How to deal with more than one language

My mother tongue is German. However, I do a lot of my work in English. When it comes to input I would guess that 80% of all the scientific texts, articles, podcasts etc. are in English. This is a problem because connections can be lost if I maintain a bilingual Zettelkasten as Obsidian would only find connections in one of the both languages. Tags will have a similar problem. How do you deal with this problem if English is not your first language? At the moment I consider switching to English completely but am not sure about it as it slows me down sometimes.

12 Likes

This is a problem for me too. We need some feature for multilingual support, like allowing to manually set an equivalence of a word between two languages, e.g. “software development” = “software-entwicklung”. Or automatic translation in background via a service like DeepL (it would have a performance cost, though).

7 Likes

I have this problem too, my native language is Dutch. For now I just input everything in English even though I do read Dutch literature and articles as well… It’s not ideal in the least.

3 Likes

@sirlaughalot this would be a good post to make in the Zettelkasten De forum as the creators of the forum are Germans and have been using their slipboxes for a long time.

2 Likes

This is why it would be good to have document aliases. The idea would be that the same document could be called by multiple names. I don’t know if this has been discussed here, but I saw it proposed in the Roam Slack. So you could have a document with a German title, but list an English alias for the same document in case you are writing in English and want to tag the document in that language. Note this is different than the ability to change the text which appears when you write, as that requires you to always remember the “official” language title of a particular document. An alias on the other hand, would let you tag a document in either language. Also useful for acronyms, documents that are often referred to in either the singular or plural, and many other situations.

5 Likes

@Luhmann

Download Implementable Alias feature using Python is that what this is refering to?

@lizardmenfromspace @Luhmann
Maybe that’s a good follow up for the plugin.
I could try to change the alias feature we have implemented right know in that forum post to a dictionary where you select a language and all the alias substitutions change according to that specific language.
In any case i feel like you may need to specify the language translation, it may not be predefined.
If anyone wants to try, i may put some time in it arround the weekend, but feel free to push anything in the mean time.

1 Like

Thank you @sirlaughalot for raising this topic. I work in Japanese and English and trying to develop workarounds for databases which synthesize both languages is a constant struggle. This issue applies not only to Obsidian. In many cases, I have notes in both Japanese and English which, though similar, are not exactly same. It is when I compare these differences that I gain another insight and therefore another note. :slight_smile: I was wondering, what workflow do you currently use to handle notes in two languages?

2 Likes

Thank you for sharing your workflow. It never occurred to me that comparing notes in different languages might not only be a chore but could also spark insight… but you are absolutely right when I think about it.
For my own workflow I decided to use English for all my tags, no exception. Most of my notes are in English, too but there definitely is a major number of notes in German as well. For clarification purposes: I don’t use #tags but [[tags]], so I build “concept pages” I can navigate to and see all my notes that link to this [[tag]].

So my answer for the moment is a) tags in only one language and - when it comes to searching - searching both the English term and its German translation if I have the gut feeling that I might have written about in both languages.

Hope this helps. :slight_smile:

2 Likes

That sounds like as good a solution as is possible.

For multiple names you can use hard links on unix platforms. For example ln hello.md привет.md.

Why not tag in all the languages you want to handle.

Though I must admit I don’t understand the problem (as long as Obsidian handles unicode). Word often can’t be translated exactly and can mean different things in different contexts even in the same language so any automatically discovered connections bound to be hit and miss unless sentence level analysis is done. Not something I’d expect Obsidian to do. But you can always manually tag as you wish.

1 Like

This is a great idea! Using [[tags]] to build a “concept page”. I often find myself trying to understand the various components that make up a concept. Understanding each component usually means that I draw from academic papers in both English and Japanese. Being able to manage and visualize all this information is what first attracted me to Obsidian, especially the graph view. So thank you for sharing this great idea. I am just wondering if there is a way to make Obsidian seamless when working with different languages. This would avoid situations as you have in developing tags in English only. But I guess this is the type of thing that you were asking about when you started this thread! :slight_smile:

In fact, I am working on such an insight at this moment. You know when you have stumbled across an important new insight when others say, “Of course! That is so true. I should have thought of that! It was right under my nose!” It is in finding such insights that involve the hardest work. Work that is made much easier with the insight you gain from working in more than one language.

3 Likes

And that would also permit using a shorthand to refer to a long-named note (for example using a first name to link to a person note, named with their full name)

I haven’t tried it myself yet, but how are aliases working for you (as a solution/workaround for the multilingualism challenge)?

