Translational Shopping

The supermarket was small by any standard and tiny compared with what I was used to in Glasgow, but here in Kyle of Lochalsh on the Western edge of Scotland and in sight of the single span of the Skye Bridge, was a shop remarkably well-stocked. But, as well as the obvious, there was also fun to be had as I noticed with curiosity that the aisles and shelves were labelled in Gaelic as well as English.

I already knew that ‘aran’ meant bread, but to see my meagre knowledge of Gaelic validated by the green sign hanging over the bakery section gave me a small but palpable thrill. The feeling reminded me of the first time, as a child, that I overheard a native French speaker casually utter words I had only ever seen in my school books. At that moment, I realised that, after all, the French language was real. It wasn’t all just an academic exercise designed to torment. And now standing in the Co-op in Kyle I was reliving that moment and it felt warm.

I looked around eager for more and was not disappointed. ‘Làgar’ did not present too much of a challenge for the beer shelf; ‘gràn’ for cereals was likewise reasonably clear and of course ‘yogurt’ was self-explanatory. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the lingo, the vocabulary moved up a notch, along with Gaelic’s delightfully floral approach to spelling. The sign said, ‘croispaichean’ and hung over the shelves of crisps. ‘Tràth ullamh’ signposted the ready meals, while ‘baidh eadar-nàiseanta’ proudly, if cryptically, pronounced international foods, and indeed there was a surprisingly rich selection from around the globe in this little supermarket on the edge.

I did know that the cheerful salutation of ‘Slàinthe’ that traditionally accompanied the clinking of whisky glasses meant health, so the sign ‘slàinthe is maise’ came as no surprise to be hanging over the paracetamol and cough mixtures as well as the cosmetics for this was health and beauty.

And then there was my favourite, ‘fuineadaireachd-dachaigh’ which was one of those Gaelic words that you struggled to get a handhold on, being elusively full of vowels and any obvious meaning. Despite its inaccessibility to my meagre language skills, all I found it meant was home baking. You’ve got to love a culture that can turn flour and sugar and bicarbonate of soda into that.

Translation might be a pleasant game but it is also talked about endlessly these days in science. We are expected to work on so-called translational research, and indeed the Medical Research Council states, ‘Translation is the principle of turning fundamental discoveries into improvements in human health and economic benefit.’ That seems laudable, but there is an underlying difficulty, or at least I think there is. The MRC and indeed many other such funding organisations are powerful advocates of such translational research stating that it drives innovation, speeds up the transfer of the best ideas into new interventions, and improves the return on investment in fundamental research. In other words, fundamental research seems only to have worth today if we can readily see the practical payback from it and in double-quick time at that. And that’s where I think the problem lies.

Fundamental research is by its nature not inherently practical. It’s about studying how fruit flies live and die; it’s about finding new ways to look at molecules down a microscope and it’s about detecting what were once thought only to be theoretical waves in gravity. None of these have obvious benefits; none are going to change our lives for the better in the short term; and of course none are going to make anyone any real money any time soon. But those forays into fundamental research have just earned the scientists who pioneered them the 2017 Nobel Prizes in Medicine, Chemistry and Physics.

Such discoveries may or may not change the world in your lifetime, but they may change your children’s or your grandchildren’s. The point is we don’t know, and our focus today on funding only what can be obviously translated into short term benefit is doing a disservice to the process of scientific discovery, and perhaps depriving us of the most important breakthroughs — the practicalities of which are the stuff of the future.

I like translation. I like the riches to be found when watching one language become another. And I love to learn and appreciate what cannot be readily translated and what might be uniquely expressed in one language and not another. In the same way, sometimes I wonder if a piece of beautiful science, a new understanding, a unique discovery, might be just as beautiful if it cannot be translated, or at least not yet.

© Allan Gaw 2017


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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