There are two tracks for my field of study. One is taught in Dutch and the other in English. This is in the Netherlands. A while ago we had to take a multiple choice exam in English, which looked a bit odd. The sentence construction of the questions makes little sense at first glance, and it took a while to even grasp the content. Furthermore, it seemed quite obvious that the exam was only roughly translated (possibly by a machine) as the exam just sounded as if someone used a thesaurus to make it. In addition some of the answer options were still in Dutch, which made it extremely difficult to understand the content. Moreover, some questions had literally the same answer option twice.

So in summary, the students in the English track took the botched translation version, while the students in the Dutch track took the Dutch version.

Is it unethical to give English speaking students a poorly translated version of the same exam that the Dutch students receive?

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    You seem to be asking two different questions. The title would apply to a competently translated exam. The body of the question discusses a badly translated exam. Nov 5, 2016 at 14:13
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    No, this is not OK. Report to the board of examiners relevant for your degree immediately.
    – J. Doe
    Nov 5, 2016 at 14:48
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    It would only be unethical if they did it on purpose - more likely, it's just sloppiness. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor Of course, it's still worth trying to get it rectified. Nov 5, 2016 at 18:54
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    @phoog It's wrong for an academic program to treat its students sloppily, but it is probably counterproductive to call it unethical; that term immediately makes people think you are accusing them of having done something much more serious (e.g. plagiarism), on purpose. Treating this as sloppiness -- even if there may have been some malice in there somewhere -- is much more likely to achieve a good outcome.
    – zwol
    Nov 5, 2016 at 20:09
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    "A while ago we had to take a multiple choice exam, which looked a bit odd. The sentence construction of the questions makes little sense at first glance, and it took a while to even grasp the content." - in my experience, this is more a feature inherent to the method of extensive multiple choice testing than anything else. Nov 5, 2016 at 21:30

4 Answers 4


There are two different questions in here that are mixed up: one about whether the Dutch and English exams should be identical and one about exam quality.

Regarding the first question: I fail to see why this should be unethical. On the contrary: It seems very good that the standards on what you are supposed to know are the same. After all, you get the same degree.

Regarding the second question: Also here, the answer is obvious: Of course, exams need to be of good quality. If that is not the case, sure, this is a problem to be addressed. But that has nothing to do with the question of whether they are a translation or not.

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    Unequal treatment of the students in the class is a problem beyond simply "quality".
    – user24098
    Nov 7, 2016 at 7:53

I wanted to add an answer that concentrates more specifically on the issues of fairness and ethics.

Along with some (but not all) of the commenters, I don't think it is a good idea to characterize a poorly written exam as an ethical problem (without further information; it is a strange feature of ethical problems that almost anything could become an ethical problem under certain circumstances). A poorly written exam is problematic because it is poorly written. One does not need to launch an investigation of why the exam was poorly written in order to complain about it or seek redress for it.

I find (and have written here elsewhere) that students have a very strong sense of "fairness" and often want things to be completely fair. We could be completely fair by giving all students everywhere the same grades; otherwise I believe it is provably impossible to be completely fair in all situations. Different students are taught by instructors of different levels of abilities or enthusiasms at universities with differing resources in countries with differing resources...and so forth. As a student, there is always going to be some other student who is in a more favorable situation than you. It is not reasonable to ask for otherwise. What is reasonable is to (i) ask to be treated well rather than badly and (ii) be willing to change from one academic situation to another if you see a better opportunity.

In this particular case:

Is this fair to the students in the English track? Is it even ethical?

Neither one is the right question. Imagine there was no Dutch track, or imagine the Dutch track was experiencing the mirror image situation: getting exams that are poorly translated from English. It would be fair, and arguably ethical, to give poorly translated exams to everyone. But it would be bad for all parties. As a student you deserve to have exams which are not so poorly written that fluent speakers of the language have trouble understanding the wording of the questions. And you should ask for that. In my view it does not strengthen your case to ask for exams which are "as good as the Dutch track": rather they should be good, full stop. If they aren't, and if faculty there are not interested in conducting their business well rather than badly, consider going elsewhere.

