Old school literature searches and the fun of reading classic, non-English literature

In my post last week, I pointed out that I haven’t read nearly as much in the past semester as I’d hoped to read. But I did read some things! In fact, as far as I can tell, I think that, during the course of the semester, I read every paper that has been published (and one that hasn’t been) on parasites that attack developing embryos of Daphnia. This has been a lot of fun. First of all: how often can you say that you think you’ve read everything that’s been written on a topic you are studying?* Second, it’s felt like a classic, old school literature hunt, and that’s been a lot of fun.

Since I was a grad student, I’ve seen Daphnia infected with a parasite that attacks the developing embryos. As a grad student, I initially would record it as “scrambled eggs” in my lab notebook, since I tried to use names that were evocative. (This also led to parasites named “scarlet” and “Spiderman”.) Over the years, I started simply referring to it as “the brood parasite”. It was something I was interested in doing more on, but I didn’t have the time and knew I would need to collaborate with a mycologist to do the work well.

Fast forward approximately 10 years to when I arrived at Michigan. Here, I’m fortunate to have a fantastic mycologist colleague, Tim James, who was game for helping me figure out what the parasite is. We recruited a first year undergraduate, Alan Longworth, to help us work on the project. In the end, the parasite has proved to be really interesting. We have our first manuscript on it in review right now.

One of the key things we wanted to do with the initial brood parasite project was figure out what the parasite was. Microscopy and molecular analyses indicated it was an oomycete, but not particularly closely related to anything that had been sequenced previously. We started thinking about what we might name it if we decided it was a novel species (twitter had some great suggestions focusing on mythological characters that killed babies!), but I also wanted to really dig into the literature.

The first two, most obvious sources to consult were Dieter Ebert’s excellent book on parasites of Daphnia, and a classic monograph by Green on the same topic. Dieter’s book has relatively little coverage of brood parasites, though does point out that they are common and highly virulent. The Green monograph mentioned a “fungal”** parasite, Blastulidium paedophthorum. To cut to the chase: all the evidence points to our brood parasite being Blastulidium paedophthorum. That’s a lot to keep typing (or saying!), and it’s too good to pass up on the opportunity to use “Bp” as the abbreviation, as that works for both the scientific name (Blastulidium paedophthorum) and the common name we’d been calling it (brood parasite). So, we’ve declared the parasite Bp.

Backing up again, the description of Bp in Green seemed like a good fit to what we were seeing, so I wanted to read everything I could about the parasite.*** This started me down a path of reading some really old papers, nearly all of which were in foreign languages. Bp was first described by Pérez in 1903, with a follow up paper in 1905. I was kind of blown away that I could easily download these from my dining room! Chatton had a paper on Bp in 1908 (also available from my dining room table!) After that, it was featured by Jírovec in his wonderfully titled 1955 paper. (The title translates to “Parasites of Our Cladocera”. I love the possessive “our”! 🙂 ). And then, crucially, it was the focus of ultrastructure work by Manier, reported in a paper in 1976.

All of the papers in the preceeding paragraph were important to figuring out whether we were working with the same parasite. None of them are in English. That added to the fun “I’m going on an old school literature hunt” feel, but also made it more challenging to read them.**** Reading them involved a combination of trying to remember my high school French, lots of time with Google translate, and, ultimately, seeking out translators. It was relatively easy to find translators for the French papers, thanks to a few people being really generous with their time. The Czech one, by Jírovec, took substantially longer to find a translator for, but a Czech Daphnia colleague, Adam Petrusek, was kind enough to put me in touch with someone who did a great job on the translation.

All semester, I’ve been thinking about how much fun this has been. Indeed, it’s part of why I really want to figure out how to set aside time to read more! But it especially came to mind after reading this recent ESA Bulletin piece by David Inouye on the value of older non-English literature. In that, Inouye talks about his own journeys through the older non-English literature, and concludes with this paragraph:

So my paper trail extends back to some of these early natural historians in Austria and Germany. Their work helped give me a much longer historical perspective than I would have had if I’d relied just on the English literature on ant–plant mutualisms, primarily from the 1960s on. Although as a graduate student I was able to track down the original publications from the 1880s in libraries, I see that some of this literature is now freely available on Web resources such as ReadAnyBook.com, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, or old scientific literature scanned by Google Books. And the translation from Google Translate I just tried with some of von Wettstein’s 1888 papers is certainly sufficient to follow most of the content. So perhaps the only barrier to familiarity with older non-English literature for ecologists now is the time required to find it. Time that might be well spent to broaden your perspective and make sure you’re not re-discovering insights from early natural historians.

