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The perils of using ‘machine translation’ in academic writing

The perils of using ‘machine translation’ in academic writing

At Charlesworth Author Services, we know that writing and publishing academic articles in your second (or third, or fourth) language English can be a daunting and frightening prospect. How to even get started? Our editing and author education services are designed to help. Our team of trainers run academic writing and publishing training workshops on-site at institutions around the world, to help early career researchers (ECRs) manage the manifold issues of non-native English language communication that are common during writing, publishing, and presenting.


We find that English as a second language (ESL) ECRs fall into two broad groups: those that are confident and proficient enough in English to write their own papers in this language from the ground up, and those that simply are not at that stage yet. Members of this latter group almost always use English translation services or translate their papers themselves using so-called ‘machine translation’ (e.g., online services like Google Translate). Although our ultimate goal at Charlesworth Author Services is to help academic authors to write and publish in English (and the best way to do this is to ‘think’ about your article in English), we are also well aware that many colleagues are simply not able to use the English language at this level. Not yet anyway!


So, should you use machine translation?


The Pros:


          This is usually the cheapest and easiest option but,


          If online English machine translation is carried out then you should always, always ensure that the resultant paper is then read and checked by an expert editor with experience of working in your subject area. Our translation and editing services can help as all of our editors are native English speakers with PhD qualifications in particular areas.


The Cons:


          Academic papers are technical and almost always very subject-area specific, using terms and phrases that will very often not be accurately translated by online services or even human translators with no specific experience. How can authors who do not speak English confidently check a new language translation of their work to ensure that their intended meaning has been maintained?


The far better and more effective option would be for your non-English article to be translated by a subject-area specialist to ensure that no meaning is lost. Writing a paper in physics or engineering? You really want an English translation service with specific experience in those areas working on your article. We provide this experienced service at Charlesworth Author Services. In certain areas, our subject-specific English translation skills will ensure that your research work is transitioned from your native language into English without loss of meaning, phraseology, and content. As any working academic knows, word-use can be key to ensuring that another researcher in our subject area understands our papers correctly.


Once translated, articles should also be re-edited by English native speakers before they are sent out to academic journals for further peer review. Why?


          Word usage and phraseology introduced by translators can alter the meaning of scientific articles or lead to translated text sounding non-idiomatic to a native reader.


          Remember that one of the most common comments to come back from peer reviewers is ‘the English in this paper needs work to make it understandable’, or words to that effect. 


Here are some example phrases from a piece of medical editing we recently carried out that had been translated from the original Chinese: ‘The Chinese government should not let the grass grow under its feet on the issue of vaccine resistance’, and ‘new antibiotic resistant viruses are springing up like mushrooms across China’. See the problem?


One of the most common ‘mistakes’ (not even a mistake because the writing is still fine!) that non-native speakers make when writing in English is using words that feel inappropriate or informal to a native reader. In these examples ‘let the grass grow under its feet’ and ‘springing up like mushrooms’ read as simply too informal as usages of language for a technical article to be submitted into the peer-reviewed medical literature. These sentences were changed by one of our editors to read ‘The Chinese government should not become complacent on the issue of vaccine resistance’, and ‘new antibiotic resistant viruses are becoming more-and-more common across China’.


Charlesworth Author Services provide a range of translation services married to expert English language editing. Why not get in touch with a member of our Charlesworth Author Services team for more information, and get your writing edited and polished by one of our PhD-level specialists working in your research field? To find out more click here and www.cwauthors.com


Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing and maximise your potential as a researcher.


Maximise your publication success with Charlesworth Author Services.

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