One of the references I use in my text is paper A. However, I've actually read an unofficial, unpublished translation B which can be found online. The translation uses more modern definitions/terms and corrects some errors.

How should I properly reflect the usage of the translation in my bibliography?

Currently, I use the original reference together with a note in the bibliography which explains the situation:

[reference A entry] Translated unofficially by translator as title B, year B. Translation available online at url B.

Note that the original author did not give permission to publish the translation. From the Translator's preface:

[author] has asked that all republication of any of his works (in original or translation) be ended. He has not actually invoked copyright (which, as stated above, he does not believe in), but asked this as some sort of personal privilege.

  • 2
    What is your concern? The form or the content. The content seems fine (i.e. honest).
    – Buffy
    Apr 10, 2021 at 16:09
  • Independently, "modern definitions" might be an issue if the meaning changes, as it might for mathematics, or even political science.
    – Buffy
    Apr 10, 2021 at 16:10
  • I wondered whether the content would be misleading. The original source is a landmark paper in its field and the terminology hadn't matured at the time, but the translation uses the current standard definitions which are equivalent; so no problems there.
    – mixotrov
    Apr 10, 2021 at 16:22
  • 1
    I'm rethinking my answer. I suggest you don't cite things that actually infringe copyright if that is what you mean by "unofficial". See: copyright.uslegal.com/…
    – Buffy
    Apr 10, 2021 at 16:48
  • 2
    I edited the question to give more context. The original author did not give permission to translate his work.
    – mixotrov
    Apr 10, 2021 at 17:18

4 Answers 4


Citing both, as you currently have, is fine and provides good a good indication to readers who are unfamiliar with this paper.

With regards to the fact that the translation was not permitted by the author, that is strictly not your problem. Copyright doesn't apply to people who are viewing or otherwise using the copied content, but to its distributor (i.e. the translator in this case). This would be no different to me simply sharing the URL of an unofficial stream of a football match (where the official source is a payed TV channel) with a friend -- I would never get into trouble for this, only the website hosting the stream could.

  • 3
    Oh hey @Buffy, nice to see you! I'm the same person who posted this question on another account, I hope you remember me. I don't think simply citing the specific version of a reference you used is disrespectful, since you aren't expected to have read the entire original and translation to know that the author didn't authorise this translation or that it is unofficial.
    – Run27.35
    Apr 10, 2021 at 19:52
  • 3
    I think it would be less moral to not give a reference at all (both to the original author and the person who, albeit without permission, took the time to prepare a translation that you benefited from).
    – Run27.35
    Apr 10, 2021 at 20:06
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    Then it could be plaigiarism since the translation did add some content that the OP used in his paper (namely, updating the definitions to "current standard definitions"). Also, if people know that the OP does not understand the original language of the citation they may start raising eyebrows as to how they actually used that reference in their paper.
    – Run27.35
    Apr 10, 2021 at 20:39
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    @Buffy Ethically obligatory citation behavior, as suggested in this answer, is not disrespectful. Apr 11, 2021 at 2:01
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    At the moment this is the only correct answer, but it has the lowest score. That's disappointing. Apr 11, 2021 at 2:02

This is an unusual situation, and, based on my observation of "ambient stuff", I suspect that the question refers to some part of A. Grothendieck's writing.

I am generally at least partly sympathetic to AG's politics, in math and in life, so I'm not approaching this in a hostile way.

However, if one/we is/are paid indirectly from the people, it is not moral or ethical to try to with-hold the results of our labors. (And, srsly, why would we want to?)

Legalities are another thing, and I have not idea, especially about variations between countries.

But, circling back, although I myself might be embarrassed by public airing of ooooold documents of my own, I do feel that I owe people an accounting for what I've done. Not behind paywalls.

EDIT: in response to @Buffy's reasonable comment: as my general advice would be, "be honest". Yes, it is tricky in this situation. I'd say, yes, tell where you sourced the translation, give a link to the original, AND remark that the original author has made ... those requests. Which may affect those links.

That is, in citations, especially "in modern times", it seems nearly impossible to make things easily uniform. "Telling the truth" (as ambiguous as that obviously is) is a better guide than "style guides"...

  • This does not answer the question, which was about how to cite. Apr 11, 2021 at 2:02

In my experience, with a dilemma like this, it is better to provide ALL the information, including a condensed explanation of your thought processes. That strategy supports the primary purpose of citations: identifying the source of the ideas and revealing where you found that source so your reader can review it themselves. Additionally, by revealing the sources, the dilemma and your decision, your honesty protects your academic/writing integrity and reputation.


Let me recommend, just to protect your own reputation, that you cite only official sources of the document, even if it is in a language you don't read.

However, if the translation is either of an out of copyright work, or authorized by the copyright holder, as seems not to be the case here, then the translation can be properly published and you can cite it. If it is visible on the internet then it has, in effect been published, even if it is infringing.

If you honestly found the translation on the web then there isn't any issue in your reading it to understand the original. You can't unsee things, after all. But, as a professional, you don't want to contribute to copyright infringement.

But the issue goes beyond the minimal requirements of copyright. The author, according to comments made here, has expressed a clear preference that translations not be made and yet. Even if they "don't believe" in copyright, they still hold it until they give a license or release it to the public domain. I would respect the clearly stated wishes of the originator. At some point in your future you will be thankful if others respect your copyrights and other clearly stated wishes.

My only additional worry is that, if you can't read the original, that you need to be assured of the accuracy of the translation.

See this for a discussion of copyright of translations (in the US, anyway).

There is, however, one additional consideration, though I'm pretty sure it doesn't apply here. It is possible for an extension to a paper be written in a different language. The structure of that extension would be very different from a translation, however, even if it had to give fairly extensive explanations of what is said in the original. In that case, the original would have frequent citations to statements, not just an overall statement of the origin. Moreover, the extension would need sufficient creative content to be considered a copyrightable work in its own right.

  • 2
    "that you cite only official sources of the document, even if it is in a language you don't read." This is unethical advice. You must cite all sources you use. Apr 11, 2021 at 1:57
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    "you don't want to contribute to copyright infringement." A citation is not a creative work and therefore cannot infringe on a copyright. Apr 11, 2021 at 1:58
  • @AnonymousPhysicist. I didn't say a citation is infringing. I said it contributes to infringement by by citing a source that does infringe. Ignoring injustice contributes to it.
    – Buffy
    Apr 11, 2021 at 11:52
  • 3
    A citation cannot contribute to infringement that occurred in the past. Time goes in one direction. Also, I strongly disagree with your beliefs about justice. Apr 11, 2021 at 22:28

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