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When you introduce yourself to an international audience and come from an non-US system, there always is an awkward moment of translating your job title into a form recognizable by the people you introduce yourself to. Here are the options I see:

  • using the title in your native language: completely honest, but probably not understandable by anyone who does not know the system
  • replacing it by the closest US title: complete localization, completely understandable, but some nuance in the function might be lost
  • translating in a literal way: something in-between

I'll give a specific example here (from my own system, the French one). CNRS is a research-performing organization, in which permanent researchers hold the title of chargé de recherche (junior staff) or directeur de recherche (senior staff). I usually see these titles translated into “research scientist” and “research director”, but I those terms aren’t really self-explanatory. In particular, I don't think it's clear from “research scientist” that this is a permanent position, because that term could also be used in other places for post-docs.

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    What sort of situation are you introducing yourself in? Is it at the start of a talk, for example, or something more formal, like a job interview? – Luke Mathieson Oct 21 '12 at 10:40
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    I am not a big fan of using titles. What is wrong with "I work at CNRS" or "I am a researcher at "CNRS"? – StrongBad Oct 21 '12 at 10:45
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    @DanielE.Shub: One item would be if someone wants to introduce you at a departmental seminar. Normally, they'll want to say "X is a Y at Z." – aeismail Oct 21 '12 at 11:15
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There's no single right answer here. You should provide the information that you think is most salient in the given situation. In your case, you probably want to say something like "tenured research scientist" or "staff scientist," as those terms normally give the idea of permanence in a way that "research scientist" or "research associate" might not.

If you are writing a CV in English, on the other hand, you could write "Junior research staff (permanent position)," as that gets your title more accurately. In this circumstance, it's probably better to go with a literal translation (or as Federico Poloni suggests in a comment below, the job title in the original language) plus explanation, rather than try to find the "closest equivalent."

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    Seconded, but I'd go with original French + explanation instead. This will be more helpful than a botched-up translation to both native speakers and people that try to get more information through a search engine. – Federico Poloni Oct 21 '12 at 17:34
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Literal translation may be very misleading. For example, part time lecturers in Spain are called "professor associat" in Catalan or "profesor asociado" in Spanish. Literal translation of that title as "associate professor" would be very uninformative, since associate professors in other countries are full time senior faculty. To make things worse, protocol rules in the University of Barcelona used to state that in formal events the title "professor" should be used for teaching staff members who are not doctors, just making "professor" a lower title than "doctor", which is just the opposite of the usage in English speaking countries.

Therefore, I would not use literal translations. If I would need to be very precise about my role (for example, in a CV) I would give my official title name in its original language and a short explanation of what it means, for example with the rough equivalent in the destination language. However, in most situations we don't need to bother the audience with such details. If we are going to give a talk on any subject, the audience is supposed to be interested on what we can tell them about the subject, not about what kind of position we have, and saying which institution or department are we affiliated with may be enough.

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There are two times that titles are used. One is when referring to yourself, which seems to be the case the question is focused on, and the other is when referring to someone else.

I suggest that you do not use titles when referring to yourself. If you are in a situation where you need to use titles (e.g., on a CV), then go with the correct, but possibly less informative foreign language.

When referring to someone else it is perfectly acceptable (and in my opinion good fun) to butcher the title and then give a general vague translation of it.

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Personally I would translate the title as literally as possible or derive some half-translation i.e. chargé de recherche would become something like 'research manager' (one who is in charge of research) and directeur de recherche would becomre 'research director'.

This is more of an educated opinion though, as I believe that people benefit from learning small bits of other languages when applicable, and it helps to aid cultural understanding.

That's also often how borrowed words come about. Take the word 'halal' for example, it translates into English as 'lawful' or 'permissible', but it has been adopted by the English language because of its specific context when describing food. Titles are the same, they describe what people do, so they should remain as close to the original context as possible.

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