Science Wide Open: Women in Biology // Las mujeres en la biología

author: Mary Wissinger 
illustrator: Danielle Pioli
series creator and editor: John J. Coveyou 
Science, Naturally! 2020
grades 2-5

Originally published by Genius Games, LLC (2016), the first of this series is republished by Science, Naturally! and two more are slated for next year. According to Genius Games, the Science Wide Open series “celebrates the true stories of women in science, while also teaching the basics of chemistry, biology, and physics,” with its goal being to “transform the narrative surrounding girls, women and science.” 

The publisher recommends the Science Wide Open series for ages 7-10. This is a mistake. Although the text and glossary are accessible for middle readers, second-graders for the most part do not yet have the skills to decode terms such as “metamorphosis,” “Linnaean system,” “transposons,” or “hypothesis.” As well, metaphoric text such as “Inside of every cell is an instruction manual called DNA” is bewildering to youngsters who take language literally (“You mean, we eat books?”) Similarly confusing is the anthropomorphizing of genetic material—DNA tells the body how to make cells and build body parts like muscles, bones, and skin. It also determines the color of your eyes and hair

Second-graders generally look at (and begin to read) picture books. Middle readers prefer chapter books. 

Pioli’s stylized, computer-generated art employs solid, flat backgrounds that hold bright-colored details and large, clear, readable text. However, the only contemporary character in the book is a cartoonish “inquisitive young girl,” questioning a behind-the-scenes scientifically knowledgeable narrator. The child has oversize eyeglasses and over-the-top “girlie” expressions. She’s excited, puzzled, worried, baffled. In the two illustrations that show her using a magnifying glass, she’s holding it over one eyeglass lens—which makes no sense and distorts her face. Portraits of the five women scientists are stylized as well, but they’re not as frightening as the young girl.

Of the five scientists, two are German and three are from the U.S. Celebrating the discoveries of European and American women—and consistently using the term “people” as “all (European) people”—erases everyone else.

Here’s an example:

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about biology and medicine. Back then, people didn’t understand that they could get sick from drinking dirty water.

Hildegard figured out that water should be cleaned first, and this stopped people from getting sick. She also studied how plants could be used as medicines, and shared her ideas so people could have better health. (emphases mine)

And here’s what the author erased:

For millennia, Indigenous peoples have understood and worked with complex scientific concepts and methods. Indigenous peoples were building aqueducts to bring clean water in and filter dirty water out. The Aztecs, for instance, and the Mayans before them, built and utilized aqueducts and they also had indoor bathrooms with flushing toilets.

In short, as the sister of a friend remarked,

“Native people had running water when Europeans were still pooping in their bedrooms.”—Laura Martinez, Lipan Apache, historian, in conversation

And Indigenous peoples have identified and used plants for all kinds of things—including medicines—for millennia. 

Beyond the damaging erasure of millennia-old Indigenous scientific knowledge, Spanish and bilingual young readers are dealt further insult with inadequate translations. A good Spanish translation has to be able to capture the author’s style and intent, and the deeper feelings that the author is trying to convey. A good Spanish translator may have to move sentences around to convey the proper meanings and language idiosyncrasies. 

The unnamed translator here is The Spanish Group, a document translation service. Children’s book publishers that contract with document translators—rather than with talented bilingual translators who care deeply about their work—receive poor outcomes. For the most part, that’s what happened.

First of all, Spanish is a gendered language, so the title—“Women in Biology”—should have been translated as “biólogas,” rather than “Las mujeres en la biología” (literally, “The women in biology,” which makes no sense here.) 

There are lots of mistakes. “What makes a butterfly?” is translated as “¿Cómo se hace una mariposa?” (“How do you make a butterfly?”) rather than “¿Qué hace una mariposa?”

“So… biology keeps me from getting sick?” is translated as “Entonces...¿la biología hace que no me enferme?” (“So—biology makes me not sick?”) rather than “Entonces ... ¿la biología evita que me enferme?”

“Just look at Jane Cooke Wright!” is translated as “¡Tan solo mira a Jane Cooke Wright!” While this is a correct literal translation, the Spanish implication uses “tan solo” (“only”) for “just.” But, in context, the “just” in the English means, “for example…” so a better translation would have been “por ejemplo…”

There’s nothing redeeming here. Both Science Wide Open: Women in Biology and Ciencia Abierta: Las mujeres en la biología are poorly planned and poorly executed. They’re not recommended.

Beverly Slapin

(published 8/16/20)

Muchas grácias a mis colegas Judy Zalazar Drummond, Ricardo Ramirez, Kelly Reagan Tudor, y Noam Szoke.  

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