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Inspired by the question Is it acceptable to write a reference letter for yourself?

I have a related but somewhat different question: Given no choice, is it acceptable to write a recommendation letter for self?

This question is based on real cases. In non-English speaking countries, many professors don't know how to write good recommendation letters in English. The professor may know how to write papers in English in his field. But, when writing recommendation letters, he has limited vocabulary to write about his students. In other words, his English is not proficient. To make the matter worse, some professors may only be able to write simple English sentences. The professor may tell the student the contents of the letter in his native language and ask the student to translate it into English and then signs it.

The student may want somebody else to write the letter because he does not want the professor to do this unethical thing. But, the professor just happens to be his advisor (undergraduate or master). The student may want to suggest that his professor ask the professor's colleagues for help to write the letter. The professor may say no. Therefore, the student writes the recommendation letter for himself by translating the professor's draft in their native language into English.

Is it acceptable? If not, what should the student do?

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    @StrongBad Actually, I personally encountered this kind of problem. I have friends in Academia. They come to me for help to correct the grammar errors in the recommendation letters for their students. – scaaahu Feb 4 '14 at 12:54
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    I like this question. While I fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the linked question, I feel that are simply not practical outside the US. In Europe, where there seems to be less of a culture of reference letter writing, one must either choose between having no letter or self-writing it. In fact, I have talked to approximately 10 faculty from different universities about this topic, and 100% of them found it completely normal that the applicant writes the letter and the faculty simply signs it. – xLeitix Feb 4 '14 at 13:02
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    @StrongBad That seems very unlikely. In Europe, most faculty I talked to can hardly be bothered with the process of letter writing in general. I hardly see them contact outside assistance in this matter. – xLeitix Feb 4 '14 at 13:08
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    I would add to this question: given the strong negative sentiments that are associated with self-written support letters, what concretely is an applicant to do that comes from a culture where asking a faculty to write a support letter themself is indeed considered an unusual request (which is going to be denied)? – xLeitix Feb 4 '14 at 13:19
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    In my case my professors knew enough English, but they had almost zero experience with the concept of recommendation letters. It was a very difficult situation for me. – Ana Feb 4 '14 at 17:00
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Thanks for asking this question.

In light of recent strong comments I have made on closely related issues elsewhere, let me say that I think that getting a letter translated from one language to another is an absolutely kosher academic practice. The classy thing to do would be to also include the original (e.g. how do you know that the readers will not speak that language?) and also indicate who the translator was.

However, the translator should not be the student. That is a problem because:

(i) It is an obvious conflict of interest.
(ii) Recommendation letters are often meant to be confidential, and this violates confidentiality.

If you absolutely cannot get anyone other than the student to translate the letter then you should clearly indicate "translated by the student" and expect to have your honesty applauded and the letter largely dismissed.

I must say that my heart opens up for a student who is living in a context where there is no qualified third party to translate a letter into English. I have been to academic departments in several non-anglophone countries and never encountered such a situation...but of course I have not been everywhere, nor to a random sampling, nor to any academic department in a "third world" country. That's a tough situation. Translating the letter yourself does not seem like the best answer.

Let me also say the following: if you are a non-anglophone student whose English skills are far superior to those of the faculty at your university [and assuming that you are applying to anglophone graduate programs, of course!], then you might try to cultivate relationships with anglophone professors elsewhere in the world. Twenty years ago that would have been preposterous advice, but due to the proliferation of mathematical interaction via the internet, it seems very viable today. For instance there is a small but positive number of students with whom I have had sufficiently substantial interaction on MathOverflow and (more often) math.SE so that I would be glad to write them a strong recommendation letter. If you are a math student, you can always try writing to any professor and having mathematical interactions with them. They are not obligated to respond (I certainly do not always respond...), but they often do (I often do...) especially if you show them something truly promising.

[At some point in the previous paragraph I forgot that I was supposed to be writing for a general academic audience rather than an academic mathematical audience. But since I am not sure how far my advice extends outside of mathematics, I will leave the m-word in.]

Among US students applying to US graduate programs, it is increasingly frequent for at least one of three recommendation letters to come from the director of a summer undergraduate research experience (REU) than a faculty member at the university. Such letters are not necessarily the most penetrating -- they read very similarly, perhaps because of the implicit motivation to paint one's summer research experience in a positive light -- but they often get the job done, i.e., they lead to admissions.