I have faced the same issue and thought about it long and hard, making lists with pros and cons of every solution and even running 2 collections of notes simultaneously to see which one works better. My first instinct was to use English for everything, as it’s the language 90% of my input comes in. It’s also my preferred language for interfaces.

But I’ve made the decision of running the note archive in my native language in the end. There would be exceptions for the titles that don’t have a local version published officially or the terms that are impossible to translate but most if it, including folder names and tags and even characters in alpha-numerical IDs I’m using, comes in my native language.

The answer is far from obvious and my choice would be different if my output needs skewed towards English even a little bit more. I can also envision a cluster of notes in English or in a mix of languages developing as I get into certain topics more.

But I actually found a great benefit of discrepancy between the languages of my sources and notes archive. Not only it’s a great vaccine against mindless copying, it makes me truly bilingual in the context of each particular topic – I’m able to hold conversations on it in either language and the amount of mental connections I’m making greatly expands. Also while I feel perfectly comfortable consuming content in English, processing it in my native language seems to reach just a tad deeper places in my brain. So the whole translating process is a bit more work but it leads to better quality of knowledge.

2 Likes

I had the same problem and my solution was the following:

Write all notes in English.
When I read something in German and want to create a note about a word I create an english note with an alias for the german word.
This way I have all my notes in english and can still find the German articles related to that note.

Yes, aliases work just fine, here’s the proof.

This, 100%!

I think there’s still a certain difference between me understanding my native language, and me understanding English: the latter still requires a bit of mental effort even thogh that effort is almost imperceptible after many many years of reading and speaking in English.

Disclaimer: I learned English in school, and didn’t really grow up with it as a mother tongue, thus I can’t speak for true bilinguals who grew up with two or more languages from the cradle.

So, in my particular case reading and writing in English is not an issue at all, regardless of the complexity level − I can’t write legalese though − but thinking in English is a completely different beast. If one wants to think truly at the full speed and power one is capable of, thinking in mother tongue is the way to go. Consequently, keeping your thoughts in English introduces a certain friction required to translate and “load” the note’s idea (written in English) into your brain (that operates in another language, to reap the benefits of your thinking capacity) when you’re reviewing your existing notes. The same friction exists during the “output” phase where you write down what you are thinking about: part of your brain is busy translating into English, however easy it is for you, and this part is not available for the actual thinking about the idea.

Having said that, I still believe that keeping at least part of your notes in English is perfectly fine. Here are a few cases where it might be handy:

  • the actual note is not something that requires proper thinking: e.g. grocery or shopping lists, superficial daily logs, personal contact info and so on
  • you will need to share that note with other people who don’t speak your mother tongue. in that case you either switch to English as the operating language (e.g. for meeting minutes), or you do the translation every time you consume or update the note (e.g. for complex string of arguments in defense of a specific thesis)
  • your native language is not suitable for that note: it’s an original quote or a poem, it’s a list of highlights for an English-language source where you quickly noted down your own thoughts, etc
  • this particular topic is more suitable to be discussed or thought of in English. Some professional fields (e.g. Computer Science) use English as a main language, and the quality of material and ideas within that field in your native language might not be on par with that in English
  • the input method for your native language is not supported (or is cumbersome) on the device where you create that note.

In any case, as I’ve written above, note aliases allow you to enjoy the benefits of multilingual forward links and backlinks relatively stress-free.

So, in summary, I would advise to use your native language for notes where the quality of your thinking is important, and use whatever is easier and more conductive to fluidity for all other notes, or mix them both.

Hope this helps.

I really think the desired output language matters a lot.
I have all my notes in English, and I’m not native, but do all my research, teaching, writing, and nowadays thinking (about work at least) in English. So I have my notes in English. If I’m making notes of a text that’s in a different language, sometimes I keep the original, sometimes paraphrase in English; it doesn’t make too much of a difference at the end of the day, in my experience.
I do use tags for topics (which I know is a divisive issue around here), and those are all in English, even for texts that themselves aren’t.

I have a different vault for my personal notes; journals, daily planners, etc. Those are mixed – some English, the more personal stuff tends to be in Hungarian. It does not bother me that it’s bi-lingual; I’m too, and when I re-read it, I just switch to whatever it is written in. But of course I don’t really interlink my journal entries, because they are just that – journal entries.