I am writing my math PhD in Berlin (Germany) in the English language.

I would like to cite a German quotation from a famous mathematician as a start of my first chapter.

Should I quote it in the original language and make a footnote of what it means in English, or should I freely translate it into English without a footnote? Or is there simply no standard for this kind of fancy quotations?

  • 4
    You can also keep it in German only. It's a quote, it's probably there just for colour and it is not strictly necessary to understand the following content. Many of your readers will understand it, and the other ones can just check on Google Translate. (This assuming that the quote is an epigraph and is not part of the actual chapter text.) Mar 14, 2015 at 11:26
  • There is no standard, one can easily find instances of all three cases (original only, original and translation, and translation only) in the literature.
    – fkraiem
    Mar 14, 2015 at 11:56

1 Answer 1


The quotation is really more for fun than for substance, so you've got a lot of leeway, and even more so because this is in a Ph.D. thesis. So really, it's up to you whether you translate it at all.

That said, I would suggest approaching it based on the degree to which you like the prosody and meter of the quotation. If the sound of the words themselves is a significant part of what makes you enjoy the quote, then by all means keep it in the original language, where it will be well appreciated by some readers and challenge the rest. If the substance is more important than the sound, then it may be better to translate.

For example, I don't know much of German quotations, but if I were using a French quotation, then I would not translate "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," but I would definitely translate "Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules, et c'est fatigant, pour les enfants, de toujours et toujours leur donner des explications."

  • Je suis d'accord. If it is necessary to translate the quotation for the substance of the text, do so. But in general, translation (from Latin translatus, approx. "that which is carried across") is necessarily imprecise, and the real context of the original language is very difficult to retain in that carrying across.
    – Calchas
    Mar 15, 2015 at 0:28

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