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This question arises out of this question here. Basically, I was hoping that someone could help me find an English translation of a 1722 work by Nicolas de la Mare, titled Traité de la Police or "Treatise on the Police". A commenter stated they could find no such copy, and recommended another intriguing book, Grundsätze der Policey-Wissenschaften or "Principles of Policey Sciences" (that is what the webpage gives me, I'm pretty sure "Police Sciences" would be also be an accurate translation) written sometime before 1756 in German. The commenter remarks that there was a Spanish translation but that they were unable to find an English one.

So, I wanted to know how much translation services were. I found a Spanish-to-English book translation service that advertised $30 a page on their website. Volume 1 of Traité de la Police is 1,000 pages long, while Grundsätze der Policey-Wissenschaften is about 400 pages. That would be $120,000 for the former four volume set, assuming that each volume has 1,000 pages, and $12,000 for the latter book. Both of those figures are laughably out of the question for me; the former, hysterically so.

Now, I really do feel these are important books, in an untold part of the story of the development of policing large cities. In addition, I know if I spoke multiple languages, and I came across an important book in one language that has NEVER been translated to my other known language, translating it would be something I would do for fun. But, don't translators get to copyright and sell their translations (if they're translating a work in the public domain)? So, it would seem there would be a financial motive to translate important past works. Of course, you could never be certain, after all, if it hasn't been translated in all these years, how important is the book? Still, the fact that I could make ANY money off of doing an activity so fascinating and that I genuinely enjoy doing would be icing on the cake.

So, all of this made me wonder, is there some movement, website, or group who volunteer their translation abilities to important historical works? Or, is there any place I could suggest to translators that they translate a specific book, even if they then make money off it? Like, is there any way I could suggest to publishers that they do a translation of a certain work?

Just to be clear, I am reasonably certain that neither of these books discuss police forces in any way similar to modern forces. "Policing" is just how they kept order; however, these are the differences I am interested in. Thanks for any help or suggestions.

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    I would think that Google Translate would do a fair job on non-scientific works (no special symbols or terminology). And scanning software can do a good job of producing an electronic version to which you can apply GT.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 23:41
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    This reads like you imagine "open-source movement" is a synonym for "people who do free work for me". In fact, in the case you describe (where probably one person will ever read the produced work) copyright is probably a non-factor so far as monetary incentives go. Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 8:35
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    You could invest $1,200 into a good amount of language classes
    – Jojo
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 17:12
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    "I know if I spoke multiple languages, and I came across an important book in one language that has NEVER been translated to my other known language, translating it would be something I would do for fun." That's very easy to say if you don't speak multiple languages.
    – Servaes
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 21:04
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    I speak 3 languages. I am not sure if I'd be up for translating those books, even if you paid me 120.000$.... Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 9:09

5 Answers 5

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You say:

In addition, I know if I spoke multiple languages, and I came across an important book in one language that has NEVER been translated to my other known language, translating it would be something I would do for fun.

It seems that you are seriously underestimating the effort involved in translating over a thousand pages (maybe several thousand pages?) of text from one language to another. It's a massive undertaking which could take years of focused work even if one has all the required skills. Note that "speaking multiple languages" does not give one anywhere near enough competence and expertise to translate a specialized 300-year-old text. The only people competent enough to do the task are by definition experts already well-aware of the book who don't need you to bring it to their attention.

If you want to make a translation happen, the main obstacle for you isn't going to be money, it's going to be convincing an expert to devote a massive chunk of their life to translating the book. This isn't going to happen just because someone on the internet suggested it to them.

