Best practice for translating citations (e.g. in academic paper)
Thread poster: Mark Daniels

Mark Daniels  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:51
Serbian to English
+ ...
Mar 25, 2016

OK, so you are translating an academic paper into English and a source is cited which does not have an existing English translation (and even if it did, what are the chances you will have access to it?).

So how do you handle this? Typically I will translate the citation into English (obviously?), give it in quotations the same as in the original and then add a designation like "(own translation)" afterwards. Do people feel this a good practice? And is "own translation" the right designation, since it's not the translation of the AUTHOR of the work, it's MY translation. But I can't very well put "(translator's translation)". So "own" is kind of misleading there, but I haven't quite come up with anything better, and I can't find a good guideline online.

Also there is the other problem I mentioned, where even if an English version of the cited work exists it will very often be impossible for either you or the author to get hold of it (although on some jobs I have been able to work closely with the author and find most of the sources in existing English translation) - so I see no alternative there than to translate the work myself and add "own translation" here too. Though this is unfortunate in a number of cases, e.g. when the original paper quotes a TRANSLATED work, but you can't get the original. So now you have to "retranslate" the citation, and now you have a translation of a translation - which is all the more absurd if the original cited work was actually in English but is not available to you.

Just some thoughts, I would be interested in hearing your opinions/best practices.


Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:51
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Nightmare Mar 25, 2016

Yes, this is a serious problem to which I've never found a satisfactory solution. I often find citations taken from the Italian translations of books that were originally published in English and with which I am familiar; but to find the original English text of the citation might require me to purchase the book (which I have actually done on one or two occasions) or if I'm really lucky I might find it in Google Books. Either way it's many additional hours of work, including waiting for several days for a purchased book to arrive, none of which the author of the text I'm translating knows anything about. I'm certainly not being paid for all this additional work, which actually is not translating work at all, senso strictu.

In the case of Italian-language publications, the same thing applies but in the opposite direction: the Italian book may have been published in English translation and in the case of well-known Italian authors (Umberto Eco comes to mind) the book may be familiar to the anglophone reader under a different title. Should I go and buy the English translation, find the exact citation, and use it? Again, this has nothing to do with *translating work*.

Another problem is the formatting used by Italian authors for bibliographies, which never complies with the recognised English-language methods (APA, MLA or Chicago style) and there doesn't seem to be any software that will take a bibliography (with spelling mistakes) compiled by an Italian and convert it into a correct English-language bibliography. Once again this has nothing to do with *translating work*.

Having suffered in the past with jobs like these more than any translator should, I now either avoid them or inform the author that I am just going to leave the bibliography as I've found it.

I know that isn't satisfactory either but I'm a translator, not an editor. I suppose I could offer to carefully translate and reformat the bibliography for an hourly rate but we're talking about DAYS here, not hours and I have more interesting jobs to do that I'm not willing to sacrifice.

To take two simple examples (from a bibliography that is several pages long):

Lewis Mumford, Storia dell’Utopia, Donzelli editore, Roma, 1997 (1° ed. italiana 1969, Calderini Bologna)
James O’Connor, Individualismo e crisi dell’accumulazione, Laterza editori, Roma- Bari, 1984

Fortunately in these cases the names were spelled correctly rather than "Levis Munford" or "James Oconor".

Both of these books were originally published in English but the citations refer specifically to the Italian translations, not published in the same year as the originals in English, which themselves were published in several revised editions. What the **** does the author of the paper expect me to do?

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to give up the ghost !

[Edited at 2016-03-25 11:23 GMT]


Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 23:51
German to Serbian
+ ...
How to word the translator's note... Mar 25, 2016

Sometimes it's time consuming or even impossible to trace the original quote, so perhaps after you have translated it your note could say something along the lines "not an official translation", "official" would imply that your translation underwent several layers of revision (in broader context).

I don't know what your subject-matter is, but in literature, a one line quote can reflect much more than one line (for instance to properly translate one line, you should be familiar with 400-page novel), so sometimes it's not so straightforward (again, it depends on your subject matter), or else you may end up mistranslating something.

Also, you could research APA academic writing standards when it comes to translating quotes.

[Edited at 2016-03-25 11:10 GMT]


Kelly Neudorfer  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:51
German to English
I think of what I would expect as a reader or writer Mar 25, 2016

I agree with Tom that bibliographies and citations are the absolute worst. I work with one academic translation agency that has a policy of not touching bibliographies - I love working for them!icon_smile.gif Still, the citation issue comes up.

I write and have published in English, and I think about what I do when I have a German quote I want to use in my writing. What I do is translation the quote and then in the citation write (Smith 2010:135, own translation). So if I'm translating an academic article for a client, that's exactly what I do. Although it might seem strange to write "own translation" when you know it's not the author's own translation, it's yours, that's also true of the entire article. When you translate a sentence like "We included the following control variables in our analysis," (in whatever language) you're not going to translate it as "They included the following... in their analysis" with the logic that YOU weren't part of the research team. So I believe the same applies to the citation - I just write "own translation."

What I find waaaay more annoying is when they quote from the German edition of a book that was originally published in English. As Tom said, then the search begins for the original English book, and it can end up taking more time just for the correct back-translation of a 5-word quote than for the rest of the article.


Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:51
German to English
alternative note Mar 25, 2016

Writing "All translations by Mark Daniels, unless otherwise noted," at the end of the first footnote related to a quotation that you have translated is a pretty common and simple way to avoid the "Translated by the translator" problem.

That said, I rarely bother. If the cited source is in a foreign language, then the translator has obviously translated it. If the cited source is in the target language, then the translator has obviously copied it from that source.

