Free Online Library Resources for Academic Translators

Academic Translators Are Researchers Too

Academic places an e-book on library shelf in between traditional books

Of all the tasks that make up the work of an academic translator, matching references is probably the most thankless and time-consuming. Neither the author nor the academic editor of the journal that will eventually publish the translated article will ever know about the hours you spent finding that one Nietzsche quote in a decent English edition of Ecce Homo that doesn't date from the 1800s.

The mission can seem even more impossible for those who live in non-English speaking countries, where finding sources in English can be problematic even if we do have access to university libraries.

Lucky for us, we live in an age where most of the sources you will ever need are not only available online, but they also come with handy search tools that make it that much easier to find the exact citation you are looking for.

Here are a few of the resources I find myself turning to for my reference needs:


The first and most comprehensive library resource that is always my first go-to is the Internet Archive or archive.org. The Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library that provides free public access to nearly three million books, including ones not in the public domain.

Books in the Archive can be downloaded as EPUB or PDF files, or alternatively viewed using the site’s e-book reader, which comes with its own search tool.

The one caveat about using Archive.org is that it functions as a lending library, meaning that the books you are after might be on loan, in which case you will have to be on a waiting list for a number of days, or even weeks. However, this shouldn’t prevent you from getting the sources you need, if you take a little time to plan in advance.

Instead of looking up sources as you encounter them in the course of your translation, I firmly recommend getting into the habit of going through the bibliography of the academic text you will be translating before you actually start the translation. For one thing, it will help you work more efficiently as you won’t have to interrupt the flow of your translation to go look up a source as it comes up. And secondly, it will allow you to put yourself on the waiting list for any Internet Archive books you need that are on loan so you will be much more likely to get your hands on them by the time your translation needs to be finished.

University of Pennsylvania Online Book Listings

If you couldn’t find your book on Archive.org, head to http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/ where the University of Pennsylvania library lists over 2 million books available for free online.

The UPenn Library doesn’t actually host most of these books; rather, it contains links to their locations where you can either download them or visualize them as e-books. The catalog is searchable by author, subject, and title, and also includes a catalog of open access journals as well as non-English language resources.

Google Books

If you haven’t found your books in any of the above libraries, you’re sure to find it in Google Books, although finding the book here will often bring you no closer to getting the citation you need.

Only a portion of the books Google lists are provided with a preview, in which case they are searchable, so you are likely to be able to find the reference you are looking for. However, finding the exact wording of the citation may be only half the job, because Google will sometimes prevent you from seeing the number of the page on which your quote is located.

There is a somewhat dubious reach-around you can use to resolve this problem if you can find the book on Amazon.com, and provided Amazon gives you the option to “look inside” the text. In this case, you can look up specific keywords included in your quote in the preview search box to find its page number.


If all else fails, you might be able to find the book you are looking for on Scribd, a subscription-based service that gives users access to a wide variety of fiction and scientific texts. Although Scribd is not a free service, they do offer a 30-day free trial period which you can use to gain free access to a particularly hard-to-find source. And who knows, perhaps you’ll enjoy the service so much you’ll decide it’s worth it to shell out the $8.99 per month after the trial is over.

With these tools in your translator’s toolbox, you’re sure to spend less time looking for matching references in your target language (assuming this language is English).

Keep in mind, however, that texts that have been published more recently and/or are highly specialized will be harder to find online for free. If you are affiliated with a university you might also have access to paid online resources such as JSTOR, EBSCO, and others through the university library. And if you’re not, it doesn’t hurt to ask your university pals to help you access a particular source. After all, that’s what academic friends are for!  

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