I completely agree that the longer historical perspective – especially that provided by the non-English literature – has been essential. If not for those papers, we would think that this parasite hadn’t been described before and was in need of a name. And I clearly agree with the second-to-last sentence, which is very much in line with my post from last week (which I wrote before reading Inouye’s piece). So, here’s hoping we all find the time to really dig into the literature, and that, while doing so, we remember that there’s lots of value in digging into the classic, non-English literature.


* Okay, fine, it’s not like there are tons of papers on the topic. But it’s still fun to think I’ve read all of them.

** The parasite is an oomycete, and oomycetes are not fungi. But that wasn’t recognized in the early 1970s when Green published his monograph.

*** The references for this paragraph are: Pérez 1903, 1905, Chatton 1908, Jírovec 1955, Manier 1976; full references are given below.

**** I would absolutely love to be multilingual. Sadly, I am not.



Chatton, E. 1908. Sur la reproduction et les affinités du Blastulidium paedophtorum Ch. Pérez. Comptes Rendus Des Seances De La Societe De Biologie Et De Ses Filiales 64:34-36.

Jírovec, O. 1955. Cizopasníci našich perlooček II. Československá Parasitologie II 2:95-98.

Manier, J.-F. 1976. Cycle et ultrastructure de Blastulidium poedophthorum Pérez 1903 (Phycomycète Lagénidiale) parasite des oeufs de Simocephalus vetulus (Mull.) Schoedler (Crustacé, Cladocère). Protistologica 12:225-238.

Pérez, C. 1903. Sur un organisme nouveau, Blastulidium paedophthorum, parasite des embryons de Daphnies. Comptes Rendus Des Seances De La Societe De Biologie Et De Ses Filiales 55:715-716.

Pérez, C. 1905. Nouvelles observations sur le Blastulidium paedophthorum. Comptes Rendus Des Seances De La Societe De Biologie Et De Ses Filiales 58:1027-1029.

21 thoughts on “Old school literature searches and the fun of reading classic, non-English literature

    • A foreign language requirement was a deal-breaker for me back when I was choosing grad programs. In the abstract, I too wish I knew another language. In practice, I found my two years of high school Spanish an absolute slog. In all seriousness, had I been required to learn another language sufficiently well to make a difference to my scientific practice, I very much doubt I’d have been able to get my PhD. I leave it to others to decide if that would’ve been a net loss or net gain for ecology. 🙂

    • I’m with Jeremy on this one. Formal foreign language classes aren’t very useful. I can get by in France based on 4+ years of high school French. But I was at about a traditional “2-year” level after 6 weeks of intensive German one-on-one classes in preparation to live there. (And after less than 2 years living there, I was conversational — way beyond my “4 years” of French.) I took a semester of undergrad intro Swahili as a grad student in preparation for field work in Tanzania. But the pace was painfully slow, and I didn’t enough to really help me much once there.

      For reading, there are so many resources (Google translate and equivalent; plus relative ease of finding translators). And for doing fieldwork in another country, it would be more efficient to go to the country a couple months before fieldwork starts and immerse oneself in the language rather than taking semesters and semesters of classes.

      • I also don’t think that there needs to be a formal language requirement for PhD programs. As much as I wish I spoke another language, I don’t think a language requirement for a PhD would have been the way to go about that. If I were going to do fieldwork (or, more likely at this point, do a sabbatical) in a country where English is not the dominant language, I would probably do some intensive coursework prior to going (either a formal course, with a tutor, or with a computer program), but then rely on the immersion to really learn the language. For the literature, I can get reasonably far with a dictionary or Google translate, and can find translators for the rest. Michigan actually has a program where they’ll pair people in need of a translation with people who are willing to do a translation for free. I thought that was a really neat program! (They didn’t have any Czech translators when I checked with them, though.)

      • Clearly, y’all have the majority opinion, which is precisely why the requirement has been widely dropped over the last couple decades by nearly all EEB programs. It’s interesting how a generation earlier, it was thought to be an essential component of getting a PhD in the field, and now it’s not. I wonder how much of the change is resulted from a change in a) the literature (where English is more of a dominant language for current publications, and accessing older literature may not be as critical), b) a change in English is even more the global language for academic science, c) an increased insularity in which interactions with scholars from places where english is not the first language isn’t considered to be critical or d) an increased in imperialism in which we expect other people to switch to our (more global accepted) language, rather than training our scientists to interact with others on their terms.

