Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Here's something that's been bugging me for a long time; I'm finally writing about it because I came across instances of it three times in the last two days. What am I talking about? The practice of citing Chinese-language sources in English-language writing using only an English translation of the source, such that there is no way to find the original Chinese source. Why is this bad? Because it forgets a very important purpose of citation: to allow the interested reader to track down your sources herself and verify that they say what you say they say. It's like spelling out your experimental method in a science paper so as to allow others to attempt to reproduce your results. When you don't allow the reader to find your source, a citation is merely an acknowledgment that you found the language in question somewhere else or an unverifiable claim that you found the fact in question somewhere else. It says to the reader, "Hey, trust me!"
In one case the offending author supplied only the English-language title of the article, but also supplied a URL. Not bad, but not satisfactory. URLs go bad and web sites disappear. What we need is the Chinese title of the article because if it's publicly available on one Chinese web site, it's probably publicly available on many others. Knowing the Chinese title allows us to find it easily through Google or Baidu.
In another case, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in his report on China, actually invites us in footnote 27 to "see" the Study of the Prevention of and Counter Measures for The Extortion of Confessions by Torture of the Legal Studies Association (The Task Group On The Prevention of the Use of Torture in Interrogation), March 2005. Without knowing the Chinese title of this work, how are we supposed to find it, let alone see it?
It's no excuse to say that it takes too much space to include Chinese titles; why not just have no footnotes at all, if space is the problem? If citations are going to be used, they have to serve their purpose. Otherwise it's just a waste of space. Authors and editors, when citing a source, please ask yourself: could an interested reader competent in the field and with access to the internet and inter-library loan facilities find this source with the information you've provided?