The Russians Are Writing!: The Cold War Crisis of Scientific Translation

21 Mar 2013
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Michael Gordin
Professor, History of Science, Princeton University

At the end of World War II, American scientists found themselves in an unanticipated position of linguistic confusion. For roughly a century, the lion’s share of world science had been published in only three languages: English, French, and German. Since World War I, American scientists had lost some of their facility in coping with foreign language scientific publications, but a majority could still manage those two languages, with roughly half being able to follow German. The aftermath of the war demonstrated, however, that the second most prominent language of science both qualitatively and quantitatively was no longer that ravaged by the war in Europe, but Russian, the language of the Soviet Union’s vastly expanding scientific infrastructure, which was intelligible only to an estimated 0.1% of American scientists and engineers. Given the size of the Soviet Union’s scientific labor force and the notable scientific and technological achievements across the Iron Curtain ranging from nuclear weapons to the space race, learning what the Soviets were doing was supremely important and yet locked behind a daunting linguistic curtain of its own. How were the Americans to cope with this? This talk explores this pivotal moment, tracing the various ventures — ranging from mass training of scientists in Russian to wholesale journal translations to the spectacular boom and bust of early machine translation — as an episode in the chaotic history of scientific languages.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Office for the History of Science and Technology

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