      • Terry: all reasonable hypotheses. I would add e) people are *more* globally connected now and so it’s a lot easier to find someone (friend of a friend, e.g.) who speaks any given language and ask for help.

  1. So, has anyone ever run a paper that they needed to have translated through one of those free translation websites? If so, how’d it turn out? I’m guessing that, depending on exactly what information one was looking for, this would sometimes work fine (e.g., if you just needed to verify one bit of data or simple empirical observation), but sometimes not (e.g., you need to understand the whole paper, and it’s highly technical).

    Semi-relatedly: I once gave an invited talk (in English) at a Japanese ecology conference. Most of the sessions were in Japanese. I considered trying to go to a Japanese-only session to see if I could follow the talks just based on the pictures, figures, and numbers, but in the end I decided that would probably fail abysmally and didn’t try.

    • I actually find modern tools (e.g. Google Translator) capable of producing perfectly intelligible (but not good grammar or style) translations.

      • So at the risk of making an unwarranted leap, what I’m hearing from you (and Meg’s comment below) is that language requirements have quite rightly gone by the wayside for the most part? Especially since for many fields it’s impossible to say in advance what second (or third, or nth) language you might need to know?

        Or maybe the argument for language requirements for scientific grad students now needs to be made on similar grounds to the argument for, say, liberal arts degree programs at the undergrad level. That learning about a lot of stuff you don’t have any concrete “need” to learn is good for you in ways that are very real albeit hard to pin down. I don’t know that I personally buy that argument in the context of language requirements for scientific grad students, but I could imagine someone making it.

      • I would say the main reason to know another language as an ecologist is for field work. If you want to be a tropical field ecologist you better know Spanish or Portuguese (or French in Africa). I am imagine speaking Chinese is rapidly increasing in practicality in ecology. Otherwise, purely for practicality of being a good scientist*, I would say time is better spent on other skills. This is of course assuming you speak English.

        But I am with Meg. There is something awesome about peering into old literature in other languages. I took Russian for a couple of years and used to enjoy trying to read the abstracts in Oikos (and then failing and switching to English). And I still remember with satisfaction passing my foreign language exam by translating 5 pages of a paper in Spanish. I was allowed as much time as needed and a dictionary so it was no great accomplishment. And speaking bad Spanish to taxi drivers the two years I was making trips to Panama was far more important. But upon passing the language requirement, I felt like I’d joined a club I wanted to be member of.

        *There are numerous intangible benefits to speaking a second language ranging from cultural connections to supposed beneficial rewiring of the brain.

      • I also just finished writing a paper up that required digging into old literature from the early 1800’s mostly available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library that David Inouye mentions. It was a lot of fun! Most of it was in French, Spanish, German and… Latin. I’m lucky to have been raised multilingual (Spanish, Danish and Catalan), which made it easy to learn other languages in school (French, English and a bit of German). I must say this was invaluable for this particular paper, but also in countless field trips to South America and collaborations with French speaking colleagues. Google Translator was definitely also very helpful for the paper.
        It’s hard to know which second language is going to be the most useful to you in life when you’re in school*, but I’d say that choosing one language of Latin origin and another of Germanic origin gives you a good base for grasping the meaning of basically any West European language, which is useful in all of the Americas and most countries of Africa! I also think it’s hard to see the point in learning foreign languages while you’re in school. However, all it takes is a few weeks abroad to realize that you suddenly learn a lot faster, and that it is a gift for opening the doors not only to non-English literature in science, but also for meeting people from completely different cultures and sometimes with very different worldviews. So I’d say don’t hesitate to send your kids abroad, to bilingual schools, to student exchange programs, to volunteering programs, or the like – the sooner they learn new languages, the better!

        *In high school I actually had to choose between French and German, both of which I had learned a bit in primary school. I was annoyed I couldn’t have both, but ended up taking an atlas and looking up the number of people in the world that speak each. French won 🙂

    • Here’s the French abstract of the Manier paper:
      L’etude de Blastulidium poedophthorum a ete faite à la fois au microscope photonique et au microscope electronique. Le microscope electronique revele mieux la structure interne du parasite des ceufs de Simocephalus vetulus. La phase trophique somme la sporogenese montre une etroite association noyau-centriole-appareil de Golgi. La sporogenese debute par la formation de membranes de clivage. Ce processus est suivi par la synthese des axonemes qui poussent dans Ies sillons de clivage. Les zoospores n’ont ni « nuclear cap » ni « rumposome ». Les mitochondries, peu modifiees au cours de la sporogenese, sont éparses dans le cytoplasme. Les resultats obtenus sont compares et discutes avec des etudes anterieures. Le cycle et les details ultrastructuraux indiquent les affinites probables de ce Protiste avec les Lagenidiales.

