Eleven thoughts on reading and citing

  1. At the beginning of reading on a topic, the most useful thing in a paper or book is often its bibliography. As you read more you’ll realise the key texts get cited again and again. You can tell you are getting on top of the literature when bibliographies only contain a few surprises.
  2. The first 5-10 minutes of your time reading a book should be spent deciding how much time you are going to spend reading this book. One of the first things to check is the bibliography.
  3. You should often read a book with questions in mind, which will help you work out how to read it, and certainly what notes to take.
  4. If you think something is worth quoting, then track down its source. ‘X cited in Y’ is lazy, and checking the original is almost always worth doing. You can always, and frequently should, reference Y alongside the reference to X.
  5. If at all possible, find the original language source of a quote that you are using, especially if you want to make a point about the words being used, rather than just the general sense. You cannot provide a ‘close reading’ of a text you are reading in translation. Checking to the original language is nearly always worthwhile. Even if you can only recognise odd words, in time you will improve. (This is the academic version of the advice that if you want to learn a language you shouldn’t read the newspaper. You should read yesterday’s paper.) You’ll also see how the translator ended up with the sentence you originally read. Translation, even at its best, is a continual compromise. The meaning that the translator privileged may not be the one you would highlight; the word you assume is there may not be.
  6. If you do cite works in translation, be sure to credit the translator. If you cite a critical edition, credit the editor. Their work is thankless enough already.
  7. Photocopying an article or downloading a pdf does not mean you have read it.
  8. If you find it hard to get hold of a reference, try inter-library loan, asking friends, repositories or the author’s website, or contact the author direct. Do not email bulk distribution lists – this wastes a lot of collective time.
  9. If you have a choice, use footnotes or endnotes, not ‘author: date’. If the journal requires ‘author: date’ style then try to use notes alongside that. It is often very difficult to make clear the purpose of a reference without explanation. If the journal or publisher insists on notes that include only ‘author: date’ and a separate list of references, refer them to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  10. Fill in your references as you go. It’s much more time-consuming to do it later. Quotes always need a page number. So do paraphrases. In fact, you should almost always give a page number, or at least a chapter. Does the whole book really make that single point?
  11. Citation is not endorsement. Fukuyama and Huntingdon are highly cited, but rarely positively. Bean-counters take note.
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11 Responses to Eleven thoughts on reading and citing

  1. samkinsley says:

    This is a really useful list, thank you – I’m sure it’d be really good as a resource for PGT methods modules.

    However, whilst I have some sympathy with your way of thinking, I’m afraid I humbly disagree with you about translation. For if a translation is always and already a compromise surely *all* readings are a compromise –– otherwise what is implied is that there can be a ‘proper’ reading. I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting here, but rather that to be rigorous one ought to get to grips with the full gamut of potential meanings by interrogating the text ‘as it was written’ and in translation (here I’d personally emphasise the “and”).

    I certainly agree with the rationale that we ought to treat reading as an ’empirical’ act, especially if the aim is to provide a ‘close reading’. Nevertheless, if one (all-too-briefly) makes the analogy between empirical ‘fieldwork’ and ’empirical reading’ we can recognise that, just as there are many ways to conduct fieldwork around the same phenomenon of study, there are perhaps many ways to conduct a reading. Is it not then dangerous to (overly) privilege “original” text?

    Just a thought…

    • stuartelden says:

      I don’t think that I’m quite doing that. It’s perfectly possible to accept that all interpretations are contested, plural and so on, and still suggest that you should try to return to the author’s own words. Otherwise any interpretation is an interpretation of an interpretation (the translation). It’s like commenting on a secondary source rather than a primary one. So I can agree with your view on reading and interpretation, and still think that consulting the original text is important.
      The contested nature of readings of Foucault in the French literature, or Heidegger in the German, show that removing the level of translation does not mean that all interpretation is removed. But to only read in translation is to allow another level to come in, which the reader has no control over.
      I don’t see the problem with privileging ‘original’ text in the sense of the text written by the author themselves.

  2. samkinsley says:

    Thank you for your reply. I recognise the political issues of interpretation in translation but surely what you are arguing is just as political? Is not all text an ‘interpretation’? Thus, when one privileges a particular version of text one is claiming some kind of quasi-authority, and perhaps implicitly then judging other interpretations (however ‘derivative’ or ‘authentic’ they might be). It’s an interesting methodological issue — presumably this is debated by those involved in translations too? I know that you’ve blogged about this in relation to Nietzsche…

  3. stuartelden says:

    I’m not sure that’s what I’m saying. You can say what I’m claiming is political if you want. I think it’s fine to say that a reading/interpretation of a translation is a reading/interpretation of an interpretation. All readings are interpretations, sure. But if you just read a translation you are reading someone else’s interpretation – you have to understand a text before you can translate it. If you check the original text then you can perhaps see how the translator reached the interpretation they did. The original text does have an authority – literally, because it is from the author. That doesn’t mean that there is only one valid reading of that original text.
    I can’t see that you are seriously arguing the opposite: that translations are just as valid as the source text, and that there are no criteria for evaluating translations? Does this extend to all readings? I find that hard to understand. Translations can be useful, productive and should be valued as contributions to scholarship. I’ve done a few myself and edited several more. But all the people who have shaped how I see reading, interpretation, translation and so on – people like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Eco – all made a point of working with original language sources wherever possible. What I’m claiming is that I’ve always found this process beneficial, and that I think others would too.
    I say a bit more about why I’ve done this and how I find it useful here – http://www.e-ir.info/2015/07/09/theory-and-other-languages/

  4. Philip says:

    Vis-a-vis translation, I think it depends *how* you are citing something; to what end. If you are writing “as X has argued…”, or something similar, then it certainly makes your argument far stronger to refer, via footnote perhaps, to the original language, if at all possible. Indeed, mistakes may happen by not doing this (I agree that interpretivism is not a get out of jail free card on this count). However, if one is citing an idea not as an authoritative element within some kind of genealogy but simply as a moment within a more speculative train of thought — i.e. when writing as a philosopher rather than philologist (and being clear, in your own mind at least, about the distinctive mode of truth being employed) — then it does not necessarily matter that the versions may differ. That being said, if your citation software is set up properly, it should be extremely easy to include translation information in the citation itself. It would be good if this was standard practice, for sure. Sometimes the differences between translations can be very significant, as Stuart’s work has shown. Indeed, sometimes whole paragraphs can be removed or added in to adjust cultural references and so on, if the original author is alive and actively participating in the translation process (I’ve noticed this in a few translations of contemporary authors). A translation like this is really a new edition. Differences in translation, in my admittedly very limited experience of looking into these things, can also be trivial but certainly if one is citing so as to assert authority of some kind then it is a good idea. I’m not sure that failing or being unable to do this necessarily discredits an argument but it certainly gives it an prominent, bulging Achilles heel.

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