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I'm working through some material. I'm coming from an English/Latin perspective towards understanding this.

Looking at the following translations

材料 - material - cáiliào

物料 - materials - wùliào

Is the first character a form of modifier? I'm a bit confused because liào(料) seems to also translate as material.

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Mandarin has relatively few distinct sounds (about 1300) and each character corresponds to one of those sounds. The language has tended toward more disyllabic words to reduce ambiguity. Often these words consist of two characters whose meanings are both close to the meaning of the whole.

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These are compound words.

Unlike English alphabets, Chinese characters contain meaning(s).

Most characters have multiple meanings, to reduce ambiguity, two characters would be combined to form one compound word that can express a more specific term.

from this post 认识 vs 知道 based on glyph origins you can see examples of two characters combine make a more term specific

Example:

材(useful) + 料 (material) = 材料 (material ; ingredients)

物(thing) + 料 (material) = 物料 (materials)

布(cloth) + 料 (material) = 布料 (cloth material)

衣(clothes ) + 料 (material) = 衣料 (clothing material)

燃 (burn) + 料 (material) = 燃料 (fuels)

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✓ this type of compound is called 偏正式合成词,偏正 lg. modifier and word it modifies,材料、物料 belong to type A2 below, see e.g."实用汉语语法"on 合成词的构造方式:

(A)名素+名素(A1)鸡蛋 牛奶 羊毛 脚印 (A2) 布鞋 粉笔 铁皮 丝袜 (A3) 脸盆 饭碗 书架 衣柜 (A4)海参 河马 汾酒 山羊 (A5) 书本 人口 纸张 船只

(B)形素+名素 温泉 红旗 高粱 大娘

(C)形素+动素 单干 迟到 热爱 静坐

(D) 动素+名素 抹布 睡衣 拖鞋 闹钟

(E)名素+形素 冰凉 火热 桔黄 草绿

以上A类可以分为五个小类:A1 的名1是名2的领属者;A2的名1是名2的材料;A3的名1是名2的用途;A4的名1是名2的出处;A5的名2是名1的单位。A类都是名词,B类也都是名词,C类是动词。D类的"抹布"相当于"抹的布",是偏正结构,其他各例可以类推,注意不要跟述宾结构相混;D类都是名词。E类的"冰凉"相当于"冰似的凉",是偏正结构,其他各例可以类推,注意不要跟主谓结构相混;E类都是形容词。Besides above 偏正 type there are the 联合式合成词、述宾式合成词、述补式合成词、主谓式合成词、附加式合成词、重叠式合成词

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A good dictionary definitely helps to get translation right. Online translation is often too primitive.

"I'm working through some material." What kind of "material" is in this sentence?

For example

  • Reference material means 參考資料.
  • Teaching material means 教材.
  • When it comes to art, it is 素材.
  • When it means the content of books, it is 內容.

材料 and 物料 are probably not a right choice in your situation.

It is not easy to say 材 and 物 are the modifiers of 料. A Chinese word can be composed by two characters with similar meaning. 材 is material and so as 物. 材, 物, 料 are synonym in some context.

The use of 材料 and 物料 go beyond the context of "material". Discussing them in details is quite lengthy. Briefly speaking, in current common usage, 材料 is prepared for make or build things and 物料 is for the study of substance. But it is not clear-cut. There is a wider range of words for translation between Latin/English and Chinese.

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