      That is based on OCRing the scan I had of the original manuscript. I fixed things it completely missed, but mostly didn’t go in and add in accents. If I feed that into Google translate, I get:
      The study of Blastulidium poedophthorum has been made to both the light microscope and electron microscope. The electron microscope revealed better the internal structure of the eggs of the parasite Simocephalus vetulus. The trophic stage sum sporogenesis shows a close-centriole-core device association Golgi. Sporogenesis debute by the formation of cleavage membranes. This process is followed by the synthesis of axonemes growing in Ies cleavage furrows. Zoospores have no “cap nuclear” or “rumposome”. The mitochondria, little changed during sporogenesis, are scattered in the cytoplasm. The results obtained are compared and discussed with previous studies. The cycle and indicate the probable ultrastructural details of this Protiste affinities with Lagenidiales.

      For comparison, this is the English version of the abstract (included with the manuscript):
      Blastulidium poedophthorum is studied with both light and electron microscopy. The electron microscope provides more details of the internal structure of the parasite of eggs in Simocephalus vetulus. The trophic phase, like the sporogenesis, reveals a close association between nucleus-centrioles and Golgi apparatus. The sporogenesis begins with the formation of the cleavage membranes before the two axoneme synthesis takes place. The two flagella are produced in the cleavage furrows. The zoospores show no nuclear cap nor rumposome complex. The mitochondria, scarcely modified during the sporogenesis, are scattered in the cytoplasm. Results are discussed with references to previous investigations. The life-cycle as well as ultrastructural details would point to possible affinities between this Protist and the Lagenidiales.

      So, overall, it does pretty well, but some of the specialist terms throw Google translate off (understandably!) Since we were really interested in those, we found translators who are scientists.

      • BTW, it goes without saying that “rumposome” is a fantastic word.

      • That’s a really useful example! And matches my experience. It really messes up Golgi apparatus. And Keeps a rare French cognate such as debuts instead of something more English sounding like “starts” but in the end if you know the lingo on the English side, you can get there.

  2. I’ve translated a lot of technical writing from Russian to English. I speak Russian pretty well, but I don’t have much technical vocabulary. Usually Google Translate is fairly helpful and I know enough that I can detect when something is inaccurate. I wish I’d kept better notes of some of the funny translations it’s given me over the years. Interestingly to me, it was my lack of religious (rather than technical) knowledge that stumped me for a while on a recent translation. In Russia there’s a phenomenon called the “Epiphany frosts”: times around the Orthodox Epiphany holiday where temperatures drop especially low. Google translated this as “baptism frosts” and I had a really hard time figuring what on earth that meant!

    • 🙂 That’s like a science idiom!

      The technical vocabulary is another reason why just needing to take a class in a foreign language doesn’t necessarily get one very far in translations. Google translate can handle that sort of thing well — it’s the specialist knowledge that is tricky (and that requires real fluency in many cases).

  3. Sorry for being late to the party – I’ve written a fair bit about this (https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%B9-%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%82%D1%83%D1%80%D0%B0-or-just-because-its-not-in-english-doesnt-mean-its-irrelevant/) & thanks for the ESA Bulletin link!

    I’d add that it’s much easier for Anglophone scientists to work with literature in Roman characters (English, French, German, Czech, Dutch, etc). Those in Cyrillic (Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc) are a bit more tricky, but manageable. I really struggle with Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean because the alphabets used are so different, even conceptually. I can easily change my keyboard layout to Russian, and know that Алех is “Alex”, and generated from pressing the same keys in the same order.

    • Thanks! I think this is a really fantastic resource and was really excited to hear about it. Sadly, they didn’t have a Czech translator available at the time I contacted them. But I have a colleague who had a really good experience with getting a translation of a German monograph.

      • Yeah, the fact that it’s a volunteer service means that your available options will be highly variable depending on who’s currently on the volunteer list. The flip side of that is that if they don’t have a translator for a particular language at time X, they might at time Y, so checking back with them when new projects come up is a worthwhile exercise.

  4. Pingback: A recap of my year in #365papers | Dynamic Ecology

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