Academic translation considerations

Is it better to compose in my native language and have my work translated, or to write in English and hire an academic editor?

The challenge of publishing research in English

With many international academic journals publishing articles only in English, scholars who are most comfortable working and writing in a different language face particular challenges when they are ready to share their work. They may have excellent English reading skills and be able to comprehend academic lectures in English. Many are also capable of expressing themselves to colleagues and students in English. However, written language is more demanding than reading and speaking, and producing clear and polished texts continues to remain a struggle for many non-native English speakers even years after they have settled into their academic careers and published dozens of articles.

Some academics who are highly proficient non-native English speakers have strong enough English skills that their manuscripts need only a quick polishing of grammar and usage. Many others, though, submit articles with so many errors that journal editors find them hard to understand and issue a rejection despite the article’s intellectual merit and contribution to the field. Most journals require authors to submit publication-ready text.  Some journals offer little or no help with copyediting, leaving scholars at risk of having a messy, error-filled manuscript reach a wide audience. Mistakes can reflect poorly on the author and affect their academic reputation.

To translate or to edit? That is the question

Are scholars better off composing their articles in their native language, then hiring a professional translator to turn their essays into academic English?

The biggest advantage of writing in a native language is that authors can express themselves in the clearest and most natural manner. Subsequently, professional translators who understand the nuances of both the source language and the target language can produce a text that is structurally sound, fluid and clear. A manuscript like this can be evaluated on its merits by journal editors and other academics, without clunky sentences that distract from the content. In addition, translators may pick up on vague phrases or muddled ideas in the source text which need to be further clarified or elucidated in the final version.

Furthermore, after consulting with journal editors, scholars may also be able to publish their original article in their native language, whether in peer-reviewed publications or in other venues. The increasingly popular online repositories that many institutions provide offer one such publication possibility, in case other publication options do not exist or are not feasible.

However, translation is a complex skill that academic translators work years to master. Even then, finding a translator who is not only a language expert but also familiar with the concepts, terminology, and theories in your specific field can be difficult. All translations are interpretations of one form or another, and there are often cases where even an excellent translator might misunderstand the intention of the author.

The alternative is to write the text in English and have it edited by an academic editor. The advantage to this approach is that scholars can ensure the correct terminology and jargon is being used throughout the paper. In addition, scholars can review the work of their editor and learn from their mistakes for future work.

However, this approach is not without its own risks. First, it inevitably takes much more time than writing in a native language. In addition, if the author’s level of English is not high enough, an editor may struggle to understand it, resulting in an article which is confusing for the reader or does not correctly reflect the author’s intended meaning. In addition, editors who are not familiar with the field may make unnecessary or problematic corrections that the author may not be able to identify.

How, then, should scholars decide whether to write in English or another language? The following criteria may help determine the best course of action.

Purpose of the work: Does the article need to be in English in the first place? Or would it be better suited to publication in an author’s native language, or in another language? Who is the article intended to impact?

Many international, high impact-factor journals publish articles only in English. Scholars working to build their reputations and advance their careers may need to publish some of their work in these venues. Other research may be most relevant to a specific, local readership who would benefit from reading a publication in the author’s native language. For example, an article about the socio-economic status of students from a local school district may not need to be published in English, and it may not need to be published in an international journal. Those most interested in the research may only be able to access it if it is published in the language in which the research was originally conducted.

Quality of the manuscript: Does the author consider the manuscript an important contribution to their field? Might it be widely read? What impact does the author wish to make with the work?

If the manuscript is particularly ground-breaking or potentially high impact, extra care should be taken to produce the highest quality text, whether this is through translation or editing. If the manuscript is for internal use only and is not going to be published, however, it may be less important to produce a pristine manuscript.

Topic and discipline: Is the article highly specialized? Is it in a scientific or humanities discipline?

Finding translators for highly specialized topics, particularly technical and scientific subjects with complex terminology, may be challenging. In these cases, composing an article in English may be more effective.

On the other hand, articles written for humanities journals, where the form of writing can be just as important as the argument of the essay, may require a fine level of nuance in order to be accepted. Translating a manuscript originally written in a different language may be the best way to produce a suitable article in these disciplines.

English-language capabilities: Is the author capable of producing mostly error-free text? If not, can the author produce an unambiguous text that is easily understandable to the editor and eventually the readers? Or will the English text be difficult to comprehend?

Authors should honestly evaluate their language skills before deciding whether to write in English or not. If their writing is too difficult to understand, even a brilliant editor will have trouble helping the article make sense, and they may even take the text in a different direction from what the author intended. The process may take longer than simply writing an article in one’s native language. Another factor to consider is how close the author’s native language is to English in terms of its structure and writing conventions.

Time and budget available for translating and editing: Is there an urgent deadline for the manuscript, or is there sufficient time for a translator to complete their work? How lengthy is the manuscript?

Producing an effective and accurate translation takes time. Rush translations may be possible, but they tend to be very costly and may not be of the highest quality. Sometimes editing is the only feasible option given a short timeline and a limited budget. However, writers should also consider the high costs of laboring for months to write an article in a non-native language, especially if the resulting manuscript still needs substantial editing work. They may be better off completing the article more quickly in their native language, having it translated, and then submitting it to a journal.

For junior scholars working to quickly build their publication records, the time lost through struggling to write in English may be as valuable as the money spent on professional translation services. It is worth noting that funding for translation and editing could also be written into grant proposals and included in start-up costs for new faculty.  Universities committed to diversifying their faculty should consider this a way to support the faculty they hire.

Short-term versus long-term considerations

In the short-term, academics may view translators and editors as the help they need to overcome language challenges, but over the long term, they will likely need to improve their own English skills. Scholars can use the editing and translating experience as a learning opportunity, carefully reading through changes made, in order to work toward improving language skills for that next project.

Researchers may decide to compose certain papers in English and other work in their native language. For those who typically rely on editors or proofreaders to improve their manuscripts, trying out the services of a professional translator may be a worthwhile investment in their career. Publishing a clearly written, coherent article that gets published in a prominent journal can result in a future conference, lecture or publishing invitations, and even job opportunities. These are all powerful reasons to produce the best text possible. Scholars can then use their publication record in different languages as a strength, not a source of frustration.

So, should the article be written in one language, then translated? Or should it be written in English, then edited? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question. Authors should carefully and honestly consider their needs, capabilities, and purposes in each case, before reaching a decision. When uncertain, seeking advice from a colleague, a friend, or a professional in the field of translation and editing may be a helpful first step.

Avi Staiman is the CEO and managing editor of Academic Language Experts, assisting with the translation of research for publication.

Tami Blumenfield is an anthropologist of China who has published widely on cultural heritage politics and worked extensively with Mosuo (Na) communities in southwest China.

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