Kevin’s Gripe of the Day

by Kevin Jon Heller

Academic books that have long quotes in foreign languages and don’t provide translations of them — even in the footnotes.  I’m reading Eyal Benevisti’s superb The International Law of Occupation, and there is French everywhere.  I can usually get the gist (thanks, Mrs. Armour, for being such a good Latin teacher!), but I’m sure I lose the nuance.  That is very unfortunate, and it makes me far less likely to cite the book in my own.  Accuracy matters, particularly when it comes to doctrine.  So we all — the author, the press, and the reader — lose.

If there are any editors out there reading this, please ask your authors to take pity on the linguistically-challenged among us and translate their quotes…

6 Responses

  1. Kevin – I understand the frustration, but just imagine that of the billions of non-native English speakers in the world who are constantly expected to communicate in English. There was a time in international legal scholarship when different languages coexisted and most people were able to read a number of them and stay on top of foreign-language literature. This has now turned into an almost-complete dominance of English, with most scholars in the US, UK, Australia not even bothering to get a sense of what is being written in other languages. Quite a shame I find, for a field with mildly cosmopolitan aspirations…:)

  2. Nico,

    I completely agree — and, of course, my gripe plays into the (justified) stereotype of Americans never speaking more than one language (and that one often not very well)…

  3. I wonder a bit if this isn’t due to some fear of a poor or mistranslation. If an author/scholar provides the untranslated source material, then he or she can’t be accused of mistranslating the source material in such a way that manipulates the information into supporting the scholar’s underlying point.

    In this particular case, it doesn’t seem it would be difficult to find a good French-to-English translator for this work, but when it comes to other languages (like Russian, perhaps, or Swedish) it might be more difficult and/or not cost effective to hire a good translator given the expected revenue the book will generate. For instance, see

  4. I always thought you had to learn French to ‘do’ international law (thanks Dad for that!), it was one of the reasons I started learning it in the first place. Even though a) I didn’t end up ‘doing’ international law and b) IL was certainly not a significant reason for my continuing it.

  5. I’m glad no one told me that!  I studied German, because philosophy was my first love.  And French has too many scary hyphens.

    By the way, “[insert here] delenda est” gets my vote for best screen name ever.  Even if Cato is rolling over in his grave.

  6. Thanks Kevin. It probably isn’t so appropriate on this blog, or not compared to earlier (when, ironically, I didn’t use it). But on the internet in general, it seems apt 🙂 

    As for languages, you certainly chose well from a philosophical perspective!

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