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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 offer 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).

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3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

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.

Pros:

  • If you're working with people who don't speak English very well, it can make it easier for them to write in their native language first, so that they can focus on explaining the idea, rather than trying 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 easier for them to understand it if it's in their native language.

Cons:

  • 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 easier with time and practice.

  • It could make complicated any external collaboration (I've been collaborating with some people who write their papers in English, but their comments and ideas in another language, it was really frustrating).

  • It's probably a subjective perception, but I think that a paper is not only a technical idea, it should also be an interesting piece 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 (probably due to the multiplication of conferences/journals in CS), and at some point, it becomes harder to focus 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 quite different if you were to delegate the translation to some professionals.

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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 try to facilitate good organization by starting in whatever language I was most comfortable with. –  Dan C Jul 21 '12 at 18:14
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Well, as I said, it's quite 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 18:33
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Adding to your second 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 surprisingly easy if that person’s language skill has gone beyond a certain point. –  Wrzlprmft Jan 10 '14 at 21:27
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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 reward if any at all to have "two papers instead of one". –  Benoît Kloeckner Oct 2 '14 at 18:21
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Another possible "Con" item: In fields with strict length restrictions to papers, a considerable amount of writing is about getting the exact length of text right (concerning the total document, and also single paragraphs and columns, to avoid orphans, etc.) while still providing as much information as possible. This can well lead to structural decisions - whether or not to add another sub-headline, in which order to describe content, whether or not to present another example, and similar. All of that can only reasonably be done in the final target language. –  O. R. Mapper Jun 12 at 8:56

As a native English speaker working in a country of non-native English speakers, I come from a slightly different perspective than Charles. I've also done some translations of abstracts (from English to French, although arguably this isn't so advisable, since I'm not a native French speaker—but being the only option in the company makes for little choice).

Based on my collective experiences in the last few years, I agree with Charles's main point: if the paper is to be submitted in English, it should be written and commented on exclusively in English. Doing a bilingual job makes for a mess. I recently went through two proposals written "by committee." One was done exclusively in English; the other was a "mixed-language" proposal. The all-English proposal was not only finished faster, but it was easier to work on and understand. I think ultimately it was also a higher-quality proposal.

However, I do want to take exception to a point that Charles made: with respect to undergraduates, I believe that it is more codifying than assisting undergraduates to give them "natively written" materials, when the originals started out in another language. You cannot really do science in academia today without being able to communicate in English; getting experience in doing so—in all of its forms—is an essential part of the training process.

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I agree with you that it should be better to give undergrads material written in English, unfortunately, in some countries (such as France, and from what I've seen, China), the level of English is in general so poor that they might not be able to actually learn from it. For those who want to go towards academia, they will need to speak English, so it might as well start there, but for those who won't, it might be harder to justify it. But if the undergrad students understand English well enough, then I completely agree with you on the last point. –  user102 Jul 21 '12 at 21:57
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I think with your comment on undergraduates you're universalizing an understanding of college that does not extend to certain places... where a college degree serves a different function. –  virmaior Oct 2 '14 at 16:37
    
Who is "Charles"? Could you add a link when referring to users, please, so if they end up changing their user name, the reference is not broken? ;) –  O. R. Mapper Jun 12 at 8:37

As a non-native English speaker myself, based on some experiences I recommend you to first write some drafts in your native language.

Yes, being able to directly think and write in English is a great 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 first matter and the language is the second.

You don't need to write it completely in your own language, but you can use it to keep focused on your ideas and organize your paper (without being drifted by finding proper words), the flow of information, the reasons, arguments, etc. Then replace these sections with proper (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.

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While I appreciate your contributing another perspective than the answers above, I have trouble understanding which argument lead to this advice. Is it that writing in english first is difficult and can prevent you from producing anything in the first place? –  henning Jun 5 at 11:32
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@henning Mainly because papers are about ideas not the language, you should be able to organize your idea first in your mind and on your paper. The language is the second matter. Our brain can express and relate concepts better in the native language and also before you write them down you can't be sure what is the final outcome. At least some drafts in your language is necessary. –  Ahmad Jun 5 at 11:50

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