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Sometimes, users will post questions in a language other than English. What should we do about such posts? Should we try and translate with automatic translators? Should we close as unclear? Something else?


Please note that this is a discussion post. This isn't a new policy, at least not yet. Mods don't get to decide policy, the community does. So if people disagree with my answer below, by all means downvote it and please post your own, competing answers arguing your position.

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    A case in point, perhaps? unix.stackexchange.com/q/696449/100397 The question translates really well and makes sense. The answer is challenging enough to be interesting to answer (at a guess it's curl with a POST). I would be confident that I could tidy up a machine translation of this question despite not knowing much of the source language
    – roaima
    Mar 22 at 22:30
  • Weirdly, that user has asked that question in English on ES.SO (and it's also cross-posted exactly and multiple times). Mar 22 at 23:25
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    @roaima I would say a case in point, yes: the question is indeed clear and well written, but it is also entirely off topic. So although it could be translated, we would still close as off topic as a pure web programming question, and as cross posted. So this is a good example of my point that non-English posts tend to have various issues since someone who doesn't realize they're using the wrong language will likely also not have noticed other problems. Such as the site's scope.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 23 at 8:33
  • Hi Terdon. At the time I posted my note it had been posted just the once. Now, I've already closed a duplicate on U&L, and as MichaelHomer has also pointed out it's been multiply posted on es.SO and therefore a candidate for closure here for multiple-posting regardless. As to topicality, my takeaway was that it was marginally valid as they wanted a solution for using curl
    – roaima
    Mar 23 at 8:55
  • @roaima as far as I can tell (I don't really speak PHP although I do speak Spanish :P) it's about filling out a web form from php using some curl PHP library and not the actual curl command on a nix system. The OP just needs their php code to also work on Linux machines because it currently just works on Windows. You might be right though, if it can be done with curl instead. But can curl fill out a web form!?
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 23 at 10:50
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    "can curl fill out a web form" - Yes!
    – roaima
    Mar 23 at 11:23
  • Damn, now I want to translate it to see your answer! I would still argue it's off topic because it's about using PHP's curl, but I'm intrigued!
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 23 at 11:27
  • Related: Is translating posts using Google Translate acceptable? over on Ask Ubuntu Meta
    – cocomac
    Apr 4 at 19:41

3 Answers 3

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TL;DR

Please don't just dump non-English posts into Google Translate (or equivalent) and hope for the best. If you can understand the language in question well enough to confirm that the translation makes sense, and the post is really worth keeping, then feel free to translate it, but don't just use an automatic translator and hope for the best.


Questions posted in a language other than English on an English language site are unclear by definition and should be closed. We expect users to put at least the minimal amount of effort into their questions. That's one of the main reasons for downvoting and is what makes Stack Exchange so much better than the noise-filled forums that abound everywhere else on the internet. A user who simply posts their question in another language on an English-language site and can't even be bothered to i) attempt to write in English or, if they speak no English at all, ii) pass their question through Google Translate is failing to put any effort at all into the question.

I can understand a few languages which means I am unfortunate enough to be able to understand many of the non-English questions posted on the site. Sadly, in almost all cases, the different language is the least of the post's problems. As can be expected, if a user can't even be bothered to notice that they're on an English language site, they also can't be bothered to write anything resembling a clear, on topic question.

As far as I can recall, every time I translated a post, I also had to leave a comment requesting basic information from the OP. Frankly, posting non-English questions on an English language site is usually a good indication that the question itself is a poor fit for the site, irrespective of the language it happened to have been posted in.

That said, let's imagine you find a question whose only problem is the language and translate it. Now what? If the OP can't ask in English, chances are they also can't understand the answer. Conversely, if they can understand the answer, then they should have asked in English in the first place.

Unix & Linux isn't the one and only stop for *nix-related support and information on the internet. It is one of the top spots for English support and information, but there are dozens if not hundreds of helpful sites in other languages. Our target audience is not the world, but the portion of the world that uses *nix and can understand English well enough to ask questions in that language. It would never occur to me to go to an Urdu Ubuntu forum and post a question in English. I would consider that to be inconsiderate ("I don't care what language y'all speak, I'll just ignore that and post in mine") and rude.

