Digging into the Past: Historical Research

The Use of Terminology and Glossaries in Academic Translation

A children's history book lies open

Academic translation for historical research presents special challenges for the professional translator. In some cases, key concepts may have standard translations in the target language, so the academic translator must carefully research such terms.

For instance, the French Marxist historian Lucien Febvre coined the phrase histoire vue d’en bas to describe a historical approach focused on the masses. A literal translation reads “history seen from below,” but the phrase has traditionally been translated as “history from below” and has been used by English-language historians such as Howard Zinn. Therefore, any translator today should maintain “history from below” because this has become an independent and influential concept in English.

In some cases in academic translation, it may be best to keep an expression in the source language because of its unique historical or cultural reality. For instance, in his translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2014), Arthur Goldhammer keeps the French expression “the Trente Glorieuses” to describe the period in France from 1945 to 1975 that was associated with strong economic growth. This is an established phrase that is well-known in French and only requires a short explanation in English.

Tricky Cases in History Translation

Some words may be so closely associated with a particular author or culture that they pose special problems to the translator. For example, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt to describe an approach to theater that discourages the emotional identification of the audience with the characters. It has been translated various ways, including “distancing effect,” “alienation effect,” or “estrangement effect.” In his study Brecht and Method (London: Verso, 1998), literary scholar Fredric Jameson keeps the term in German, abbreviating it “the V-Effekt.” By leaving the word untranslated, Jameson emphasizes that it is a concept invented by Brecht that must be understood on its own terms.

In China in Ten Words (New York: Random House, 2011), Chinese writer Yu Hua examines present-day China through the lens of ten different words that clearly have special influence in the culture. They must remain foreign in some way in order to be representative of China. The translator, Allan H. Barr, kept the Chinese characters in the title of each chapter, with the translation below; the book’s cover also uses the Chinese characters, giving it an aura of authenticity.

Changes Over Time

History translators must also consider the fact that words can change over time. As I’ve previously discussed in a blog post, the French term daim refers to buckskin in fashion history, but now describes suede from the skin of other animals as well. Similarly, the term gilet historically refers to a waistcoat, but if used to describe the fashion of today, it would be translated as “vest.” The translator must always take into account the historical era that is being described.

Understanding historical context can be a daunting task, especially in certain cultures. In Translating China for Western Readers, Ming Dong Gu writes that many classical Chinese texts remain untranslated because “translating premodern Chinese texts is much more demanding than translating modern texts, as the former requires much greater preparation in the classical Chinese language, historical background knowledge, and techniques for rendering classical Chinese terms, concepts, ancient customs, and traditional institutions, among other aspects.”

Glossaries: An Essential Working Tool

Consistency is important. If a word has historical or conceptual significance, it should always be translated the same way. A careful translator will make glossaries for reference while working to maintain consistency and keep track of definitions of hard-to-translate words throughout the translation process.

As pointed out by Robert C. Tucker in The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), a single term that Marx borrowed from Hegel, Aufhebung, has been variously translated as “abolition,” “annulment,” “supercession,” and “transcendence.” (The debate continues: a French philosopher recently wrote an entire article on the issue of how to translate this word!) In the past, some translators would “mix and match” these English terms within a single translation. This is doing a disservice to readers in English. As difficult as this term may be to translate, the translator must choose one translation and stick with it (or keep the term in German with an explanation), in order to signal to the reader the wide variety of situations in which the author employs this concept.

When translating Diane Bodart’s art historical study Pouvoirs du Portrait sous les Habsuorg d’Espagne (Paris: CTHS-INHA, 2011), I kept track of my translation choices in glossaries to maintain consistency. For instance, the French expression les grands refers to people of high rank or position in society and can be translated as “notables” or “men of rank.” However, les grands d’Espagne is more specific, and the historical group it refers to is known in English as “Spanish grandees.”

To Sum Up: Getting the Meaning Across

History translation requires a good deal of research on the part of the translator, as words and concepts may accrue different meanings — or translations — over time. Glossaries can be flexible tools to track various translations of a single word (e.g., French dignité – “dignity, honor, function, title, status”), words that refer to historical institutions or have established translations (e.g., French salon d’apparat – “stateroom”), and words that should be kept in the source language (e.g., Spanish mestre de campo, which refers to a historical military rank). The translator should make choices on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of making the text clear to the target language reader each time.


Kate Deimling has translated five books on topics ranging from the French wine industry to Renaissance portraiture. In 2017 she received a French Voices Award from the French Embassy. She holds a Ph.D. in French literature from Columbia University and has previously worked as a professor and an art journalist. She has spoken on the craft of translation at Duke University, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and the annual conference of the American Translators Association.

Receive an individualized quote!