I will start by saying that I read a question similar to mine but I still didn't find the answer I need.

I am translating a graduation thesis from Italian to English, and in a quote, there is the word "negroes". I was wondering if I need to change it or if considering that is a quote, I will need to leave it as it is.

If it helps, the phrase in which this word appears is "84% of the interviewed person saw negroes as “lazy”".

This thesis will be published on a website, and I don't want to make a bad impression!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 15:44

8 Answers 8


Translation and citing are two different things. If the original uses a word that is not offensive in the source language (or was not offensive at the time of writing), then translating it using a word that is offensive in the target language is not a good translation.

And I don't believe you can use [sic] other than in a verbatim quote.

  • 19
    The primary goal of translation is normally to create the same idea in the mind of a native speaker of the language you are translating into reading the translation as the original would create in the mind of a native speaker of the original language reading the original text. Using a word that would be found offensive where the original text does not contain such a word, by this standard, makes the translation worse. Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 20:19
  • 1
    What would you say if the word is offensive in the source language? Just out of curiosity. I don't know if that is the case here. Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 23:54
  • 9
    @Andrew I believe I would translate it using a word that's equally offensive in the target language. That is for academic purposes; for other audiences, other considerations may apply. Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 0:02
  • 12
    To support this answer, let me highlight an example: in Portuguese, "negro" (dark) is the politically correct term, and "preto" (black) is the racist term.
    – ANeves
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 1:58
  • 12
    Don't do something silly and translate it to "blacks" or "African Americans" though. The best translation is probably "black people".
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 8:54

You keep the equivalent of the translation, regardless of political correctness. The source and your analysis should make clear that the work is older and therefore racially discriminatory. Otherwise, you are changing the text to something other than the original meaning.

Think of this way: should someone edit "Huck Finn" when translating it, removing the word 'nigger' for the purpose of making the book appear 'less offensive'? Of course not. The use of the word is essential to the work. and Huck Finn would not be Huck Finn as we know it without the word.

EDIT/UPDATE: translation in and of itself will always contain some subjectivity on the part of the translator. Languages and their semantic structures are not equal; the translation makes his/her own choices in how he/she will translate.

If you are doing translating a fact with the intention of keeping it as literal a translation as possible, you don't have the 'right' to change the meaning. You are translating to keep the original meaning, and your only purpose is to broaden the number of readers (by making the text readable in a different language).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 15:44

I agree with Lisa P.'s answer, but want to add the following:

You should keep the equivalent of the translation but do be aware that it is considered racist and derogatory:

offensive, dated
A member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara.

(Oxford Dictionaries)

You should definitely make it aware that you have translated it exactly (including any derogatory terms) either in any notes on the translation or by the use of the word sic.

Used in brackets after a copied or quoted word that appears odd or erroneous to show that the word is quoted exactly as it stands in the original

(Oxford Dictionaries)

This use would definitely be appropriate for a thesis as it is the academically accepted method of pointing out an exact quote.

You ought only to change the word if it is used in such a way that offence is not meant. Even in this circumstance, I would advise against changing the text to something different to the original meaning.


It depends on the original language of the quoted work. First is where to get/how to generate the translated quote:

  • If the quote is from a non-English source, you can translate it however you need too. It would be good, but not essential, to use an official English translation if one exists.

  • If the quote is originally from English, I recommend finding and using the original source rather than making your own translation.

In any case, I recommend a translator's note with the source of the translation.

If you are translating it yourself, and the quote author was not using the word derogatorily, choose an English word that matches the original intent of the quote author but is not offensive. If he did mean it derogatorily, or if the same word is used in the original English source or an official translation, you have a few choices. Which one is preferred depends on the conventions of the field.

  • Leave the offensive word in without comment.

  • Leave the offensive word out, but place "[sic]" after it. Combined with the translator's note, this clearly indicates that it's the original quote author's language, not what you or the author of the thesis chose.

  • Replace the offensive word with a nonoffensive synonym in square brackets: e.g., "viewed [dark-skinned people]." That avoids the offensive word while clearly indicating that it was replaced. But in some fields, changing a quote in this way is not acceptable because it obscures the original wording.


I agree with Lisa P.'s answer: you should not redact or modify the quote because of its offensive nature.

I just want to add that you don't need to label the text as offensive. It's actually detrimental to your objectivity to do so.

You should, of course, cite the source explicitly. That should be done regardless of the quote's content.


Lemonade, if you are using a "Quote" from the original Italian work, state that it is a quote and cite the original work. If you are translating the entire thesis and publishing it as a translated piece, use whatever term you feel will not offend others. It will be you that has to be happy with the resultant piece, I personally am at an age where I don't aim to offend someone, but if I do it's on them, not me...


I disagree that it needs to be translated "verbatim" to preserve the authenticity of the original. To translate "verbatim" is a contradiction. Strictly speaking it isn't a quote, or it would be in Italian. It's a translated quote.

Think of this way: would someone edit "Huck Finn" when quoting it?

That's not a translation, when you quote a work.

Your goal in translating into English is to preserve the meaning of the words. If, at the time of writing, the Italian word for "Negro" was an acceptable and non-offensive way to describe black people, then the words "black people" (or similar, like "dark-skinned people") would be the appropriate translation.

There is plenty of precedent to this. For example, if you quote from the Bible, you aren't really quoting it (unless you are writing in Hebrew) and over the years translators have changed the translated versions to better match what the original writing really said.

A possible option would be to add a footnote (eg. "In the original Italian, the word for "Negro" was used"). This might help to emphasise the point that not only did people think blacks were lazy, but they referred to them in a way which is now considered derogatory.

  • I think the original point of "Huck Finn" was that if someone were translating the book to another language, the names would remain unchanged. I don't think they meant simply quoting the name in the same language. I could be mistaken, but this is how I read it.
    – Cypher
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 23:44
  • “Strictly speaking it isn’t a quote, or it would be in Italian” — Not so. If the thesis is quoting a book in English and the word negroes appears in that quote, then it certainly is a quote despite being in English. And translation does not enter the picture at all. Given the vague way the question is worded, there is no way to tell one way or the other. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 15:57

I'm going to be the dissenting voice here and point out that in modern academia, language like this is often viewed as unacceptable regardless of "initial intent" even with the inclusion of trigger warnings, etc. I would likely change it because "preserving authorial intent" is no longer considered a valid defense for spewing offensive language in many academic circles. My second choice would be to replace the word with [expletive removed], and my third and last resort would be to clearly label the paragraph with a trigger warning.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 15:44

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.