled “Oceanos: WHOI en Español e Português” in which twelve scientists gave short scientific talks in either Spanish or Portuguese. The event was developed by research assistant Luis Valentin-Alvarado and graduate student Gabriela Farfan. The initial goal was to make our research more accessible to members of our local community whose native languages are Spanish or Portuguese, but in effect the event served multiple purposes. Because the event was broadcast via Facebook live, it reached a broader audience, including the families and friends of many speakers. Also among the live audience were several members of the local scientific community who weren’t native speakers of either language, but who were interested in practicing their language skills and supporting the event. You can see the replay of all the presentations here (All the talks are great, but Hanny’s begins around 31:20 and Ann’s starts around 1:25:00).
Ann’s Story: I hesitated to volunteer because I’m not a native Spanish speaker. I was mostly concerned that stepping forward to speak might seem inappropriate at an event that celebrates a heritage that is not my own. I asked Luis whether he would consider me as a speaker, and he was immediately welcoming and supportive. When I told Hanny about my plan, I breathed a big sigh of relief when she seemed excited that I was willing to try. Over the next few weeks, she helped me to edit my abstract and gave me some advice about specific words to choose. It was fun to have her as my mentor! As the day of the presentation got closer, I became more nervous, but fortunately the organizers and two members of the WHOI communications department (Ken Kostel and Veronique LaCapra) organized a practice session that helped me get out a lot of my nerves. This would be my first-ever public presentation in Spanish! The day of the presentation, it was really fun to meet the other speakers, try out some little bits of Spanish conversation, and even try to muddle through Spanish-Portuguese mixed dialogue. Hanny was one of the earliest speakers, and it was wonderful to see her exciting science project and her usual poise translated into a different context. I even got to learn about some of her newest results for the first time! When my turn eventually came, the time flew by. I thought I got through it ok, and then a hand was raised….wait a minute…someone was going to ask me a question???? Eeek!! Fortunately, I understood the question. My answer wasn’t elegant, but I think it was comprehensible. I haven’t been brave enough yet to watch the replay of the talk, but that’s next on my list. If I get another chance, I would love to try this again.
Hanny’s Story: Besides the short descriptions that I often share with my family about what I do, I too had never given a presentation about science in Spanish, and so was quite nervous as well. In preparing my presentation I had originally thought we had 15 minutes to speak, and so I had begun practicing with that time frame in mind. Luckily, two days before the talk, I carefully re-read the email with instructions and realized that we were in fact to speak for only 8 minutes, with 2 minutes for questions!
Somewhat panicked, I set out to try cut down my presentation by about half… I’m certain I started sweating as soon I opened up my PowerPoint file to attempt this. I threw out a few background slides on coral diversity and the many benefits of corals reefs; I figured I could just list those quickly as I speak. 12 minutes. Not quite good enough. Data slides are the hardest to let go of. As scientist’s our data is our work, our writing, our sweat, tears, frustrations, and lack of sleep, distilled into numbers and curves, and graphs that tell our story.
I had been taking a seminar on communicating science to non-scientists this semester and the lessons from few classes resonated in my mind as I stared at my slides, several graphs selected, my fingers hovering above the delete button. Graphs and data might tell a story to another scientist that is trained to read the clues and follow the plot twists and action sequences within the scaffolds of tables and x-y axes, but someone on the outside may not see that story. And if they can’t see it, they can’t connect with it, or get excited about it, or understand it the way you want them to. And then what’s the point?
With both reluctance and a sense of freedom I deleted the complicated graphs that would have taken several minutes to explain and replaced them with a much simpler depiction of the genetic data I was hoping to convey. I also changed the labels, axes, etc. into Spanish to make sure that those attending could read the data in the same language I was going to be speaking about it.
Despite being a native speaker, I made a mistake: I created a Spanglish word that I then proceeded to repeat throughout my presentation, as it was the basis of what I was talking about. Not only did I say it about 50 times, I had also triumphantly written it into my slides and graph labels, complete with accents and everything. What was the word you ask? Well the English word is population. The true Spanish word should have been población. What did I write? Populación. Perhaps it was not the most egregious of offenses, certainly not as bad as when in second grade when my Spanish teacher how to say lunch in Spanish and I responded with lunché instead of almuerzo. But still, the teasing I got from my family, not to mention my boyfriend (who is a Spanish teacher), after my talk were certainly cause for both laughter and certain amount of embarrassment.
In the end, with made up words and all, I had a blast putting together the presentation, as well as delivering it. The event itself was also a wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much fewer scientific sources of information there are out there in different languages. While I’m sure researchers, in Latin American countries give Spanish presentations, much of the research they publish is still written in English, as are many of their lab websites. As scientists, it is convenient to have a common tongue in which we can communicate across political boundaries to discuss common problems and ecosystems but perhaps that convenience comes with a cost. It further alienates the very people for which the science might be most relevant. Given the global scale or many of the environmental problems that scientist currently tackle, perhaps it is time to reconsider this paradigm, and encourage scientists to communicate their work in as many languages as they are able to. As I consider my future career, it is a goal that I will strive to implement with my own work.