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    that's why crowdsourcing would be a great idea as long you find a community of people who are interested in the book. Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 18:26
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    Exactly this. Translation is hard to begin with, and for specialized texts you essentially need to already be an expert on the subject area already to be able to produce a good translation. Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 18:32
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    If you crowdsource this, you're bound to get a massive set of inconsistencies, especially with old books where meanings might have changed. Is "Policey" to be translated as "policy" (older meaning) or "police" (newer meaning)? If your book is from the time when the meanings separated, it's probably hard to tell which word to use depending on context even for a single translator; synchronizing many of them is an impossible task. Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 19:44
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    you could well try running the book through a computer translation program and then putting it on a wiki for anyone to edit. Probably nobody will be interested enough to edit, but Wikipedia does manage to exist, after all Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 9:59
  • "It seems that you are seriously underestimating the effort involved in translating over a thousand pages" The $30 value provides an order of magnitude estimate - probably at least an hour per page, which makes the 1,000 page book a half year project. Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 17:48
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There is a good reason such books are rarely if ever translated; there is almost no one who will want to read the translation. Doing a reasonably good translation is a lot of work; there is a reason why it costs so much.

Laypersons will almost never care to read such books.

The vast majority of scholars will know the original language well enough to read the book (which is much less familiarity with the language than is needed to carry a conversation). Even in mathematics (my field), where relatively little is lost in translation, most books in French and German, even those still in current use as references, have never been translated. Most mathematicians in the relevant areas know enough French or German to read them, since some knowledge of at least one of these languages is usually part of secondary education in most English-speaking countries (as well as other European countries). Furthermore, (especially for French) there is enough work available only in these languages (including some current research) to make learning the language well enough to read worthwhile. (In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an organized effort to translate much of the mathematics research written in Russian into English, since learning Russian is much harder for the average (native or not) English speaker than learning French or German or Italian.)

In the rest of the humanities or in the humanistic social sciences (such as history or sociology, including police studies), reading the original is even more important, since much research focuses on careful interpretation of texts, and relying on a translation runs the risk that you end up studying an artifact of the translation rather than anything actually written in the original. No one who uses a text in a common European language without the ability to read (if somewhat slowly and laboriously) the original would be taken seriously.

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    @terdon It's part of the National Curriculum in England: gov.uk/government/publications/…
    – kaya3
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 10:13
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    @kaya3 wow, that's surprising. Doesn't seem to work very well then, I guess. Thanks.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 10:27
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    @StephenG-HelpUkraine - Yes you would still need a dictionary of technical terms to understand technical material. However, with a basic course you won't be confused by the grammatical structure of the language and won't have to look up basic words (like articles). The goal is not fluency in the language; the goal is being able to slowly read an article with aids. Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 12:02
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    @terdon Every single US-American I encounted in academia learned at least one foreign language in high school. It may not be mandatory but it is offered essentially everywhere and has been long enough to at least cover everyone still in the workforce. People in academia tend to have a lot more than the bare minimum high school degree, including in areas completely out of their field of research.
    – quarague
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 16:36
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    ... will know the original language well enough to read the book (which is much less familiarity with the language than is needed to carry a conversation) - While I agree this is true in math, at least among Western European languages, I'm not sure this is true I'm not convinced this is true in many fields. Though I do agree that the language skills needed for reading a 300-year-old technical work are different than modern conversational skills.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 0:01
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Since others have already addressed the misconceptions in your post regarding open source versus free work and the difficulty of translation, I’ll try to give a bit of information regarding the question in your title specifically: Is there an open-source translation movement?

Open-source software is typically translated by volunteers in a similar manner to what you describe: people who find value in a certain work and see a need to make it available in more languages decide to donate their time and skills to localizing it (or, typically, parts of it). This is done on a variety of platforms and the process, from calls for translators to the translation work itself all the way to implementing those translations in the software, can vary greatly.

Another example that comes to mind is volunteer localization of various storytelling media such as comics, cartoons and movies in the form of subtitling or image editing. This is typically not done in a legal manner, but by fans or enthusiasts that take it upon themselves to make those works available in other languages, which involves redistributing the altered work without authorization. It does however also happen legally, and one particularly interesting example of that is David Revoy’s fully open-source and crowd-localized webcomic Pepper & Carrot. Whether done legally or not, there is certainly a will to share in those communities and the work is often done collaboratively and "in the open".

