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Some months back I got into a situation where a paper with information that I considered important to prove a point was in a language I cannot understand. Since it was important but not crucial, I ended up not using the paper. Except for its abstract, which was in English, the entire paper was in this other language. It had graphs and images that I could understand without knowing the language.

At the time, I was tempted to use Google Translate in order to get the general idea of the paper (in more detail than what is given in the abstract), while not necessarily trusting on the specific information that the translation gave me (it can give faulty results at times). Since this would still leave me with some measure of uncertainty — there was no way for me to be sure exactly what it was saying — I thought it better to just let the paper go.

But say that in a future situation I find a crucial paper in a language I don't understand: if I use Google Translate, using the paper in a situation that does not require specific information but only it's general gist, would citing it be ethically acceptable?

(It's almost the same situation as this question, but I'm not concerned with translating the entire paper, for this would take time/resources that I simply don't have access to.)

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    Has this paper been cited by others in your field as a reference for whatever your point was? – Elizabeth Henning Jan 20 at 22:15
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    Don't forget that you could also hire a freelancer translator who could translate the paper, it doesn't have to be Google Translate. – stackzebra Jan 21 at 14:35
  • @ElizabethHenning Not that I'm aware of. Due to the nature of the paper (an archaeology report in Greek) it would be rare for it to be mentioned, more so because it is common for this kind of work to be very hard to find. – James Cook Jan 22 at 10:48
  • @stackzebra I don't have any easy way of doing that at the moment, but will definitely do it when I have the means to. – James Cook Jan 22 at 10:49
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    @JamesCook What I'm trying to say is that you have a paradoxical situation where you've got a translation from a freelancer so that you can perfectly use the information from that paper, but since that translation is for your private use, it isn't published anywhere and you can't cite that translation as such. Which all tells me that you should be allowed to cite the original paper, and the means by which you acquired information from that paper isn't something you should be required to justify. – stackzebra Jan 22 at 11:40
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I think the fact that the paper is in a language you don't understand is somewhat of a red herring. Sure, it will affect the specific steps you'd take to try to understand the paper, but the ethics of "to cite, or not to cite" it is no different from a paper you don't understand written in a language you speak. You're generally supposed to provide a good-faith overview of the literature, with citations as appropriate. The fact that one paper is significantly harder to understand doesn't really change that.

My view is that it behooves you to, as far as possible*, and regardless of language, at least understand at a high level what the full papers you cite contain, and the parts of papers you use on a detailed level. Google Translate will be good enough in some cases, but for other cases it's better used as a starting point. If you find yourself doubting the machine translation it's certainly best to use it as a starting point. You might want to try to clarify uncertain points with the authors, ask a colleague (who might speak the language) for help, get a professional translation of parts of the paper, or use a secondary citation.

*In some fields they even study ancient languages to understand original texts. That might be overkill...

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You cite earlier works either because you directly built on them, or to provide the background against which you are working, and to position your new contribution in the larger context of existing research.

You should be able to judge whether a given foreign language paper warrants inclusion for the second reason based on an English language abstract and/or Google translate. If it does, cite it.

Also: nothing keeps you from including a footnote, or a parenthetical disclaimer.

Foo and Bar (2019) discussed the ethnographic complexities of underwater basket weaving (as judging from the abstract; Foo & Bar [2019] is unfortunately in Amharic, which we do not speak).

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    I'd suggest a tweak to "in Amharic, which we unfortunately do not speak" to avoid potential offense. – Jude Melancon Jan 21 at 16:10
  • Thank you. Good point. I'll leave it as it is so your comment still makes sense. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jan 22 at 7:43
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    I wish I could choose two answers as the correct ones. Thanks for the suggestion about the footnote/disclaimer! – James Cook Jan 22 at 10:51
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    The answer would be improved by including the contents of the first comment. Comments are supposed to be transitory suggestions on improving answers and questions. – Tommi Brander Jul 15 at 19:04
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Reiterating the main points (as I see it) of the other answers: if it's relevant, cite it... both to show your own awareness, and to acknowledge prior art, whether or not it exactly impinged on your own work.

That is, whether or not an individual can fully vet a piece of work, through difficulty with the ambient language or whatever, acknowledgement of its existence is very important, I think. Citing things is different from endorsement, and is different from a claim that one has fully checked all details, or even read the whole thing through. Just be clear, in the citation, what use you made of it, or did not.

Once again, straightforward-ness, honesty, are better guides much of the time (too bad not always... I know...) than stylistic prescriptions.