If for some reason I couldn't find or didn't want to use the existing English translation for the quotation, but still wanted to refer the reader to the existing English text, then I guess I would cite the foreign work as the source and add a "cf." citation after it to direct the reader to the existing English translation.

I would not back-translate a quotation from an originally English book, enclose it in quotations, and cite it as though it were a quotation: That would be a misquotation. I generally don't find it that hard to find things online, but if that did not work and the client had no access to the original and I did not feel like going to the library, then I guess I would paraphrase the quotation and cite is as such (See: ...).

[Edited at 2016-03-25 13:33 GMT]


neilmac  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:51
Spanish to English
+ ...
Just don't Mar 26, 2016

As a rule, I don't translate or revise bibliographies and/or quotes/citations (mainly to avoid quandaries like the case in point). If anyone ever asked me to do this, I imagine if I suggested charging extra for it, they would soon change their mind, or make other arrangements if need be.


Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:21
English to Hindi
+ ...
It is even more difficult in Hindi Mar 28, 2016

This is a perennial problem I face in my Hindi translation. It gets more complicated in English-Hindi than would be the case with Italian-English, for in the latter pair of languages, at least the script is the same. Not so with English and Hindi. The Hindi script bears no resemblance to the English script, so one cannot expect a Hindi reader (who is assumed not to know English or its script) to be able to read citations given in the English script as in the original.

I generally follow the practice of transliterating the citation in the Hindi script, as this way, at least the Hindi reader can read what is written and if he happens to know English, will be able to understand what is written in the Hindi script as well.

I also follow the practice of checking with the client whether he/she would like me to do this in any different way. Most clients agree that the above method is the most sensible one and allow me to follow it.


Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:51
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
Poobah's reply Mar 28, 2016

As both an editor and a translator, I have, like Poobah in "The Mikado," mixed opinions.
As an editor (and reader), I think that quotes from an English source that have been translated into another language and that are now being quoted, should if at all possible be taken from the original English (or whatever your language is). This is particularly important for 1) great literature, 2) statements by political leaders, 3) important historical documents.

As a translator, I think this is a pain in the posterior.

I recently finished editing a short book which the author had handed over with very little in the way of details for citations, and which had various citations that turned out to be wrong, or from another person. It was a big money loser for both the translator and me, both of whom were being paid by the word. We did the extra work out of conscientiousness/obsessiveness/perfectionism, as you choose.

I decided that in the future I should, first of all, read the text closely enough so as to become aware of the problem before getting to the bibliography at the very end, and second, negotiate with the author either to do proper bibliographic work himself, or to pay me for it at an hourly rate.

Of course, editing should be paid at an hourly rate too, since you never know what you're going to get. But sometimes that just doesn't happen.

[Edited at 2016-03-28 23:58 GMT]

OT: For those not familiar with Poobah, see and search for "my approaching marriage."

[Edited at 2016-03-29 11:12 GMT]


Local time: 23:51
Italian to English
paraphrasing Mar 29, 2016

Michael's solution sounds just right to me: "All translations by Mark Daniels, unless otherwise noted." I think the formula "own translation" would be really strange, seems to be missing something, and implies that you are the original author.

Major style guides do give guidance on these problems. In practice, it probably comes down to vetting a document before you are in too deep and then working more closely with the author to make sure you have access to the original quotations. If there were entire chunks of text that you knew the author had in your target language already, maybe that could just be plugged in later by someone else? Within a narrow field, it is quite possible to amass a certain amount of published translated material that comes in handy over and over, but yes, I've also spent a huge amount of time trying to hunt down a quotation from a literary source that was probably very casually just tossed in for superficial effect.

As far as re-translating a translation back into English, the Chicago Manual of Style considers it a sin and actually uses that word.icon_smile.gif The alternative they propose is to paraphrase the text which, if you think about it, is perhaps the lesser evil and certainly a major time-saver over trying to get access to an obscure source.


Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:51
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
paraphrasing Mar 30, 2016

Neptunia wrote:

The alternative they propose is to paraphrase the text which, if you think about it, is perhaps the lesser evil and certainly a major time-saver over trying to get access to an obscure source.

I think that's a very good idea.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:51
Chinese to English
Citations/quotes? Mar 31, 2016

For me, a citation means listing the name of a referenced work. I think you were talking about quotation, i.e. putting a short part of the referenced work into your own text.

For real academic rigour, I think there's only one acceptable approach: you have to quote referenced texts as is, in their original language. You can then add a translation afterwards, but fidelity to your references is kinda the principle on which academic discourse is built. If the journal has a different policy, then adapt, sure, but my feeling is that an academic has no right to change a comma or a dot of a reference text. When I did my MA, I included quotes from the academic literature in Chinese with translations in parentheses afterwards.


Jean-Pierre Artigau (X)
Local time: 17:51
English to French
+ ...
Talk to your client Mar 31, 2016

I've been confronted to the same problem many times, and some texts have lots of those citations and quotes. I generally start by calling the client and ask for instructions. Most clients are completely unaware of this kind of situation, and they know very little about the translator's work. Even if they don't have the solution it's always good to make them aware of the problems we encounter, and it shows them how conscientious we are about our work.

Here is a common practice adopted by many large clients in Canada: if you don't find a preexisting translation of a quote (or the original version that happens to be in your target language), leave the quote in your source language (in italics), add your own translation in brackets and add the word [translation] in square brackets. Then everyone will know this was translated with the rest of the text at hand. This works for English-French, I think our French-English colleagues have a similar approach.

Hope it helps.



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Best practice for translating citations (e.g. in academic paper)

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