  • I would guess that the ethics part of the question comes from the inequality in exam clarity for the two groups of students (dutch-speaking and non). There is perhaps identical input to both groups, but the exam difficulty varies (due to quality issues in one case). I remember a similar problem also at a Dutch university - Dutch-speaking students were given extra materials because some materials existed only in Dutch. This ended up being an advantage for the exam. In my example, the exam was identical but the input was not. Regardless of the quality of materials, it was still unethical.
    – Ana
    Nov 5, 2016 at 22:39
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    @Ana: I understand what you are saying. But it seems to me first of all that the exam was poorly written in a way which cannot be intentional. (If you are in an English track, having portions of exams being written in a language other than English must be a mistake, right?) Second: I would like to think that a university which has parallel tracks for different languages would want to treat those two tracks in a uniform way. But is it obviously unethical if they don't?... Nov 5, 2016 at 23:20
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    ... It's hard to believe that a Dutch university could be obligated by some basic principle to give English courses and exams at all: my understanding is that this is something that universities in the Netherlands choose to do. If they are choosing to do it, they get to choose how to implement it. If they implement it badly enough, they will lose students that they don't want to lose. Looking at it ethically doesn't seem to get to the heart of the issue. Nov 5, 2016 at 23:22
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    By the way: as a postdoc I taught at McGill University in Montreal. McGill is an English language university within the mostly Francophone Canadian province of Quebec. Natively Francophone students had some enumerated rights -- e.g. they could ask for an assignment or exam be translated into French. All the textbooks we used were in English, and all the study materials were in English. Is that unethical? I would say: you can debate that if you like, but the practical answer is that that's how McGill University works. Nov 5, 2016 at 23:28
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    @Ben: I agree with you -- it depends entirely on what the policy is. But based on what has been said, it is very hard to believe that the university has been competent in enacting its policy. It should do better. So this is an incompetence issue, not really an ethical one. In the event that the OP's program wants to insist that there is no problem with giving badly-machine-translated exams, it still seems fruitless for the OP to take them to task for ethical violations. Even if he succeeds, the root problem of their gross incompetence would still be there. Nov 6, 2016 at 3:16

The key point is whether the poor quality of the exams affected the marks. If translation was poor but students could understand all questions - even with help of professors or assistants present at the exam - bad translation is just an small problem of lack of professionalism that should be fixed before next exam. However, if bad translation prevented students to produce good questions, then it's worse and there are grounds to ask for the exam be repeated.

And I wouldn't focus the issue in ethics. Of course, ethics command to offer students a good service without mistakes like this one, but I see this mistake more as a practical problem than anything else.


Is this fair to the students in the English track? Is it even ethical?

It is too early to answer this question. For an exam, a final judgment can only be spoken after the grades have been determined.

Certainly, the way you describe the translation, it seems to have been badly done. This should be avoided in exams - and yet, sometimes it isn't. However, when bad quality creeps into some aspect of an exam, there is always still the option of adjusting the grading. For instance, completely incrompehensible questions might be ignored while grading, ambiguous questions could be graded as correctly answered for either interpretation, etc.

Now, making exam questions truly unambiguous can be hard, and making two exams in two languages express exactly the same information is really hard. Whenever this is attempted, there is a high probability the two language versions will differ at least in some nuances. What is more, this is aggravated by the fact that each question is often designed by very few people (or even just one person), and they are usually not native in all languages the question needs to be written in. Hence, it is almost unavoidable that different language versions of an exam are somewhat "unfairly" different.

Now, if that difference is enough to have a noticeable effect (approximately as in, students complain that had they used the other version, they could have solved a question that they failed to solve), the way to go is to treat the language versions as different exams and slightly decouple their grading schemes. (This only works to a limited extent, when only a few questions are really problematic, before something may have to be done about the entire exam.)

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