CMI Letter #13, December 2011

How to Talk about Biodiversity in French, Arabic and English

Biodiversity is essential to the environmental sustainability of the future of the Mediterranean region, yet there has been a conspicuous gap in the translatability of key technical concepts. CMI therefore agreed to help partners build a glossary of biodiversity-related words and expressions side by side in French, Arabic and English. This collaborative project should enable key players to agree on terms that will be understandable everywhere and by everyone, from the general public to the experts who discuss scientific agreements and treaties. The first result of this work has just been put on the CMI website and can be consulted at the following address:

It is well known that a language refers to particular practices, realities and associations. It is responsible for the cultural wealth of our planet, but also for the difficulty of its citizens to understand one another. To address this challenge in the area of environment, the idea was born to develop a long term and collaborative glossary of terms relating to biodiversity. The architecture of this glossary’s website was recently finalized at the end of November 2011 in Marseille.

"When it comes to the environment, how can we be sure that we are talking about an arid zone if we do not all share the same understanding and where situations are viewed differently depending on where we are?" asks Hadrien Michel, environmental specialist within the CMI’s Environment and Water cluster.

Although criteria exist to make the decision, it is not at all clear that the definition is the same one everywhere. Moreover, the different dialects which can be found in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, can further complicate the task of the lexicographer.

This glossary was constructed with a range of partners and is the result of a collaborative effort. It brought together the Conservatoire du Littoral et des Espaces Lacustres (the French coastal protection agency) and the Mediterranean Institute of Ecology and Paleoecology (IMEP), the University of Damascus represented by Doctor Sami Youssef, the Regional Activity Center for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP), based in Tunis; and the consultancy firm Natural Solutions, technical service provider of the project.

"On the one hand, it is a about initiating a discussion between scientists and translators with validation protocols to ensure the accuracy of the terms employed," underlines Julie Chabalier, Research and Development Director at Natural Solutions, "and on the other hand, it is about discussing the conditions under which the public will see the end result".

The website is based on the wiki model, similarly to the one used in the largest on-line collaborative projects in particular the free encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. The development of the glossary involved a two- step process. "First, the appropriateness of the terms and definitions are jointly discussed between twelve French-, Arabic- and English-speaking experts from the scientific committee, and second certain administrators are assigned to validate the term or definition, once the joint discussion is closed", summarizes Sophie Gachet, lecturer at the IMEP. From this point on, the term can be offered online to the public in the three languages.

Now that the project has been launched, the momentum needs to be maintained. "We will need to keep the scientists interested in this glossary. Entering twenty-five new words every quarter, in French, Arabic and English, would be great" believes Hadrien Michel.

The sustainability of the process also relies on the quality of its leadership. "Someone must keep the project alive, chasing up players, ensuring that the texts proposed are reread and eradicating any errors and duplication" adds Julie Chabalier.

To date, 148 terms have been validated and made available online on the CMI website. Every three months a new session of experts should add to this glossary. However, there is no shortage of setbacks. The events in Syria have temporarily cut off the IMEP from its Arabic translation contacts.

If this initiative proves as useful as its initiators wish, other environmentally related glossaries - such as for health and environment, the green economy, urban development and coastal zones - may come into consideration.

More information: