I’m working with a group in China, and we were discussing the following question, which I would like to ask here too:
Question. Is it better to write a paper in Chinese, then translate it into English, than to write it in English to begin with?
Of course, this question is not limited to Chinese.
Both myself, and the (Chinese) professors in the group I work with felt rather strongly that writing in English to begin with is better. However, we didn’t manage to articulate any tangible reason as to why we feel this way (mostly just out of intuition). Hopefully the group here can suggest some meaningful insight one way or the other.
Note. I’m sure if I leave out the specific context, I’ll receive a comment asking for it. So, in our case, the context was students writing technical scientific research papers (in computer science).
asked Jul 21 ’12 at 8:34
As a non-native English speaker myself, I’ve faced similar situations during my PhD. Some pros/cons of writing not in English, and then translating.
If you’re working with people who don’t speak English very well, it can make it lighter for them to write in their native language very first, so that they can concentrate on explaining the idea, rather than attempting to find a correct vocabulary.
You might be able to publish the work twice: once for a Chinese-speaking conference (or journal) and another time in English.
If you plan to have this paper read by undergraduate students later on, then it might be lighter for them to understand it if it’s in their native language.
This is a waste of time, since you’re basically working on the same thing twice.
Translating is hard, in general, and speaking two languages does not necessarily make you a good translator. In practice, it might give a structure, but you might have to rewrite entirely each paragraph.
If you’re working with people who aim at staying in academia, they they need to be able to write directly in English. It’s hard in the beginning, but it gets much lighter with time and practice.
It could make complicated any outer collaboration (I’ve been collaborating with some people who write their papers in English, but their comments and ideas in another language, it was truly frustrating).
It’s most likely a subjective perception, but I think that a paper is not only a technical idea, it should also be an interesting chunk of work to read. It might be specific to CS (I don’t have the same feeling when talking with people in maths), but I feel that we’re already reading A LOT of papers (very likely due to the multiplication of conferences/journals in CS), and at some point, it becomes firmer to concentrate on those that are not pleasant to read. The best way to make your paper pleasant to read is to think it in English from the beginning.
Note that in the Cons, I assumed that you would translate the paper yourselves, and that you’re not particularly trained for translating technical documents. Of course, that would be fairly different if you were to delegate the translation to some professionals.
As someone who's essentially monolingual, can you explain to me the statement: “The best way to make your paper pleasant to read is to think it in English from the beginning.” I would naively think that the organization is the hardest part, and I would attempt to facilitate good organization by kicking off in whatever language I was most convenient with. – Dan C Jul 21 ’12 at Eighteen:14
Well, as I said, it's fairly subjective, but I think the hardest part of writing a paper is coming with the “elevator pitch”, which is to say, in few lines, why your paper is good, and what are its contributions. Once you have the pitch, the structure kind of flows naturally from it. Because I think a bit differently in English or in French, I might not use the same terms, and maybe not exactly the same structure. But maybe that's just me 🙂 – user102 Jul 21 ’12 at Legal:33
Adding to your 2nd and fifth contra: If you translate and do not entirely rewrite every paragraph (and depending on how you do it, even then), you are more likely not only to produce a stylistically bad text but also to make mistakes due to false friends and adhering to the structure of each sentence and what information goes into which sentence (e.g. by translating sentence by sentence). Spotting a translated paragraph embedded in a non-translated text by the same person is remarkably effortless if that person’s language skill has gone beyond a certain point. – Wrzlprmft Jan Ten ’14 at 21:27
About publishing the same thing twice in two languages: in all field I know of, this would be considered a strong breach in ethics. The exception would be if one of the two papers explicitly mentions it is a mere translation, but then there would be very little prize if any at all to have “two papers instead of one”. – Benoît Kloeckner Oct Two ’14 at Eighteen:21
As a non-native English speaker myself, based on some practices I recommend you to very first write some drafts in your native language.
Yes, being able to directly think and write in English is a fine skill and it is recommended, but if you are not mastered with this skill, it may evade you from writing down your ideas. For a paper, the cohesion of ideas is the very first matter and the language is the 2nd.
You don’t need to write it fully in your own language, but you can use it to keep focused on your ideas and organize your paper (without being drifted by finding decent words), the flow of information, the reasons, arguments, etc. Then substitute these sections with decent (not necessarily translation) paragraphs in English.
And till you don’t write down your thoughts you are not sure of what is in your mind.
answered Jun Five ’15 at 11:23