I'm writing a historical work about a German philosopher, in which I use some of his unpublished notes.

One quotation contains an almost untranslatable, hardly intelligible expression - it's not essential to the point I'm making with the citation (which is perfectly clear), but by cutting it out using [...] I mangle the quotation even more.

Can I translate it literally (which turns into nonsense) and write [sic] behind it? After all, it's not what was actually written but my translation, so I feel like this isn't really an option. Or should I chose one of the different possible interpretations that make some sense of it, but thereby pushing some particular reading, even though I don't need that to make my point?

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    Make a choice that you can reasonably justify and explain that choice/justificaiton to the reader. – user2768 Feb 13 '19 at 10:30
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    Yeah that's what I decided to do. Added the original text in a footnote and explained that it's not crucial to the point. Thanks! – 10012511 Feb 13 '19 at 10:30
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    OP: consider accepting one of the answers posted below – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Feb 13 '19 at 17:23
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    @user2768 "Make a choice that you can reasonably justify and explain that choice/justificaiton to the reader." And then follow that up with a separate few pages paper, perhaps published elsewhere, on the conundrum, and several solutions you considered in the process! – Alexis Feb 13 '19 at 17:26
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    Reminder: answer in answers, not in comments. – user8283 Feb 13 '19 at 18:58

After all, it's not what was actually written but my translation, so I feel like this isn't really an option.

You seem to have unconsciously ruled out what I would consider the best option: leave the phrase in question untranslated with a footnote which gives the literal translation and says that the phrase's meaning is unclear but irrelevant.

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    This is the best answer. It leaves the option there for the reader to try to make some sense out of the quotation, if they can. – Robert Columbia Feb 13 '19 at 17:18

In language-related papers, it is common to do all of these options:

  • give the untranslated version
  • give the literal translation
  • give the semantically closest translation in English

Of course it depends how important this particular sentence is to your work. But if you want to mention it, you should at least give the original sentence and a translation in my opinion.


Give the loose translation in brackets. For instance, if the original says "This happens once in a blue moon", then give the translation as "This happens [very infrequently]". If you want to be complete, give a footnote with the original German and literal translation.

So-and-so says "this happens [very infrequently][1]".

[1]"alle Jubeljahre", literally "once in a blue moon", an idiom expressing extremely low frequency

(Obviously, this answer is pretending, for the sake of an example, that "alle Jubeljahre" is German idiom that literally translates to "once in a blue moon" but means "infrequently", and is not asserting that this is the case in reality.)

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    "alle Jubeljahre" literally does not translate to "once in a blue moon" – costrom Feb 14 '19 at 15:13

Make a judgement call and explain the basis for that call to the reader.

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    Please expand this into a full answer. – jakebeal Feb 13 '19 at 11:36
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    The question is asking for advice on how to make this judgement call, so I don't see what your answer adds. – David Richerby Feb 13 '19 at 15:53
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    @DavidRicherby The question actually asks whether to translate it literally or to chose one of the different possible interpretations. I suggest making a judgement call and explaining the basis for that call. That answers the question... – user2768 Feb 13 '19 at 17:00
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    @user2768 The question is "Which of these things should I do?" and your answer is that "Choose one of them." Really, that doesn't say anything. – David Richerby Feb 13 '19 at 17:02
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    @DavidRicherby Well, as it stands, the OP has adopted my answer, academia.stackexchange.com/questions/124908/… So, it is surely reasonable to considered it an answer. – user2768 Feb 13 '19 at 17:10

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