Found in Translation: The ups and downs of research in another language

In this post, Ellen Anne Davies considers some of the issues involved in conducting research in a foreign language. She discusses her own experience of carrying out research in Paris, and offers advice to those who might have worries about getting lost in translation! Ellen is a DPhil student in Music at Oxford University, researching ideas of time in 1913 Paris. She received the Europaeum Jenkins Memorial Scholarship to study as a visiting researcher at the Université Paris-Sorbonne during January–April 2015. Ellen can be found on Twitter as @ellenannedavies.


Conducting research in a language that isn’t your own can be difficult, challenging, and often frustrating. Progress can feel slow, translation takes time and worry, and the exchange between your own language and the language of your research materials can often feel like an obstacle or a hindrance. However, there can be some surprising benefits in the necessity of research in translation.

I’m currently in Paris for a few months, conducting research on primary source materials for my DPhil at Oxford University, on temporality and concepts of time in the culture and music of 1913 Paris. My first language is English (alongside Welsh), and French is a foreign language to me. I learnt French at school, and have kept up these skills as much as possible since then, but I’ve always been slightly nervous that my lack of complete fluency in this other language is something that’s holding me back from achieving productive research. Unlike the majority of scholars working on French culture and literature, I don’t have a degree in French, and it has been several years since I studied the language properly. I might be able to read a chapter of a book or converse in French fairly easily, but how well does that translate to conducting several years of research using primarily French materials? Unlike those who have a degree in French, I haven’t studied translation to an advanced level. Surely this must be an enormous hindrance to my research?

However, I’ve found that this isn’t always the case. Yes, progress can sometimes feel slow when everything needs to be continually translated, word by word in your head or on paper as you go along. Of course there is an instinct to want to hurry this process as much as possible, and to resent the lack of complete fluency. But there can be benefits in needing to take your time. Carefully breaking down sentences and words slowly in order to translate them into your own language can offer insights that you might not have seen had all the steps of research (reading, analysing, writing) taken place within the sphere of one language. By continually evaluating the linguistic nuances of a particular word or phrase, it’s possible to gain another approach to an issue, or even notice something interesting that would have been glanced over. For all the frustrations of the slow progress of working in translation, having to take your time and think in two languages can be rewarding and immensely productive for research.

This doesn’t mean there can’t also be hurdles: but these can always be overcome and sometimes lead to unexpected positives on the way. For instance, one of my initial hurdles whilst here in Paris was using search engine catalogues in another language. Consider ‘le temps’ in French. Every school student will know that le temps can refer to either time or the weather. Using the Bibliothèque national catalogue I unwittingly found several French songs from the Belle Époque about the weather, when I intended to look for songs referencing time. Although initially this felt like time wasted, it forced me to think about how I was looking for things, and how to make the best use of my time whilst in the archives.

Research in translation can be a daunting prospect, especially when it is assumed that everyone working on a topic that requires knowledge of another language must be completely fluent. Therefore, here are a five points of advice based on my own experiences and hurdles, for those starting out:


  1. Don’t be afraid to use Google Translate or another similar translation app: there’s no shame in needing it to help conquer that ‘blank page’! The blank page is that struggle to get started, a writer’s block – or in this case translator’s block – of not knowing where to begin and naturally it can really hinder progress when translating a section of text. Google Translate can consequently be a really useful tool to help overcome this. I have several translation and French-English dictionary apps on my phone (such as Word Reference) so that in an emergency I can look something up quickly – whether this is coming across a crucial word I don’t know in a primary source document I’m reading, or whilst standing in the queue for groceries trying to remember the word for pomegranate (incidentally, it’s la grenade).


  1. Don’t worry if you’re nervous that you’re not ‘good enough’. Accept this worry and move on. If you’ve made it this far, you know you can do it if you keep moving forward. The only way to be successful at failing is by not doing anything at all! Keep doing what you’re doing and even if you feel like a fraud at first, you’ll get there.


  1. Start small, and slowly you’ll find your skills improving. Translate a few words at a time for a piece of writing, and slowly you’ll become confident at translating much larger sections of text at a time.


  1. Accept that things won’t always be perfect to begin with. Ask friends for help or advice if they can offer it, and be prepared to make several drafts of a translated passage. The same is true for speaking: if you undertake research in another country (as I have done in Paris), the first stage of communication is to accept you will make lots of mistakes and often struggle to define what you’re talking about. My initial instinct was not to say a word unless I knew it was linguistically correct French, but by doing this I remained silent and absent from discussions with French scholars, or monosyllabic when speaking with shopkeepers. By accepting that you’ll make mistakes and by brushing off embarrassment, you can start communicating and joining in.


  1. Remember that every mistake, every mistranslated word, every misunderstanding, every failure is progress: it’s one step closer to a fluent knowledge and grasp of the language you’re learning. We learn through our mistakes.


If you’re interested in taking up research on a topic that will require plenty of translation, but are worried about whether your language skills are adequate, I would say: dive in! Challenge yourself, push yourself and engage with diverse research topics. You’ll improve your language skills as you progress, and you’ll become a better researcher and academic as you continually question what you’re doing and whether there can be a more effective approach in your methods. What will you find from research in translation?


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