I saw this discussion on chat and I figured we should have it in meta. Should translation questions be allowed, and if so, what kinds? For example:

  • "Plz translate my homework/these song lyrics/this Ruby documentation"
  • "What does this word mean in this context?"
  • "What does this obscure phrase that's not in any dictionaries mean?"
  • "Is there a similar idiom to this one in English?"
  • "How do I say this in Japanese?"
  • ...

A site dedicated to Japanse language questions that doesn't allow any translation questions seems doomed to an early death--but so does one that fills up with homework questions. So where are we drawing the line?

Possible rules of thumb:

  • Will this answer be useful in more than one context?
  • Is it the kind of question you could ask a friend or language partner?
Let Me Google Translate It For You. –  Andrew Grimm Jul 23 '11 at 12:48
Such things are actually welcome in chat, and yes... we'll show you how to use the online dictionaries at the same time. –  jkerian May 4 '12 at 19:26
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9 Answers

I think this is something that would need to be taken on a case by case basis, but my general thought is that more obscure things or subtle translation issues should be allowed, but bulk "translate this" questions should not be allowed. For example:

"Plz translate my homework/these song lyrics/this Ruby documentation"

Inappropriate for the site as it is a bulk translation request that and it seems like someone is just trying to get a free translation service.

"What does this word mean in this context?"

Allowed as this is a question more about the subtleties of the Japanese as opposed just a translation request.

"What does this obscure phrase that's not in any dictionaries mean?"

Allowed, assuming that the asker did a degree of due diligence (i.e. "I checked, x, y, and z dictionaries and couldn't find it.") prior to asking the question.

"Is there a similar idiom to this one in English?"

Allowed as it is more about the subtleties and cultural differences than the actual translation.

"How do I say this in Japanese?"

Generally not allowed unless it is an extremely complex word that someone is asking about in which case it might fall under the "obscure phrases" clause, but the wording might have to be different, i.e. asking if there is an equivalent to a phrase in Japanese as opposed to how to translate something.

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How about waiting to see what kind of translation questions come in so we can identify the trends and then decide where the line ought to be drawn?

Just want to ask, if there is a site on the web that provides pure translation? Free service of course :D –  meiryo Jun 10 '11 at 17:15
I recently discovered えそら, a Q&A site dedicated to answering pure translation questions. It seems to be free too. –  ento Jun 22 '11 at 23:54
@ento It would be better if they were more like a stack exchange site. –  Muhd Oct 29 '11 at 20:59
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I would suggest that you do not provide rudimentary "Can you translate this?" services on this site. This is not a translation service; There are better tools for that job.

Translations will be a natural part of this site, but only as long at they they involve questions about the "finer points of the language."

There are difficult-to-translate phrases and certain idioms that do not "translate well" across language barriers. I fully support translation requests of this nature. But I would highly suggest that you do not accept question in the form:

Can you translate this for me?

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc eros dui, mattis a mattis in, consequat non nisl. Nam condimentum, orci in ornare dapibus, ipsum diam ultrices odio, sit amet volutpat justo odio vel magna.

Blah, blah, blah...

Questions of "General Reference" should be closed. There are real people behind this site answering questions, and this site has to remain interesting to them — or they'll go elsewhere. Once the site devolves into "How do you say 'dog' in Japanese?", you've lost your core audience.

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I want to add that one cannot judge if something is a translation purely by how it is asked. Simple example:

"How do I translate 義理?"

While this looks like just a translation request, in the end, it's not a word that can be translated, and one needs quite a bit of knowledge to understand the nuances. You can't just write "honour" and be done with it, as that is decidedly incorrect.