We should make every effort to help people whose English is limited by editing and doing our best to understand what they are saying. Writing in a foreign language is hard and I have a lot of respect for people who post here despite not speaking fluent English. But if they are so inconsiderate as to just dump their question with no effort, then I don't think we should encourage that by translating.

Finally, automatic translations are bad. They rarely make much sense so when you do this, when you auto-translate a question, you have just added yet another bad question to the site. What's worse, it's a bad question that's very unlikely to be improved since the OP has already shown they're not willing or able to. This isn't helping anyone and is actively harming the site.

So, for me, the only case where translating a question would be worthwhile is when you can do the translation yourself, and the question is really good and clear and can stand on its own with no further clarification needed. For every other case, I would argue that translating is actively harmful and automatically translating is doubly so.

Proposed policy: Never use automatic translators to translate someone else's post. Avoid translating in general, except in exceptional cases where you can do the translation and the question is clear and good enough to stand alone.

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    What’s more, automated translation tools would likely struggle to cope with any question containing a mixture of natural language and commands, command output, example inputs/desired outputs etc. Mar 19 at 18:00
  • "Questions posted in a language other than English on an English language site are unclear by definition and should be"... edited to clarify the meaning of a post without changing it? A human translation is by definition an improvement, and the question can still be voted on normally afterwards, so the order of operations here seems backwards. In particular it can be marked duplicate, which is more useful to future users. Whether the answer is comprehensible to the original querent isn't relevant since they are not the primary audience. Mar 20 at 4:06
  • (they may often be clearly unsalvageable, so if you can read it then leaving a comment to that effect is probably a better use of your time, and editing a closed question that will clearly remain closed is still unhelpful for the usual reasons, etc, but in principle "translate if you can and it's not certainly still going to be closed unclear" seems like a best first step, rather than last) Mar 20 at 4:08
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    @MichaelHomer human translations where the question is particularly good are the one exception I advocate for, yes. Personally, I have yet to find such a case: every single non-English question I have seen posted in any of the languages understand on all SE sites I am active on was a crappy, unclear question in the original language too. People who don't put the effort to realize they're using the wrong language tend to also not put any effort into their questions. But sure, if you find a gem in a language you can translate, go for it.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 20 at 10:38
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    It happened to me a couple of times in AskUbuntu that, once pointed out to OP that the site is english only, they made the effort to translate the question. I can understand a few languages too, so I could see if the question was meeting basic requirements of quality. So, shouldn't be an option to ask OP first? In english, to check that they understand it. (I'm not advocating this, just thinking outloud). Mar 21 at 5:29
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    @schrodigerscatcuriosity of course you can ask. I am arguing against using automatic translators here, is there something in the answer that makes it seem like I am against asking the OP to translate? If so, it was unintentional.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 21 at 7:13
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    @terdon Sorry, you are right. That happens for reading at 3 a.m. I guess what trigger my comment was "I would consider that to be inconsiderate [...] and rude". My sensation is that that sometimes people do things in the internet hastily, not that they are careless, but just driven by the internet "standard behaviour". I remember a couple of times (at AU) when the questions where, if not good, at least showing effort into writing them. OP just missed the language part... hard to miss, but not impossible. But don't mind me, just slept a couple hof hours. Mar 21 at 10:23
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    "I am arguing against using automatic translators here" - I think the answer could be a lot clearer about a mechanical-translation focus, because it's not really apparent. In that line, Stephen's point is well-made. Perhaps leading with a list/matrix of guidelines would help ("never translate mechanically, it won't handle technical content", "if you can read it, consider whether it's plausibly salvageable before translating yourself", etc). I am still uncomfortable with some of the implications about the questions and where they're coming from in here, in honesty. Mar 21 at 20:57
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    @MichaelHomer I am arguing against translation in general because in my experience it is rarely actually helpful, but if people want to do it, that's their call. I feel much more strongly against the use of automated translating tools since those tend to produce crappy results. I don't know what implications you are referring to. Does this come across as though I am implying something about where questions come from? If so, that is not my intent and I have no idea what it is I give the impression of implying. As for policy, I do close with what I propose. I take it you feel that isn't clear?
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 21 at 22:03
  • Also, this isn't a mod "laying down the law" here. I am proposing a site policy, just like any other user. I think at least one of my co-mods disagrees or at least has another take and may well post their suggestion as a competing answer. If you or anyone else disagrees, please downvote and ideally also post an answer with your position. This is intended as a discussion, so opposing views are very welcome.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 21 at 22:06
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    I don't think we should conflate non-english with bad questions no matter how strong the correlation. That would be akin to closing every Kali question because the vast majority are utter rubbish. The mistake we made with Kali was to underestimate scope creep of the "Why won't anyone help me?" meta question. We shouldn't underestimate the scope creep of a "no translations" policy. Mar 22 at 12:31
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    @PhilipCouling I added a TL;DR with the main thrust of the argument I am making. I want to avoid automatic translations, mainly. Now, in my experience, pretty much every single non-English question I've seen, in any of the 5 languages I can understand well enough to translate, was a crappy question. The correlation here isn't between non-English speakers and bad quality (that would be absurd!), it's between people who don't realize/care they're using a different language and bad quality. Usually, translating a question just leaves us with a crappy question. If not, go for it.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 13:05
  • @terdon Oh I know. I speak no Chinese my in-laws speak no english. Automatic translation is our main way to communicate. I certainly wouldn't speak against closing untranslated questions or reverting badly translated questions. And machine translation should be discouraged. I'm just concerned about the edge cases being taken too far. Edge cases bing (1) the OP translating their own question and (2) people such as yourself offering a translation where the question is good enough otherwise. Mar 22 at 13:13
  • @PhilipCouling agreed. I have clearly failed to express myself as well as I hoped here. I didn't mean to advocate against such edge cases at all.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 14:30
  • Before I take the time to translate a question, I would not only make sure it's a good question, but also a question of broad interest. I don't want anybody to waste time on a good answer that is of no interest for anybody but the OP who maybe cannot understand it. (And btw, when using a tool to assist me in translating, I surely don't use Google translator, but deepl.com/translator)
    – Philippos
    Mar 28 at 8:45
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Proposed policy:

