Say a student needs to submit an essay as a homework assignment for a course. If they find an essay in another language and translate it into English -- to me, this is still plagiarism. But is there any practical way for the professor to detect it at all?

  • 5
    This feels like you're asking whether a particular route to cheat is viable.
    – user137975
    Aug 19, 2022 at 2:12
  • 1
    What's the question? I think we all know that the answer is "You can't automatically find document pairs of which one is a human-translated version of the other". Aug 19, 2022 at 2:42
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    Back in the old days before computers, people used to go to the library and copy an essay from a book and turn it in. Aug 19, 2022 at 3:00
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    As @AnonymousM comments, this seems to be a question about feasibility of a particular cheating strategy... Aug 19, 2022 at 3:58
  • 2
    Maybe change the title to "How to detect plagiarism when the source is in a different language?"
    – J W
    Aug 19, 2022 at 4:58

1 Answer 1


It's certainly possible to detect some cases of plagiarism even without having access to the source material.

In particular, an instructor who's familiar with the student may recognise clues that this isn't their work - e.g. discrepancies in writing style, or the essay shows knowledge well beyond what the student usually demonstrates.

In some cases, other clues can apply - e.g. student plagiarises from an old essay that doesn't cite any sources or refer to any advances post 1990s, or student writing about a legal issue in the USA is referring primarily to French legal concepts that aren't applicable in the USA. This depends on domain.

None of these are cast-iron proof, but they could certainly provide enough for a reasonable suspicion, at which point the question becomes what to do next. But that seems like a separate question.

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    "the essay shows knowledge well beyond what the student usually demonstrates." When I was a student and had essays to write, I would do special research just for the essay. So my essays always showed knowledge well beyond what I otherwise demonstrated. I thought that was the whole point of an essay and everyone was expected to do that.
    – Stef
    Aug 19, 2022 at 15:19
  • @Stef Certainly students are expected to research for an essay. But not all kinds of knowledge are easily researchable, particularly within the time one might plausibly spend on an essay. For instance, it's plausible that a student who didn't speak a word of German last week now understands that the lyric "du hast mich... gefragt" means "you have... asked me"; that kind of thing is very quickly researched. But it's rather less likely that they'd spot the word-play in that lyric without reading somebody else's commentary. 1/2 Aug 20, 2022 at 2:25
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    @Stef If their essay shows familiarity with that kind of nuance, and these insights are presented as their own, then it becomes reasonable to consider the possibility of plagiarism. Of course, if they do research and cite the sources appropriately, the question of plagiarism doesn't arise. 2/2 Aug 20, 2022 at 2:31

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