I hold a 5 years "specialist degree" from a university in Belarus and I'm going to apply to a Ph. D. program in engineering in US. I have several problems regarding my reference letters.

The professor who was my Engineering Project adviser and who taught several important courses in my group for two years can give me strong a reference because my project was the best in the department. However:

  • He doesn't know English.
  • He is currently retired.
  • Professors in Belarus seldom have personal e-mail addressed and neither does he.
  • He doesn't have publications in English.

Any ideas how to solve these problems? Translate the reference, put it into an envelope and then ask the professor to sign envelope as required? Will the reference be even opened and taken into account?

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  • If finding a certified translator is difficult or very expensive, you could ask if there is a professor in the department you are applying to who speaks Belarusian (or Russian, if your professor speaks Russian). However, it is a much better solution to just get the official translation done, as paul garrett says in his answer – especially if you are applying to multiple universities.
    – Moriarty
    Jul 21, 2015 at 12:31

4 Answers 4


First, contrary to the optimism of some of the other answers, you should not expect that the university you're applying-to will translate a letter sent to them. At my university in the U.S., the traditional requirement was that a "certified translation" be made-and-paid-for by the student.

At the same time, the tradition in applications in the U.S. for many years is that the student does not send the letters of recommendation (and/or translations) themself, but has either the faculty send them, or some secretarial staff. If you send paper mail and include such letters, they will most likely be considered "compromised" and invalid...

Your recommender's having an email account is not so important, as perhaps having internet access to upload an electronic file (scanned letter and translation and certification-of-translation, or PDF letter and others directly electronically), since the default process is more-and-more purely electronic.

Some application systems seem to default to sending an email to the recommenders, asking for an upload, and additionally asking for other information. I shudder to think how these systems could be made to cope with cases not fitting neatly into the designers' (often ill-informed) design choices.

(Indeed, the most recent "upgrade" to my university's over-arching software system makes certain things essentially impossible, ...)

The degree of complication will vary from university to university, and you'll need to be very pro-active to make sure that the certification of translation is adequate, and that paper-mail really arrives, if your recommender cannot manage to send email.


The University will most likely not do the translation. They don't have time and ressources to do that. What you should to is to make an official translation and ask the recommender to send the letter directly to the university. Generally, a student should not send the letter for the recommender but the recommender should send the letter. Otherwise, the letter could be assumed to be fake. So you should follows these two points: ask to make a certified translation of the letter and ask your recommender to send the recommendation letter directly to that university.

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    Otherwise, the letter will be assumed to be fake, at least in the US.
    – JeffE
    Jul 21, 2015 at 4:12

I agree with Keshlam, find someone at your university who can do the translation. That way you never have to touch the letter and the translation does not become an issue. As to your other problems, you will have to provide some way to contact the professor; by phone or by mail. But you will not be the first student applying with a reference from a retired professor. His publications should be easily verifiable using the Internet even if they are not in English so I wouldn't worry so much about that. Good luck!

  • I am curious whether you would be willing to go through the process of translating someones recommendation letter if he would apply to work at your company. Keep in mind that university loses almost nothing if the student will not be accepted and they have huge amount of people who already have everything translated. Jul 20, 2015 at 22:47
  • The university is less than likely to translate the letter. Why would they potentially spend money for a student that may or may not enter the program?
    – Memj
    Jul 20, 2015 at 23:28
  • I'm not saying the receiving university should translate the letter. I'm saying the sending university should translate it. That way there is no confusion/suspicion on behalf of the receiving university. Wow.
    – Raydot
    Jul 22, 2015 at 17:43
  • Ah...Keshlam did indeed say that. Not what I meant at all.
    – Raydot
    Jul 22, 2015 at 17:58

If he writes the recommendation in his native language, the school can probably find someone to translate it. Not sure re the other issues.

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    Any proper university will have hundreds of applicants waiting to be accepted. So are you really sure the university will spend the efforts to find a person who speaks some obscure language if there are hundreds standing in a queue with translated recommendation? Jul 20, 2015 at 22:33
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    1) Who said obscure? 2) Most decent-sized schools have someone on staf who speaks just about any reasonably common language, even if it's a language they don't offer classes in. 3) OCR into a machine translator is a lousy solution, but often enough to get the gist of a document; inelegant but that would be my fallback were I dealing with this. And yes, for my company's purposes if someone handed me an untranslated recc i'd make at least some effort to resolve that --- while grumbling about the reference, not the candidate. Mine is an international company. Not everyone speaks 'Murcan.
    – keshlam
    Jul 21, 2015 at 0:02

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