  • If the edited question is a good question and in English then there should be no justification for closing it
  • Machine translations made by anyone other than the OP should be treated as vandalism and reverted
  • If you are in a position to clarify the wording of a question then please do (translations included)

IE it's acceptable to revert a third party machine translation and then vote to close. It's also acceptable to translate a question if you can.

I'm not even sure this is a change in existing policy so much as a clarification.

Rationale

Why not immediately close the edited question?

We should never care about previous versions when voting on a question or voting to close. A basic principle of why SE has the edit option in the first place is that improvements are encouraged. The only exception may be chameleon questions

The quality of english we get here sometimes is pretty awful and there have been times when questions use only english words but are still not "english". I see no good reason why cleaning up such questions would be any different to accurately translating a non-english question.

Why not allow machine translations?

They are usually bad english and very unreliable. If you knew what my father in law accidentally said to me before the wedding you'd never trust one again! I've still not had the courage to explain to him what that little electronic voice really said.

Machine translations should be discouraged if you cannot verify the translation has preserved the original meaning. If you can confirm the original meaning has been preserved then why did you use the machine translator?

Translating a question from its original wording and leaving it in bad english isn't an improvement! Translating a question without personally understanding what the OP was trying to ask should always be treated as a bad edit. The classification of "vandalism" might be a bit harsh here, but reverting it should be the right action.

Why an exception for OP's translating their own question?

If the OP chooses to use a machine translation that's a different matter. They might have enough english knowledge to understand the translation was close enough without enough english grammar to correct it. OP's are the only ones who really understand the nuances of what they are trying to ask.

Why allow translation at all?

Some of us just want to be helpful. That's why we're here. Sure we should be careful to make things better and not worse. We shouldn't deter genuine help where it's offered.

I'd hate for a situation where those making genuine translations are told off for their actions and I fear that a "no translations" policy would lead to that.

In reality there are few good opportunities to offer translation. Once or twice I've offered translations to questions in Chinese by first machine translating it, discovering the result was enough to pique my interest; then cleaning up the grammar and asking my Chinese wife to help correct the translation.

It's so much effort that I've done this only twice.

But non-english questions show no effort and are almost always rubbish?

So are Kali Questions (usually).

If you read a question that's rubbish and in another language then you've got two reasons to close it.

If you happen to find a really good one and you can easily translate it, then surely translation is better.