If someone asks the question with just this sentence, he/she is asking for close votes. I think that it is the responsibility of the asker to justify the question. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 14 '11 at 12:37
Well posed questions are to be preferred. But we should not make a list of evil words such as "translate" which immediately make the question invalid. "How do I translate 義理?" is the best choice to ask that question. Anything beyond that would just add meaningless chatter beyond the core problem (which is the translation of a concept that doesn't exist in English). –  Kdansky Jun 14 '11 at 15:33
Not to mention people with the same question in the future will probably be searching with terms similar to that. –  Troyen Jun 14 '11 at 15:51
@Kdansky: I disagree. If the question only states “how do I translate 義理?” the best answer is “look up in a dictionary,” and it is unsuitable on this website. Ultimately, an asker should use a question to convince other people into answering it. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 14 '11 at 17:26
Such an elitist stance will not improve the site and is highly counterproductive for creating a large and thriving community. –  Kdansky Jun 14 '11 at 18:23
(1) I am fine with a small community. Stack Overflow employees may want a large community, but I do not work for them. (2) But honestly, do you really think that anyone will ask a question “How do I translate 義理?” without adding any other information? I think that doing so is just silly, and I cannot imagine it. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 14 '11 at 21:20
I agree with Tsuyoshi. "How do I translate X?" is a useless question without context. If you are asking, "What are all possible ways to translate this word?" then the dictionary is the best place to look, not this community. –  Amanda S Jun 15 '11 at 22:58
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I think we should only allow translation question if and only if the translation in question is particularly difficult to translate such that there is an academic merit in answering the question that would be extremely helpful to those who are learning Japanese, or that a non-trivial solution exist for the question.

For example, if the question was something like

How do you say よろしくお願いします in English.

This kind of translation question would have non-trivial answers.

If the question was something like

How do you say 宿題 in English.

We should avoid allowing these kind of questions simply because it's a question that can be answered with a dictionary lookup, hence trivial answers exist.

If we only allow particularly hard questions, the site will not be as useful to beginners. What about "translations that are hard to find for someone at the poster's level" instead? –  Amanda S Jun 2 '11 at 5:19
Well, I meant difficult as in that the question have non-trivial solutions, the example question I have is in fact a beginner question but the answers are non-trivial. This is so that we don't turn into an translation on demand service. –  Ken Li Jun 2 '11 at 5:34
I like that idea...except that the poster likely wouldn't know if the question had a non-trivial answer. :D –  Amanda S Jun 2 '11 at 5:39
@Amanda You would know the moment you look into the dictionary and still not make sense of the dictionary entry, or the word you are looking for in fact isn't even in the dictionary that you have. –  Ken Li Jun 2 '11 at 5:44
Okay, yeah. So we should close questions of the form of "what does this word mean?" if the word is in the dictionary. But what about phrases? The first time I encountered -ざるを得ない I had to ask a friend what the whole sentence meant, because I didn't know enough to know how else to ask. –  Amanda S Jun 2 '11 at 5:50
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I think if the poster has made a clear effort to look up the translation himself (and posts his findings), that should be allowed. It's very hard to understand the difference between words that are translated by the same English term but are used completely differently.

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I agree with you that we need to draw the line at some point. Though i think the rules of thumb you put forward about asking friends is hard to judge cause everyone has a different set of friends (i.e. all Japanese, or no Japanese speaking friends)

How about, translating parts of sentences is ok, but i would be against translating complete sentences since that would almost always be homework based.

But then you get the problem of "what is duck in Japanese" questions which we want to prevent because it is more of a easily answer question one can look up easily. However "how do Japanese distinguish between pigeons and doves" would be an ok question.

Maybe listing out some examples might be good. Are there any particular translation questions that have been asked that you feel shouldn't be here?

No, so far people have been asking more grammar questions than vocabulary or usage ones. But I would not expect this trend to continue. –  Amanda S Jun 2 '11 at 4:50
Well, digital dictionaries are powerful enough so that I do not expect a ton of vocabulary to show up. Except of course to nuances which are hard or even impossible to look up. –  Kdansky Jun 14 '11 at 7:40
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I will throw out something more controversial: Stupid questions are fine. Why? Because first off, they will not get upmodded, and be trivially easy to answer, not wasting anyone's time reading through them. Stackoverflow has a fair share of trivial questions, and they just disappear after a few minutes into the "answered" heap, and nobody bothers reading them. Since the search algorithms are decent enough, you never see them again either, or if you do, they are usually really helpful but hard to find ("Where does X store my config files?").