As an example to perhaps not cite: if you happened to read arguably crack-pot documents on arXiv (for math, for example) purporting (implausibly) to do amazing things in your specialty, I think you can justify not citing... if the author has insufficient credibility, and no one else with any credibility has vouched for it. But, yes, what the heck is "credibility"? :)

  • Good point about citing its existence. If you are not sure exactly what the paper is saying, but you know it is probably relevant to your work, you can couch a caveat into your paper. For example, "Smith (1987) hypothesized the theoretical reorientability of the hyperparallel matrix. Zamekov (1993) may have demonstrated this in a wind-tunnel experiment. In this paper, I demonstrate a methodology for improving engine throughput by 5-10% through a matrix reorientation...." – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Mar 2 at 17:56
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I would lean to including it. Of course you need to be careful about relying on something you can't completely read but this applies to everything (even just hard math). But I would lean to more cites than less since it helps future researchers.

It is not like you are endorsing everything or giving some huge gift to make a cite. You are trying to help people find info. They can still do some evaluation or even get into tangential ideas.

If you just need a datapoint (say transition temperature of a well known and noncontroversial substance), I think just taking the datapoint is fine without translation. Depending on how much more you need, you can try struggling through it with partial info, ask someone to look at it, use Google Translate, etc. If it is crucial, just pay for a translation and charge to your grant (this is not that hard, have done it).

  • I agree and an obvious way in which OP can implement this is to cite by stating something like "For further literature on blahbla, see...". – HRSE Jan 21 at 12:31
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If "to cite" is interpreted as "to include, in the 'works cited' or 'references' section of your academic work, a academic-publication-style-conformant bibliographic reference to a piece of scholarly work", it does not seem to be a good idea to include papers which you think you have understood by just reading its abstracts, its figures and tables (very likely that their titles are not in your language either) and machine-translated contents. You include a paper in your "works cited" section because you have carefully studied it, reflected upon it, analysed it against the theories and conclusions you've already known, or even carried out verification work, after which finding that the paper is of significant importance to your own study, positively or negatively. In this way you are weaving connections between past and present so that followers will see how the discipline has developed.

You do not include citations to show that you have consulted a lot of sources, or to let others know that you think this one is really important--important is a personal feeling unless quantified by, say, h-index; whether a paper is important or not is the reader's business, not yours. If a lot of authors do include this piece of literature in their works then that literature would naturally be important empirically.

That said, nothing stops you from including the article under concern in your own thesis: an academic-publication-style-conformant footnote or endnote would do well. Some professors even require their students to have both a "Works Cited" part and a "Works Consulted" part in their disseration (e.g. mine), and at least for humanities fields I have seen really serious scholars doing the same in their monograph. Also remember that the reference can be annotated as well.

Finally, you've said that

in a future situation I find a crucial paper in a language I don't understand: if I use Google Translate, using the paper in a situation that does not require specific information but only it's general gist

I don't see the underlying logical connection: if a paper is really crucial to you, your study must have partially relied upon it, how then is it possible that you would be citing it only for general, non-specific purposes? Additionally, suppose that other readers knowing the same languages as you have consulted your paper and also found the paper under concern worth reading, how then will you know that they are just reading it for general gist?

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    This sounds like a very field-specific approach to citations. In my field, biology, you cite anything that's relevant. You don't just cite the 5 papers that were crucial to your work, you also cite anyone who's done anything that has bearing on the work you are presenting. And yes, sometimes you will include a citation to papers you have only glanced through if the glance is enough to demonstrate that the paper is relevant. Indeed, the vast majority of the papers cited are cited only for "general, non-specific purposes". – terdon Jan 21 at 19:24
  • @terdon In literature, my previous major, I have been used to have both "Works Cited" and the often longer "Works Consulted" sections. It may be a kind of extra requirement by the professor(s), but to cite in "Works Cited" for "general purpose" so as only to show that a paper has been glanced at during the entire research or that it can be related to the research even though loosely is itself a demonstration of the inadequacy of the author’s literature review. And please don't forget that the poster hasn't even carefully read the paper at all. – user786008 Jan 22 at 3:31
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    As I said, this seems to be characteristic of your field. I have never seen the two sections you mention in a published paper in the biology world. And citing papers you haven't read carefully because they're tangential to your subject but relevant (describe a method, for example) is standard practice. – terdon Jan 22 at 8:42
  • The question pertained to a future (and hypothetical) situation, and might be badly phrased. In the case described in the OP, it was an archaeology report in Greek. I understand its images and photos, for Translate rarely mistakes itself with one or two words, but I couldn't be exactly sure about any interpretations by the author. I have therefore not relied on it; it was one possible evidence to add to a body of evidence - in retrospect, I should have at least acknowledged it existence, but then again I wouldn't be able to explain why, for I can't fully understand the interpretation. – James Cook Jan 22 at 10:42
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While agreeing with the other answers, I would add that you should cite the "original" work you used to base your work/analysis/paper on.

Subsequently finding a copy of the same paper translated by A. N. Other may lead to issues if the translation has errors or other assumptions not in the original.

That being said, you need to make it clear what you translated parts of the paper to mean as you probably made assumptions as well.

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