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I noticed a few questions where people have provided links to translated texts which contain the material needed for answering a question. These cases seem to be treated (even if by the people themselves) differently at source -- some consider it acceptable, others not.

An example can be found here where one of the comments refers to material in Catalan which answers the question but the answer wasn't posted because the material is not in English; an alternative can be found here where I answered using source material in French with Google Translate translations (though which didn't seem too far off the mark).


Question: Should an explicit policy on using translated source material in answers be described, and, if so, what should it be?


My Answer:

As Anglosphere historians necessarily focus more on English, American, Canadian, etc, English-derived histories (or, in other words, what sells in modern Anglophone countries; see example below for mentions of 'Teutonic Order' in English texts vs 'Deutschen Ordens' in German texts, but of course Greece and Rome are also very popular in English popular narrative histories), it can be impossible to find an English source of the same quality as a local one. Therefore, to answer questions relating to other places in similar detail, I think allowing translated source material is essential and should be explicitly allowed.

However, we should also be careful about the level of translations and want these to be sourced (e.g., "Google" vs "personal" vs "official", etc...) and to allow these to be improved over time. Also, in all of these cases we should preserve both the original as well as the translation, so both versions can be looked at by people interested in the questions (and the translation improved where mistakes are spotted).

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  • @T.E.D.: Of course, I wasn't suggesting that we go at it without translations. A good translation is essential, in order to provide the knowledge in an accessible manner for everyone's access. I was, however, trying to find out whether translations were allowed/encouraged with regards to the nature of how and what data we often must find. – gktscrk May 13 at 15:47
  • @T.E.D. This meta.stackexchange.com/questions/13676/… ? – LаngLаngС May 13 at 18:00
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    @LаngLаngС: How much does that apply here in your opinion? I don't think it exactly applies to us -- and I'm also not saying we should be posting in non-English languages. – gktscrk May 13 at 20:50
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    Oh, it applies. When they say "Stack Exchange", that includes us. However, we are a prose-based site, with the full panoply of written human language within our source scope, which means we do have issues and opportunities that coding-based site like StackOverflow doesn't have. – T.E.D. May 13 at 21:35
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    The meta link shared by @T.E.D does relate more to IT than other subjects, specifically stating that English is the language of the internet/computer science. I do think History is different - a global discipline, with some subjects /sources only available in non-English texts - and, arguably, any translation loses something of the original. But, as an (ashamed) monoglot, I need translations. I don't know the answer, just the question! – TheHonRose May 14 at 12:43
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    @TheHonRose - To be clear: LLC shared it. I'm personally not particularly enamoured of the arguments made there (they read more like justifications than arguments), and you are right to point out that many of them don't apply to us very well, but the fact(s) remains that this is the policy for SE sites, and that is how this particular site has always operated. – T.E.D. May 14 at 14:09
  • @T.E.D - yes, adapting a largely source-based subject - ie History - round a format designed for a code-based subject is probably never going to be perfect in this sub-lunary world! – TheHonRose May 16 at 12:21
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    The wording “translated source material [in posts]”, etc is confusing. I think you actually mean “non-English source material [in posts]”. Though the answer clarifies this, I think the question still needs to be edited. (In many cases, such as quoting an English Bible, there’s no good reason to link to the original wording or even acknowledge that it’s a translation.) – Laurel May 18 at 13:53
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The question wasn't arguing otherwise, but just as a base I want to get it down that, by policy, SE network sites are English language websites*. We further stipulate on History that it should be well-formed understandable English. Preferably with paragraph breaks, not a big wall of text.

So to the main question, how to handle a chunk of referenced source text that is in a language other than English?

I'll list the options in descending order of preference:

  1. Quoted block, followed by well-translated English block This seems to work best in the form:

Original non-English text

Which translates to (list translation source):

English translation of original non-English text


  1. As above, but the translation is your own, and you're pretty sure its an imperfect job. In this case, don't be afraid to note that fact, and ask for help with whichever end (English or source language) you are unsure of. Our users can help you edit it into shape, if it is at least good enough to be understandable. (There are few things people on the internet love to do more than correct others on little details)
  2. You don't think you could do a readable job of translating. The text contains a reference to the original source, along with your English description or paraphrase of what it says. Just like you'd do with any other source that you don't want to include verbatim.
  3. You don't think you could do a readable job of translating, but you really want to show the specific context under discussion. In this case, provide the original quote, and then follow with a paraphrase of what it says in English.

If you think an automated translator can get you up to level 2 above, do it (and reference the translator you used). However, in my experience Google translate does a dumb word-for-word vocabulary translation, with a result that is simply not up to par. Its worse (often much worse, and sometimes hilariously worse) than just a paraphrasing.


* - Unless otherwise designated, which this one isn't

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    In which case, I think we are in broad agreement. Google Translate quality is a weird one, varies wildly, but you are correct of course. Of course, some languages are easier to interpret in others as well. – gktscrk May 13 at 21:45
  • Would you be able to say when (if?) I should mark this as accepted? – gktscrk May 15 at 11:16
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    Give it a few days. – T.E.D. May 15 at 17:25

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