Reflections on Translation Plagiarism

During this past month I’ve been re-immersing myself in Old English language and poetry in preparation for my language exam.  Now that I’ve taken it, and I’m done with all the memorization (knock on wood—I still don’t know whether I’ve passed or not) maybe I can put together some of my scattered thoughts on plagiarism and translation.

First: Is there really such a thing as translation plagiarism?   When I Googled “translation plagiarism” I was flooded with articles on the problem of students (or others, even scientists) plagiarizing by finding an essay online in another language, using an instant translation program like Google Translate, and handing it in as their own work.   I understand that it’s become pretty rampant in ESL classes, and this Salt Lake Tribune article is only one of many that mention Google Translate as helping ESL students plagiarize, but not only that, native English speaking students have been known to take an essay they find online, and rather than go through the onerous process of actually reading the essay they’ve stolen and hiding their theft by replacing words and phrases with synonyms, they use Google Translate for, what researcher Michael Jones calls “Back-plagiarism.”  These insta-translations are undoubtedly poor, but because ESL students often have problems with idioms and grammar, they can sometimes get away with passing them off as their own work; I don’t know how native-speaking students think they can get away with it.


As a fun little test, here’s a sample of “back-plagiarism” using a sentence from the Salt Lake Tribune article referenced above, by Brian Maffly.

Original Sentence: “The final straw came in October when she saw plagiarized papers that bore passing grades, in a file left on her shelf in the office she shares with a dozen part-time ESL teachers, she said.”

Google Translate into German: “Der endgültige Schlag kam im Oktober, als sie plagiiert Papiere, die Weitergabe Noten trug sah, in einer Datei auf ihrem Regal im Büro verließ sie Aktien mit einem Dutzend Teilzeit ESL Lehrer, sagte sie.”

Google Translate back into English: “The final blow came in October, when she plagiarized papers, the passing scores was noticed in a file on your shelf in the office she left shares with a dozen part-time ESL teacher, she said.”

As you can see, the result is pretty funny, and is not only grammatically incorrect with problems in agreement, but also manipulates the meaning of the sentence—making it sound like it was the teacher who plagiarized the papers.

I’ve had the ESL version of this cheating happen in my own courses, and I’ve developed a good eye for it mostly because the translations produced from Google Translate are even sillier than the writing produced by a beginning ESL student.  However, this type of plagiarism, using translation as a vehicle for plagiarism, is not what I’ve been primarily thinking about as I’ve been engaged in translating.  I’m talking about translating a piece of creative writing with a suspiciously similar outcome to another translator.

I’ll give you a personal example.  My exam announced the texts in advance that I was to translate, as literally as possible, while having good modern English grammar during the closed-book exam.  So, basically, I had all the time in the world and all the resources of the Internet and University library to translate the texts beforehand, and just had to remember them correctly during test-time.  One of the passages I translated for my exam was from “The Wanderer” an Old English poem in the Exeter book, a manuscript dated about 960-990 CE.  The poem is about a lonely guy who loses his lord and his home and goes wandering, and reminisces about past battles and mortality.  I can read a little Old English, but was very rusty on grammar and the poem had a bunch of unfamiliar words, so the first thing I did was to look up a translation to read it through and get a sense of it.  I figured there would be plenty of translations online, of more or less usefulness.  One trick in translation is striking a balance between the literal translation and trying to capture the spirit of the poem for a modern audience who won’t understand idioms, references, or poetic style in the same way as a modern audience.  I expected to find many versions taking poetic license with the text, and I did find a few, but what I didn’t realize is that I would find whole literal translations with in-depth hypertext glossaries attached.  In previously preparing another poem, I had spent hours and hours painstakingly looking up words in the glossary of my Bright’s Old English Reader, and tracing down the chart of cases of gendered and numbered personal pronouns, articles, strong verbs, weak verbs, long and short nouns, agonizing over whether a verb was an inflected infinitive or a past participle and looking up for the seventeenth time what an inflected infinitive even is…skipping all that was very tempting, but seemed a bit too easy. The hypertext versions were like being let into a candy store.  Not only did they have a beautiful modern English version of the text, but in some hypertext documents, each word was highlighted guiding my cursor in another window to a glossary entry with the possible translation, and also the case/number/tense/person of the word.  Translator’s notes filled another box, explaining exactly why the translator made this or that decision, some salient points explaining the poet’s technique, or a possible ambiguity in the manuscript.

