TRANSLATION How to translate something in a language you don't know

Happy New Year! For this issue, Julie Sullivan has written a how-to article for authors on what to do if you want to translate material from a language you don't know. 

I was originally going to write an article about the many translations of Alice in Wonderland, which has got to be one of the most challenging works to translate, with all its puns and parodies. But I discovered immediately that this already been done far more extensively than I could dream of. In 2015, in preparation for an exhibit at the Grolier Club in New York City, the general editor Jon Lindseth, 'whose extensive collection of Alice books inspired the undertaking', started a catalogue that expanded until it became a book, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, containing essays by 251 different writers discussing the translations into 174 languages—including Gothic, Cornish, Latin, Old English, Yiddish, Scots, and emoji, as well as several artificial languages like Esperanto and Neo.

It was hard to compete with that! So instead, I have written a short article on a problem that faces many authors doing research, at one point or another.

What do you do when you would really like to read something in a language you don't know? 

Google Translate

There are some obvious choices here; Google Translate is the big one. Here's a useful guide to how to use it. Something you should be aware of is that Google's main business is finding out everything about you to resell it to advertisers and others. So never paste confidential or private information into Google Translate. Google Translate's offline app should be fairly private. 

If you are trying to write something briefly in a language you don't know, even if it's just 'Happy birthday!', it's a good idea to input the foreign words into one of these programs and make sure the reverse translation is correct! This will avoid most big problems.

Oops! Someone used Google Translate and didn't check with a native speaker
Google Translate, like other translation software, is improving rapidly but still makes a hash out of longer translations. It's best to use it as a rough guide to find out what a subject is about, or to translate short excerpts. Never use it as a definitive translation! There are many websites devoted to making fun of people who do this. It's mindboggling that any governmental authority would use it, but US immigration services did in making immigration decisions; this was thrown out in court.


Deepl is a good translator for many European languages. As a German-based company, it has fewer privacy issues and if you buy the pro version, you are protected by EU privacy law (for now!). In my own use, I've found Deepl much better for translations from German to English than Google Translate is. 

As of December 2019, Amazon also offers translation software. There is a free tier, but read the documentation. Amazon claims to offer more privacy than Google, but take that with a large grain of salt. 


Linguee is owned by the same company as Deepl, and has the advantage that you can compare many translations of a specific phrase. However, some of the translations can be terrible and you can see at first glance they're by non-native speakers or "EU-talk" translators. It's best used if you think you already know what something means and want to check or find an alternate translation.

Chinese and Japanese Text 

If for some reason you need to translate Chinese, there is an excellent free plugin on Chrome, perapera kun, for Chinese that allows you to mouse over a Chinese text and see the English translation for each word. For Japanese, a similar free plugin is Rikaikun, or also try the Australian Text Translate from Monash University.  

Other Free Online Services

If you are in a hurry and just have a brief question as to what something means, Reddit has a great request translation page where you just post your question and someone somewhere in the world will usually answer it in minutes.

Machine Translations

Remember that free translation online is not private, and private translation is not usually free.

This is an interesting article on machine translation and reasons to be wary of the privacy standards of free versions. Wikipedia has a comparison chart of machine translation applications here. Of course, if you are just trying to translate, say, a few paragraphs from a published foreign book or website, you may have no particular concerns about privacy. There's no question as to the usefulness of these sites in those cases. 

Professional Translators 

If you ever decide you need a professional translation, and are not acquainted with professional translators from your own circle or recommendations, probably your best choice is to find someone through a professional organisation. Wikipedia has a list of the best known professional translators' organisations by country. 

Online free translation is amazing, and getting better every year. It's improved communication around the globe, allows us to read stuff in languages we don't know, and is a blessing for many of us, especially writers. But always question why the service is being offered for free, and remember that free translation online is not private, and private translation is not usually free. 

Julie Sullivan is a professional translator, copy editor and translator who uses most of these translation sites from time to time, despite their privacy problems.

Illustration credits:

Logo by Jess Stockham

Russian Alice in Wonderland illustration on Wikimedia Commons
Bad translation of menu by Marc Berry Reid on Flickr

Surveillance computer image by Mike Licht on Flickr

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