What are the limits of “translators’ note”?

There is something wrong with the picture, right? It clearly shows that there should be some limits for the translator’s note. Although there is much to say about the translation, the footnotes should be somewhere at the end of the book, not at the bottom of the page. Many people find this kind of note-giving very distracting. I do not mean that there should never be any footnotes on the page. Of course, sometimes they are very useful especially when there are foreign words or concepts; however, the translator (or the editor) is supposed to use the words in the most effective way. The length of the footnote should not scare the reader away (like the one picture-it is half and half!).

And the second picture (from the same book) shows the optimum length for a footnote.

What do you think about the lenght of a footnote?

PS: The name of the book is “The Gift of Death” by Jacques Derrida. Translator: David Wills

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Well, I disagree completely.

    Endnotes are difficult to use and unlikely to be read at all. I usually read all notes and endnotes make reading difficult because I have to constantly browse back and forth in order to read them.

    Footnotes, on the other hand, are right there and easy to use. Sometimes it may happen that a footnote takes considerable space, but either it is important enough to justify that space, or it should be rewritten or omitted altogether.

    Endnotes should not be used as an excuse to write unimportant or excessively verbose notes!

    Actually, I even find the footnote that you consider poor in your post highly relevant. In philosophy, words carry great significance, and it is of utmost importance for the reader to understand the choices made by the translator. Just consider the hugely important distinction between Wille and Willkür in Kant’s philosophy! If the translation was always “will”, it would make the ideas incomprehensible.


    • Hello Ville,
      I respect to your ideas and I think it is something personal. For me, the footnotes are ‘generally’ distracting because it moves me away from the real context. A couple of my friends also disagree with me… I do not have a word to justify it, but I think the length should be reasonable 🙂


  2. Well, I agree with Ville.
    I prefer footnotes over end-notes. I hate being sent to the end of the book to find what important messages the author or translators has for me. As a matter of fact, there is often a lot of interesting stuff in footnotes.
    I you are distracted simply ignore the notes altogether. You do not have to read them. 🙂



  3. Sorry about that, but I must agree with the others in the sense that I also prefer a footnote. An end note is often more distracting than a footnote, as you have to flip to the end of the book, as highlighted by Iwona. However, I also agree with your point that footnotes should be brief. Extensive notes, IMHO, should be added as end notes.

    having stated that, I have translated for over 30 years, including quite a number of books, and NEVER had to make a translator’s note that was more than two lines long (and only a few of those, most were just one line).




  4. Posted by arlette sinquin on December 1, 2011 at 05:01

    I also agree that footnotes are easier to read than having to look at the end of the book and find the right number of that endnote etc.. It is an academic practice to have both and it is very useful to have the relevant information right at hand when needed. Endnotes are usually used to give more context or in depth information.
    Besides one cannot say “footnotes should be at the end…” – These are “endnotes”.
    That is why we use the word “footnote” = at the foot of that page.
    I am a language professional, French teacher and I have been a translator/editor for over 25 years: I rarely put [translator’s notes] unless there is something unclear in original text or some possible misinterpretation. I always keep my personal comments short and to the point. It’s another matter for footnotes: they are also a translation from the original text and should reflect that information.


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