I’m not a translator by any means, but it seems to me that there’s an expectation of “original work” even when the object of your work is correctness; in this case, correctness being faithfulness to an origin text.  It reminded me of math in this regard—everyone in the class should get the same answer (I’m talking about the easy math classes I took in high school, now), but everyone should also do his/her own work.  Using this hypertext translation would have done all the work for me, and the result would be a sort of plagiarism—a copy of the very thoughtful work from a fellow translator.

But then, I had doubt.  If I was translating with the help of only one glossary, in this case Bright’s, wasn’t I just reproducing the same text as everyone else who uses Bright’s Old English Reader anyway?  Even if Bright’s doesn’t publish it, implicit in the notes and words translated in the glossary, there is a “Bright’s” version of The Wanderer–as long as another translator follows Bright’s glossary and charts exactly he/she should get nearly the same results that I did in my earlier poem with a few differences in word order.  Wasn’t the hypertext poem just guiding me in the same way, minus the hassle of alphabetical order and matching one case ending to another?

This production of an “original translation” seemed a particular problem to me.  In critical text I have on the subject, Lance Hewson makes the point eloquently in the first lines of his Introduction: “A published translation is a paradoxical object.  It is a substitute for an existing original text and yet is a text in its own right.”  I realize that there are many possible ways to translate a text, and the translator makes choices as to how far it should diverge from word-for-word translation in order to convey the poet’s meaning or style and what sort of anomalies in word order and grammatical structure can be permissible in a piece of presumably creative writing.  However, the novice translator is bound by the choices that the glossary or dictionary makes, and thus, until he or she is intimately familiar with the language, and can make vocabulary and grammatical choices based on the context of the host language, is unavoidably engaging in a plagiaristic practice—borrowing the words of others.

Rebecca Moore Howard’s theories started to make more sense to me.

Sort of.

Howard argues that patchwriting (splicing chunks of text together with some word substitutions) is natural and perhaps even unavoidable for non-native speakers/writers (and even non-genre-native writers, such as a sociologist writing about astrophysics).  I have vehemently disagreed with this theory in the past, so I wasn’t going to start now, at least not without a fight.  But I could see where being dependent upon a glossary, hypertexual or not, was leading me in plagiaristic directions.

So, I dove head-first into more translations of “The Wanderer,” and more—online and off, and found a few more useful dictionaries as well as a translation program, and an etymologies dictionary.  In doing so, I was surprised again—there were so many controversies and interpretive differences in the translation of this fairly simple poem.  In becoming more familiar with the vocabulary, where it came from, and how it fit into our language, I could finally make my own choices, and decide whether modcearig should be “troubled at heart” as one translator put it, “sorrowful” like another, or I could break it down.  “Mod” can mean heart, spirit, or mind according to the context of the word, but can often most often means temperament, which makes sense because it became “mood” in modern English.  “Cearing” became care and means “cares” in the sense of “careworn,” so is often translated as “sorrowful” or “anxious.”   So, it seemed to me that whatever word or words I used should convey sadness but also have an emphasis on the heart, in that this is usually where modern English speaks place the source of their cares, and it would help if it kept the compound-word form to echo the original poet’s style.  I came up with “downhearted” which contains a metaphor (down) that the Old English did not, so maybe I’ve overstepped my translator bounds, but I like that it’s colloquial modern English—instantly understandable, just as the original hopefully was to native speakers of Old English, contains a taste of a literal translation, and that I don’t think I’ve seen that translation in any other rendition.

I’ve written about how technology can serve as a temptation and even motivator of plagiarism, and certainly the lazy student in me just wanted to copy down the right answer and be done with this project.  But, rather than turning a blind eye to technology, if wisely used, I think it can be a boon to the novice translator—a way to actually avoid plagiarism in the form of mindlessly reproducing the glossary.  Instead, the careful student can replace the hassle of flipping pages with the hassle of looking up more information to work into the translation, and understand the material in greater depth.  With technology, hard work can ultimately be smarter work.  In the end, I think I know much more about the language and have a better understanding of how it fits into our own than I would have if I had been stuck on a desert island with Bright’s.  But also, as a teacher, this experience verifies some common wisdom that I’ve always believed about writing–that the more you read, the better you write, and, in this case, the less plagiaristically you translate.


Yeah, I know this is actually Beowulf, not “The Wanderer.”

One thought on “Reflections on Translation Plagiarism

  1. Pingback: First blog post – Huston, we have no problem

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