Let me also say that a letter of recommendation for graduate admission is not always the most important part of the application. If I get an application from a university that I have not heard of, and letters from faculty that I have not heard of and whose reputations I do not know, I can only take the letters so seriously no matter what they say. (And it is quite true that not everyone knows how to write a good "American-style recommendation letter". This does not necessarily get counted against the student; it just doesn't get counted for them.) If you are coming from an "obscure program" then your goal is to convince the readers of the applications that your training is equal to (or superior than!) the training that students in more familiar programs get. So it can be helpful to include very specific information about coursework: e.g. not just the title of the course and the course grade but the textbooks used. If you wrote a paper which does not make any research contribution but shows a solid understanding of graduate-level material, by all means include that as part of the application. Also be sure to take all the applicable standardized tests and do your best on them (and don't cheat on them!!).

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I'd like to suggest instead of asking if you could self write the letter, send your advisor an email that says something like this. "Thank you so much for agreeing to write this letter for me. We have done a lot of great work together over a long period of time and I'd like to highlight some things that you may wish to talk about in your letter (of course feel free to choose not to use any of these examples if you so desire):

  • Example 1
  • Example 2
  • ...

This will allow your letter writer to at least have some phrases he/she could say in relatively good English, but you aren't actually writing the letter. The advisor will likely edit them and add more phrases, but at least it is a good starting point. This way, no confidentiality is breached because the advisor can still ignore all of your examples and you have no idea whether he/she chose to do so or not. I also like Pete Clark's idea of sending in an untranslated letter if it is in a language that can be easily translated in most English speaking institutions.

  • Also make sure the examples are not something that could be read from your CV. They should be like hey remember when I came up with this idea you really liked in our meeting or remember when I advised that undergrad of yours ... listing some of the things you did with the undergrad. Basically they should be more related to your personal interactions with your advisor. – WetlabStudent Feb 7 '14 at 2:16
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No.

  • It is a breach of confidentiality.
  • If the recipient of the letter is not informed that the student translated it, then that is (at the least) unethical.
  • If the recipient of the letter is informed that the student translated it, then I see no immediate breach of ethics. But it's no longer a confidential opinion, may have been subtly altered by the student, and likely won't carry much weight as a result.
  • In either case, how can the recipient be sure that the student's translation is true and unbiased?

The proper way forward, as I see it, would be to get the professor to write the letter himself and then get the letter professionally translated. Enclose copies of both the original letter and the translation, declaring that the letter has been translated into English (by either a professional translator or another professor).

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    Or just send the letter in its original language. If this is a field where serious scholarship is done in Flemish, some of the letter recipients will read Flemish. And if this is not a field where serious research is published in Flemish, then a letter in Flemish correctly identifies the author as not a serious scholar. – JeffE Feb 5 '14 at 0:33
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    I don't disagree with you. The last part of your answer is hard to do. Professional translator is expensive. Ten letters could cost the professor's one month salary. Other professors are also busy with writing letters. Do you have better ideas? – scaaahu Feb 5 '14 at 4:59
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    @scaaahu Besides what I said and what JeffE said, I cannot think of any other options. It's very unlikely there would not be a friend or colleague you can hand the letter to for translation (after removal of identifying things such as names). What if the letter contains some negative opinions? The honesty and confidentiality of reference letters is sacrosanct. – Moriarty Feb 5 '14 at 5:57
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    a friend or colleague you can hand the letter to for translation is possible but only to a certain degree. I got requests from friends to do such tasks until I got tired of it. Colleagues is probably a different issue. Sometimes colleagues are reluctant to do it for various reasons. Thanks for your suggestion. It carries weight. – scaaahu Feb 5 '14 at 6:07
  • Let me just chime in to say that, depending upon what the language is, just sending along an untranslated recommendation letter may be a reasonable option. American scholars are still scholars, and a good scholar participates in a context larger than that of the US or of anglophone writing. If one is applying to a program in mathematics in the US, I think it is at least likely that some faculty member in the program will be fluent in any of: French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese. – Pete L. Clark Feb 6 '14 at 21:22

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