Academic Translation for
Unpublished Manuscripts

BY WILLIAm DAn

Introduction

What do scholars need when they come to you asking for translation? Do they need faithful renditions of their work, or do they need someone to help them get published in another language? Generally speaking, there are two main categories of academic translation. One is the translation of books already published in English, in which case, the goal of translation is to help the author reach a wider audience. The second category is the translation of unpublished manuscripts for the sake of publication, typically in English. Authors are not publishing these manuscripts in their native language because academic journals do not accept articles that have already been published elsewhere, translated or not. It is important to keep in mind that the scope of this article is limited to the translation of unpublished manuscripts, where translation and writing are more inseparable, and where the best practices of the language industry are more likely to be challenged.

Translating Academic Manuscripts Across Cultures

The primary goals of academic translation are to deliver the main argument of the paper and help it pass the peer-review process for publication. Faithfully translating word for word is not good enough if the main argument does not deliver well in the target language. To help a paper get published, academic translators need to do more than what the typical translation workflow requires.

When improving an article, good academic translators often modify structures, add sentences, remove paragraphs, and provide feedback to the author. Good academic translators also convert the writing style of one language into that of another. The more distant the language systems between the source and target text, the trickier it is to convert writing styles.

Take the Chinese-speaking academia and the English-speaking academia, for example. Scholars in these two circles have different rules and practices of writing. Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, Chinese writing has a high tolerance, even taste, for winding arguments or arguments that have been hidden in the main body just to be revealed at the end. As a result, something that reads fine in Chinese may be just gibberish in English.

Academic journals in the US prefer arguments presented bluntly, stated in the first paragraph and echoed in every single word — every paragraph should be opened with a topic sentence, followed by evidence that support the topic sentence or at least logical inferences that support the topic sentence.

Academic papers in western journals also tend to be confrontational. Published papers often open with something like, “Scholars X, Y, and Z argued this and that. This paper will show why they are all wrong and why the proposed solution is better.” In Chinese-speaking academic circles, where the power distance between established scholars and new scholars can be wide, arguing in a confrontational way could irk senior scholars in the same narrow field, who could retaliate by giving you a hard time in future paper reviews or even promotions. That said, when the goal is to publish in English-based journals, the argumentation style needs to be adapted for English readers, who expect a clear, concise, and straightforward text.

Academic Translation as Co-Authoring

Given that translating unpublished manuscripts for publication involves additional steps to the industry standard of translation, editing, and proofreading, it also requires a different mentality.

I would go as far as to say that academic translators should have a co-authoring mindset. They must take ownership of what they translate and work closely with authors to clarify translations or edits. Having a co-authoring mindset does not mean demanding your name to be listed as a co-author (though you probably contribute more than free-riding co-authors). Instead, thinking like a co-author means putting your writer hat on as much as your translator hat — you are creating content as well as converting content from one language into another.

From a writer’s perspective, the average translator’s mindset can be described as timid. Many translators are wary of the slightest departure from the source text. They are careful since they know by heart the fact that translation is more noticed when it is done wrong. However, while the average translation task can be completed by simply rendering the source text faithfully into the target language, doing so in academic translation may be setting your client up for rejection from peer reviewers.

A translator with a co-authoring mindset “rewrites” a paper. This rewriting is in some sense similar to copywriting, as the goal is not a faithful rendition of the source text but to persuade and to cause action. In our case, the goal is to persuade peer reviewers that the paper is worthy of publication. To rewrite is to render an additional draft by improving the paper’s structure, clarity, and most importantly, the delivery of the main argument. The translation of an unpublished manuscript should be treated not as a translation, but as a draft, which is a piece of original content on its own. Drafts exist in the realm of change, and can benefit from even the most minute improvements. Practically speaking, the manuscript will likely go through at least one round of revision. If the author, reviewer, and journal editor see a manuscript as being in a state of constant change, why should the translator treat the manuscript as infallible?

When Standards of the Language Industry Cease to Apply

When you dispose of the idea of “source text infallibility” and start to treat the source text as malleable, certain translation quality metrics cease to apply. There is no point being “faithful” to a text if blindly following its literal writing is going to fail to deliver its argument, either in style or in essence. There is no point in being afraid of adding connecting sentences where the source text lacks sufficient transitions, and there is no point in freaking out over omissions when some sentences simply contribute to nothing but the readers’ migraine. As a matter of fact, at least when it comes to academic translation, being faithful when the argument is illogical, not adding something when a connection is missing, or not omitting a sentence when it is clearly badly written, are all acts of irresponsibility. Responsible translators overhaul your paper when there is such a need, identify and fix issues that would otherwise have been spotted by journal reviewers, and compel you to do more work to improve your manuscript.

Just as how some translation-quality metrics cease to apply to academic translation, certain tools also become more confining than helpful. When the paper needs to be restructured, typical language industry tools, such as computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, also become more restricting than helpful. As Avi Staiman pointed out in his talk on Nimdzi, CAT tools are less relevant in academic translation. One premise of CAT tools is that sentences in the target text must be translated in the same order as in the source text. Restructuring the translated text implies that this order cannot be followed, and the segments will mismatch when they are placed in translation memory, making translation memory less helpful. That said, good translation memories can be helpful for quotations, while terminology bases can still ensure translated terminologies to be consistent.

Who Should Do Academic Translation?

If academic translation require skills beyond the average translator, who then has the qualifications to do it? While many journal editing services require their editors to have PhDs, one does not necessarily need a PhD to be familiar with scientific thinking, contemporary research methods (i.e. statistics), and some degrees of domain knowledge. To the least extent, the translator must be able to intelligently communicate with the author on issues of argumentation. If a translator cannot understand the main argument of the text, then the translator would be able to offer general language services but not academic translation services.
To establish oneself as an academic translator, one must have:

  • academic skills for understanding the text,
  • communication skills for pointing out errors without making your clients feel humiliated,
  • language skills for rendering the source text into the target language, and
  • writing skills for composing essays native speakers of the target language would find easy to read.

These skills can be hard to come by in the same person. This is why if you have acquired these skills, you should not be afraid to ask for more payment as well as more time to complete your tasks.

What Scholars Need

In the end, what ultimately matters to academic translators is their clients getting published. As long as clients consent to their manuscript being overhauled, academic translators should do as much as possible to increase the likelihood of its publication.

For scholars, getting published means better job security, more grant money, and wider recognition, which in turn means more future business opportunities for you. Academia is also a relatively small circle, so if you could win a few clients, you could easily be referred to their colleagues for additional projects.

William Dan is a localization specialist at 1UP Localization Studio.

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