Translated abstracts and titles

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There are many different subfields in Chinese Studies:  religion (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam…), art history, archeology, anthropology, language, literature, linguistics, esthetics, philosophy, economics, ethnology, and so forth.  Each of these subfields requires specialized knowledge and command of the requisite terminology.  One cannot expect a generalist to be adequately equipped to deal with all of them.

An anonymous colleague, who is a distinguished specialist in one of these fields, wrote:

I've been wrestling with a problem in Political Rectitude–young "foreign" (non-Chinese) scholars, many of them with extensive experience in Chinese academic institutions, have taken to relying on the English-language abstracts and article and book titles that Chinese publishers and editors print before or after the Chinese originals.  These are often poorly translated, sometimes egregiously so, by English majors from the publishers' in-house staff or local graduate schools.  But these foreign colleagues claim to be respecting the Chinese scholars by using their inaccurate translations.  I think this is poor practice and ask them to translate the titles correctly, but they often don't, and now those inaccurate translations are turning up in English-language academic publications.  I have no solution to this except to keep requesting that they correct the translations.  Has anyone dealt with this problem publicly?

This is a rather different problem than that of Chinglish, with which we at Language Log are well acquainted.  The reason is that usually the translators of the titles and abstracts described above have moderately good English for general purposes.  What they lack is specialized knowledge of the materials with which they are dealing in academic settings.


Selected readings


  1. Levantine said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 12:08 pm

    I feel it’s a matter of standard academic practice, and not of “Political Rectitude”, to cite a work using the title under which it’s been published, even if that title is poorly translated. “Sic” can be added and/or corrections offered when necessary.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 2:14 pm

    Exactly. The published English title is the English title. Respect is completely beside the point – this is about being able to find it in search engines (including less capable ones than Google).

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 2, 2022 @ 3:46 pm

    Re: translated titles, it's as noted above, and mostly these are just a bit awkward or incomplete as opposed to outright wrong — although yes, it is weird to end up shifting accurate ad hoc translations to awkward official ones within a bibliography, as most publishers now ask (and contrary to correspondent's practice.) Especially when one thereby ends up with a hodge-podge of sensible and somewhat less sensible titles (b/c many esp. older Chinese publications have no English title of record)…

    At least publications ought to require original Chinese titles IMO, but not always the case

    Not sure what this correspondent means by "relying on the English-language abstracts" — if to acquire or transmit information, that would indeed be a bad idea in many cases…

  4. Chester Draws said,

    September 3, 2022 @ 6:37 pm

    "The Great Gatsby" was published in Swedish as “En Man Utan Skrupler,” or “A Man Without Scruples.”

    That's a totally unnecessary conversion — it's not like Swedish couldn't cope with a more literal translation. Weirdly, Gatsby is presumably a Scandinavian name, so should fit right in.

    But once done, it would be utterly bizarre to start using "Den Underbara Gatsby" because you felt that was better.

  5. Erin B. said,

    September 4, 2022 @ 7:05 pm

    Me three on the importance of citing a title as published, even if it's wrong. The world of Special Collections has a work-around. The cataloging standard for rare materials says that "unintentional inaccuracies" should be transcribed as-is, but the cataloger must "follow such an inaccuracy either by “sic” or by “that is,” and the correction, all enclosed within square brackets."

    Using "sic" works for typos, but for things that are flat out wrong, you have to go the "that is" route.

    The canonical example is an early 20th-century glass plate negative showing a building labeled "Royal Palace, Warsaw" even though it's a photo of the Kremlin. The title of the work is recorded as "Royal Palace, Warsaw [that is, Kremlin Palace, Moscow, Russia]"

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 12:39 pm

    @Chester Draws: But translating titles is often difficult, and potential translations of great mean that a more direct translation might end up meaning simply 'big'. The French novel Le Grand Meaulnes (see the Wikipedia article of that name) has been given several different titles in English translation for exactly that reason. (The Wikipedia article also says that Fitzgerald's title The Great Gatsby was inspired by Le Grand Meaulnes.)

    I wonder if the Swedish title was inspired by Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. That book is known in English as The Man without Qualities, but without more context qualities is a fairly misleading rendition of Eigenschaften.

  7. Chester Draws said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 1:26 am

    I understand the issue, but in this case Swedish doesn't have it. (That's why I used it, rather than countless variants of difficulty finding the right words, where your point holds.)

    You can argue about which Swedish word is a better contextual translation for 'Great" but they do have some perfectly good options.

    It's the equivalent of the Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften being called in English, The Ambivalent Ulrich. Why would you do that?

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