If someone makes the effort of actually registering / logging in, then typing out a few sentences with his question, he has spent multiple minutes. Any sane person would not do that without trying google translate first. Put a google translate link visibly on the "ask a question" page.

Anything that goes through the implicit Filter Of Laziness is probably acceptable to begin with. Adding a elitist layer on top of that only results in a specialized page that only 126 people [that's the current rep200+ count as of this writing] use.

"You have to draw the line at some point". The line draws itself. People are too lazy to type questions which google translate can answer.

(1) “Stupid” questions are not answered automatically. For the mechanism you described to work, someone has to answer them. If some people are happy to do that, I am fine, but I do not want to do that. Writing even a trivial answer takes me significant amount of time. (2) This is not a big deal, but you do not have to register or log in to post a question. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 1 '12 at 15:04
At worst, they stay unanswered and/or get downvoted. That's still better than preventing people from asking in the first place. And there is always someone who is not as proficient who can learn from answering the easy questions. –  Kdansky Feb 1 '12 at 22:36
Well...sometimes. There was an instance last year where a user was constantly asking translation questions with little to no research beforehand (not even Google Translate level research), and the front page was dominated by this stream of uninteresting and localized questions from one user for weeks on end. They kept going because they would always get an answer since it was easy rep. Everyone else just got bored or frustrated with all of those questions. –  Troyen Feb 2 '12 at 5:25
Do you really want to scare off anyone with a translation problem to get rid of one problematic person per year? Is that a good trade-off? –  Kdansky Feb 2 '12 at 10:04
According to your logic, that person would not be a problematic person. So there is something wrong with your logic. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 2 '12 at 12:55
Strawman fallacy. You can't fault my logic if there are two good independent arguments. People don't have a boolean "problematic" switch. Even someone who asks really dumb stuff can't actually damage the site. At worst, he gets downvoted and leaves. At best, we end up with great answers to bad questions. My argument goes. "There are no stupid questions. But even if there were, the answers are not stupid." –  Kdansky Feb 3 '12 at 15:23
Your argument for stupid questions is all fine. I just pointed out that it is based on your imagination and does not match the reality. In reality, stupid questions wasted time of some people, or at least of me, and from their point of view, some stupid questions are not fine. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 3 '12 at 21:28
I don't object to translation questions as long as the asker shows some level of effort. Whether it's "I checked, but it's not in my dictionary," or "I get contradicting information from two dictionaries," or "I don't understand the dictionary's answer," or "I'm not sure what to use between two similar words," the questioner has shown they have a vested interest in the answer and I think they'd be OK. In contrast, I think we shouldn't encourage questions like "I saw コピー somewhere, what does it mean?" (a real question asked, by the way). –  Troyen Feb 3 '12 at 22:20
I have trouble relating "I saw コピー..." to the issue of translation questions. That's more along the lines of "Should we tolerate utterly idiotic questions?" It's only about translation in as far as speaking two languages always is. I have concluded that dictionary + wife is a lot less stressful than asking here and having to defend it first. Look through my history if you want a few elitist examples. –  Kdansky Feb 5 '12 at 23:31
@Kdansky: You've been dinged in the past for asking questions which can't actually BE answered, such as "What are some game-related terms." That's not actually an answerable question in the StackExchange sense. I do fully agree that dictionary+wife is MUCH better for these types of questions. (Someone also seems to have gone on a downvoting campaign against you... which is stupid and irritating, but not relevent to this topic) –  jkerian May 4 '12 at 19:10
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I think asking simple translation questions about documentation should be allowed.

The reason I say this is because even for fairly advanced students it is possible they will run into something problematic and these will often have impact on that persons profession.

While I am not saying the community should take the place of a professional translator and translate a book for them, I think it is reasonable to allow people to ask the meaning of up to say a paragraph of text.

A whole paragraph? Remember that "Japanese Language and Usage - Stack Exchange is for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language." - not to provide the meaning of a whole paragraph of some piece of documentation someone needs for work. The appropriate behaviour imo would be to identify the parts of the paragraph one is struggling with, generalise them, and post them as separate questions. –  ジョン May 3 '12 at 14:59
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