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    This... does a much better job of explaining what I basically want than I did. Thanks!
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 14:32
  • They are usually bad English and very unreliable - you're very very very out of date in regard to machine translation. Must have never used deepl.com either. Oh, and I'm a vandal as I've translated a couple of questions on SE this way. Also you seem to be under the impression that everyone must speak English to at least some capacity or never ask any questions - how on Earth they are supposed to know this website requires questions to be asked in English when this website doesn't have 2000 translations into local languages to ask for it? I'm not so certain about your rationale. Jul 7 at 23:29
  • @ArtemS.Tashkinov I use it daily to speak to my family (in-law) and I'm always trying to find better tools. I doubt my knowledge is not out of date. The commonly available tools still make tragic mistakes. Worse, the newer model of translation uses excerpts from existing sources. This means that mistranslations are often very well formed and believable. If you don't speak the language you're translating from, there's no way to spot the mistakes. Jul 8 at 7:31
  • We are not talking about subtleties of translation here, no one comes to SE to ask question using refined language features, people normally come with applied problems. Again, you've not tried e.g. deepl.com and you dismiss it with prejudice. I've used it hundreds of times, in over 98% of cases its translation was just perfect. Jul 8 at 7:52
  • @ArtemS.Tashkinov I am not talking about subtle mistakes. It's an issue with genuinely stupidly wrong translation that is, at the same time, believable. Jul 8 at 7:57
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There are a number of options available to us here. Here are three:

  1. The least friendly but least effort approach is to close the question as unclear. This by itself doesn't help a poster whose first (and perhaps only) language isn't English. If you're going to take this as site policy then I would strongly urge you to explain to the poster why their question is unclear.

  2. Encourage the poster to use automatic translation into English. This can lead to incomprehensible (or at least ambiguous) questions where machine translation simply cannot cope with a technical question. It also avoids closure due to lack of clarity.

  3. Allow other site members to translate the question, possibly using machine translation, to the best of their technical ability. Such people might be bilingual and happy to invest their time in making a question understandable in English. (I understand that it's almost always easier to translate into one's native language than from it to another.) There is no point simply pasting the question into a machine translator and dropping the result into the question; it's about ensuring that the translation reflects the meaning and intent of the original.

As I understand it, #3 would be prohibited by the proposed site policy. I don't really see how it differs from someone editing a question to make it clearer, except in magnitude.

My personal preference would be to take these in reverse order. Don't stop people translating a question providing it's done well. While being very happy to reject non-English language questions on an English-language site, I would be averse to a site policy that simply closed non-English questions as unclear without any flexibility.

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    What I am proposing, amid all the extra verbiage, is to not allow other users to auto-translate. If the OP takes the trouble to auto-translate their post, we should by all means encourage them and help them in any way we can! I just don't want us to blindly dump something into Google Translate and hope for the best. That helps neither the site nor the OP, usually.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 13:07
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    On a more practical note, I speak 4 other languages well enough to be able to translate posts from them into English. I can honestly only remember one case where a post was written in one of them and was worth translating and that was an answer. I have yet to see a single question that was posted in another language that was worth salvaging. I have seen loads of questions posted by people with limited English who still made the (huge) effort to write in English or at least use an auto-translator. I have nothing but empathy and respect for such folks!
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 13:10
  • Yeah I wouldn't encourage machine translation by anyone and would actively discourage it by anyone except the OP. The results are far too unreliable and may be ultimately unfair on the OP. The average machine translation is likely to result in a rapid -5. Mar 22 at 13:17
  • "I just don't want us to blindly dump something into Google Translate and hope for the best." Me neither. But where that machine translation can be understood by the person doing it, and they are confident enough to tidy it up, then I don't see why that should be prohibited. (My workplace makes good use of machine translations as a first pass, but never as final output.)
    – roaima
    Mar 22 at 14:07
  • At AU a veteran user adviced me to put the translation and the original text on the post. Mar 22 at 14:11
  • @roaima yes indeed. If you can guarantee the quality of the translation, translate it! Or, well, translate if it is actually worth keeping and can help future users and yada yada. I just feel that using an automatic translator when you cannot also confirm that the question is well translated is more harmful than helpful. Basically what I added as a tl'dr on the top of my answer.
    – terdon Mod
    Mar 22 at 14:29

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