A similar thing exists for video games, where I believe it is more frequent for those volunteers to ask and obtain the publisher’s permission to produce translations, in which case the publisher or developer will then provide a framework and handle the work of implementing the translations in the game, and own legal rights to the resulting work. Sometimes it goes the other way, with a developer asking for its community’s help by crowd-sourcing translations.

The main difference between those examples is that localizations of free software are normally just as free/permissive as the software itself, whereas fan translations are either illicit or specifically donated to the copyright owner, and therefore not in the public domain or, as you put it, "open source". Again, Pepper & Carrot serves as an interesting counter-example here due to its licensing.

More broadly, it is also not unusual to see calls for volunteers on translator job boards, mostly emanating from non-profit organizations and religious groups. Translators Without Borders and Doctors Without Borders come to mind, as well as the United Nations. I don’t know if I would necessarily call it a movement, but TWB in particular mentions "a global community of over 80,000 translators and language specialists", so there are definitely many translators who do donate some of their time to volunteer work, but it always comes down to motivation. Volunteering is, after all, a luxury.

You mentioned that if you "came across an important book in one language that has NEVER been translated to my other known language, translating it would be something I would do for fun". That is not wrong per se; talking from experience, I’ve translated someone’s biography for practice and because I wanted a relative to read it in our native language. But it’s a lot of work and there are a lot of books out there that are equally deserving, so how much time do you have and how do you choose?

The challenge in your case would be to find someone who is as passionate about the subject as you are AND has the skill and time required. If not for the age of this particular book and its 3,700 pages (all four volumes combined), I would say that finding volunteers in a community interested in the subject matter to review and edit a machine translation, focusing on accuracy alone, would likely be achievable. However, I doubt you will find an MT engine that performs well with scans of 18th-century French and enough people with enough motivation to undertake something of that scale, even if it’s "just" editing.

As for "[suggesting] to publishers that they do a translation of a certain work", I suppose there is no harm in asking publishers who specialize in historical works, but again they may lack the motivation to do so if there is no reason to believe it would see enough sales to offset the costs of both translation and printing/distribution. Perhaps a more likely avenue would be to find history and/or linguistics students or graduates who would have an interest in studying and translating those books as part of some research program, and applicable grants that would cover their living expenses as they do so.

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Both Project Gutenberg and the English Wikisource (as well as certain Wikisources) accept user translated works. Neither seem to have built up a significant community of translators, with the translated works being chosen and done by individual translators. (There's something of translation communities around the Bible on both the English Wikisource and Conservapedia; the goals of both those groups seem quite different from yours, though.)

As for your works, though, just getting them transcribed would be an issue. Distributed Proofreaders for Project Gutenberg would in theory transcribe them, as would the French and German Wikisources, but depending on volunteer labor, it would likely take years. (Transcription on the appropriate native Wikisource is a requirement before translation on the English Wikisource.) For translation, David Wyllie is the most prolific translator for Project Gutenberg; he has translated Metamorphosis, Bambi, The Trial and Siddhartha, all books that are very popular but had no freely available translation, and all together maybe as long as your one German book. Looking through the English Wikisource, there are no complete user translations this long, and most of it is popular material, like Ovid or the Tao Te Ching.

Project Gutenberg has digitized over 60,000 books, and has yet to get to these. A transcription is so much easier than a translation that even with an active translation community, I'd be surprised to see these translated any time soon.

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  • What do you mean by transcription?
    – Oliver882
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 19:06
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    @Oliver882 Producing a quality electronic text from.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 19:13
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There is a translation app/website called DeepL which worked quite well the one time I used it—MUCH better than Google Translate.

https://www.deepl.com/

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    I agree it's better, and free, but it's not open-source...
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 18:19
  • @Glorfindel Not sure what the point is here. Google Translate is not open source either.
    – doneal24
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 14:32
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    @doneal24 the author is asking for open source movements but this answer seems to disregard that entirely. It might be a reply to this comment?
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 14:49
  • Last time I tried, deepl gave more or less the same result as Google translating a text from English into another language.
    – Ocean
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 14:53
  • @Ocean the "more or less" can be a huge difference...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 5:18

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