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Found in Translation

September 20, 2021 by Maria Cleary

Translation in the language class: why and how?

Translation has had a bad reputation in English language teaching for some time. Quite unreasonably and undeservedly if we really think about it. With the popularity of communicative language teaching, the idea of translation has been simplified to the reliance on a grammar-based translation method, which heavily focuses on grammar structures and their translations. This, to us, sounds far from what we should be aiming for as thoughtful translation practice increases students’ knowledge of the nuances of language and develops their awareness of both language and culture. 

In this post, we would like to draw your attention to the importance of translation and offer some starting points for teachers who would like to inspire their students to feel more prepared and aware of linguistic choices and how culture is reflected in the language we use.

Some benefits of using translation in the classroom

Translation saves time.
Remember: our students already know at least one language very well, and you do not need to teach them English as if they were toddlers. Even in real-life discussions, we use translator apps or ask about the meaning of a phrase in order to move forward in an interaction. So why waste precious time explaining a phrase which has a simple translation and cannot be misunderstood? The key is choosing the words and phrases which are easier to grasp with translation. Sometimes a short translation can clarify grammatical structures, too. 

Translation raises cultural awareness on multiple levels.
Think about the word ‘bread’ in English. Then, try to find images to illustrate the word. German, English, Italian or French images for the word ‘bread’ will most likely be different. So by translating the word, you also have to point out that in some cases a simple translation is not enough if we want to express precisely what the word refers to. Your students need to grasp the cultural dimension of the same word in different linguistic (and thus cultural) contexts. 

On a higher level, you can discuss that the same concept is often expressed differently with different imagery or metaphors. Only by really understanding the phrase and trying to imagine it and grasp its reference points (for example, by translating it word by word) will you realize how differently people in different languages think. Then, you need to find that phrase in your own language (to realize how people in your mother tongue think). For example, wishing someone good luck can be expressed by saying ‘break a leg’ in English but ‘in bocca al lupo’ (meaning in the wolf’s mouth) in Italian.

Have you noticed how literal translations of English phrases have entered our mother tongues? Only when translating them do we realize that what we are saying sounds unnatural in our mother tongue and may not be used in that exact form in English.

Translation helps us understand linguistic relativity.
We often find that certain words and concepts are hard to explain in English or they might not exist in every language. There are many reasons for different languages not having the right word to express the same concept. By trying to translate these expressions, we will realize how differently we think in English and in our mother tongue. For example: the German term ‘Schadenfreude’ means ‘pleasure because of another person’s misfortune’. This same expression exists in Hungarian, but not in English. 

A simple example is the use of colour names in English and other languages: it often happens that we do not have the exact expression to name the same colours on the colour spectrum. Generic 'blue', for example, in English can be expressed as either 'azzurro' (the colour of a blue sea) or 'celeste' (light blue, the colour of a clear sky).

Tip: Read more about linguistic relativity here.

Translation is communicative and real.
Many times, students are afraid to stop and ask the speaker to say what a certain word means. You can practise this by speaking quickly to your students including some difficult words in your speech. Ask students to stop and ask you the meaning of the unknown words. You will find that sometimes a simple translation works better than a well-phrased definition or explanation.

Translation can reassure students.
When you are learning a new language, understanding the use of a grammatical unit can be hard in the target language. After all, our students are not linguists and language teachers, and they do not need to have knowledge about language (metalanguage) to explain grammatical and lexical structures. Sometimes it is enough to say that ‘the’ is the definite article (say ‘definite article’ in your mother tongue) and move on without making your students feel frustrated about such technical terms.

Some tips

  • Do not do translation for translation’s sake. Simply translating a text without a real purpose can be a poetic idea, but it is also a frustrating one for students. Focus on functional phrases and ask students to find an equivalent in English. Compare their suggestions. 
  • Never generalize a simple translation by attaching one meaning to a word. Translations, just like word definitions, need to be given in a given context and with an example sentence. One word never has only one meaning, and students often feel frustrated if they cannot find a single translation for a word in English. Leave some time during your lessons to talk about this aspect of language learning as it can be an eye-opener for your students, and they might feel less frustrated about learning words.
  • Talk about what ‘real translation’ means. Translation is a serious profession which demands knowledge of two languages. Collect some characteristics and knowledge areas good translators need to have.
  • Talk about code-switching. Code-switching is the act of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of a language in a conversation. Why do we do this? Is it because of some aspect of linguistic relativity? Perhaps we are simply too lazy to find the right terms? Ask your students to notice if it happens to them in their everyday conversations.
  • Translate only what’s necessary. And when you translate, do not simply give the translation, but explain why certain things mean what they mean. It might happen that students do not understand why the present perfect tense is used in a sentence when it is translated in the simple present or the simple past in their own language. Translation can help them understand the huge difference between two approaches to time in language. This is how translating once can really help, otherwise it will become confusing. However, by pointing out and explaining the differences in thinking in English vs your mother tongue, students might feel more comfortable. 
Activity tips for reading lessons

Fairy tales are great resources for learning as they build on a universal knowledge base so that students feel more comfortable about talking about them.

Think about their titles: for example, how do you translate Little Red Riding Hood in your own language? What does the title say about the story itself?

Compare versions of a favourite tale (most of us will be reading translations as the Brothers Grimm wrote in German, and often they will be translations of translations (Perrault's in French, for example). 

Here are 2 examples from the ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The first is translated from Perrault, the second is Jack Zipes 2014 edition. Compare them, then look for a translation in your language.

"And, saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up.

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all."

"No sooner did the wolf say that than he jumped out of bed and gobbled up poor Little Red Cap. After the wolf had the fat chunks in his body, he lay down in bed again, fell asleep, and began to snore very loudly. The huntsman happened to be passing by the house and thought to himself, 'The way the old woman's snoring, you'd better see if something's wrong.' He went into the room, and when he came to the bed, he saw the wolf lying in it. He had been searching for the wolf for a long time and thought that the beast had certainly eaten the grandmother. 'Perhaps she can still be saved,' he said to himself. 'I won't shoot.' So he took some scissors and cut open the wolf's belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed, 'Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf's body.'"