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Concourse 2

Using translation


Using translation in the English language classroom has been given a rather bad press in the last 30 years or so.  Previously, of course, when grammar-translation methods of one kind or another dominated, the idea of translation from and into the learners' mother tongue was not controversial at all.
The advent of communicative approaches to teaching languages resulted in an almost immediate sweeping condemnation of translation in the classroom.
What are the arguments?

on one hand

Against translation

Carreres (2006) suggests the following arguments against using translation are the most prevalent:

  1. Translation is an artificial, stilted exercise that has no place in a communicative methodology.  Also, it is restrictive in that it confines language practice to two skills only (reading and writing).
  2. Translation into L2 is counterproductive in that it forces learners to view the foreign language always through the prism of their mother tongue; this causes interferences and a dependence on L1 that inhibits free expression in L2.
  3. Translation into L2 is a wholly purposeless exercise that has no application in the real world, since translators normally operate into and not out of their mother tongue.
  4. Translation and translation into L2 in particular are frustrating and de-motivating exercises in that the student can never attain the level of accuracy or stylistic polish of the version presented to them by their teacher.  It seems an exercise designed to elicit mistakes, rather than accurate use of language.
  5. Translation is a method that may well work with literary-oriented learners who enjoy probing the intricacies of grammar and lexis, but it is unsuited to the average learner.

To this list may be added two products of the rise of (especially English) language learning courses overseas in cultures where the target language is generally spoken.

  1. In these settings, for example, in Britain, Australia, the USA etc., groups of learners typically contain a range of first languages and this makes it very cumbersome or impractical to take the learners' first languages into consideration.  There are too many of them, some students may be the sole representative of their languages in the classroom and the teacher cannot be expected to have mastered all the languages present.
  2. Teachers in these settings are frequently native speakers of English who do not speak the languages of their students (even when teaching mono-lingual groups) and therefore feel uncomfortable or are not competent when handling translation in either direction.  Even outside English-speaking cultures, teachers are often native speakers of English for whom the same considerations apply.  This is especially, but not solely, the case in the private sector.

on the other hand

For translation

translation develops three qualities essential to all language learning: accuracy, clarity and flexibility.  It trains the learner to search (flexibility) for the most appropriate words (accuracy) to convey what is meant (clarity).
(Duff 1994;160)

There is a range of counter arguments, too, including the assertion that it is not the use of translation that is poor practice but that the ways in which it has been used represent poor practice:

  1. Translation happens all the time so why not make use of it in the classroom?  Even sophisticated learners of languages (such as language teachers?) will deploy translating dictionaries on their travels (however much they may admonish their learners to use monolingual dictionaries in the classroom).
  2. Machine-powered translation programs are now available on even cheap and unsophisticated devices and are unlikely to become less prevalent.  Dealing with the output from these programs requires a certain level of translation expertise to make sense of the product.  For example, translating even a simple sentences via a smart phone may produce something almost incomprehensible to a native speaker as anyone who has done it can testify.
  3. Some research suggests that language learners find translation exercises useful and motivating (Carreres, op cit.).
  4. Translation into L2 can be a very useful tool in terms of getting learners to notice differences in form between languages and to gain formal competence in constructing acceptably grammatical utterances.  Once formal accuracy has been achieved, the language can be practised and used in communicative exercises so the two approaches are complementary, not mutually exclusive.
  5. Translation can often reduce the strain on learners' memories because simple one-to-one translations of lexemes, phrases and whole idioms are often possible.  Trying to remember that the term ferret in English refers to a domesticated polecat used for catching rabbits is arguably more difficult than remembering that the Spanish word is hurón, the German is das Frettchen and so on.  From there, it a shorter step to remembering that fureter in French means to ferret about in the sense of search for in English.
  6. Translation can often reduce learner anxiety in terms of being sure that they have understood something clearly and have really grasped the meaning of individual language items.  The alternative is often the use of extended, time-consuming (and often inaccurate) concept-checking routines.

two ways

L1 → L2 or L2 → L1?

It is often asserted that translating from one's first language into a second language is:

  • very difficult because it demands very high second-language skills
  • a pointless exercise because it is rarely done in the real world
  • demotivating because the result is rarely at the level of sophistication that the learner hopes to achieve
  • too demanding for teachers whose first language is not English

In fact:

  • it needn't be difficult if the task is realistic
  • it is often done in the real world, especially in professional settings in which the writer / speaker has a particular term in mind that needs to be rendered in a second language
  • it is motivating and seen as valuable for many learners when they get it right
  • it is often the only way in which a native-English-speaking teacher can judge whether the translation is successful

Translating from English into one's first language has also been criticised because:

  • it forces learners to view the foreign language always through the prism of their mother tongue (Carreres, above)
  • it slows down production because the learner is going through a complex cognitive process between meaning and language (starting with meaning, encoding it in L1, re-encoding it in L2 and then producing it, rather than encoding meaning directly into L2)
  • unless the teacher is a very competent speaker of the learners' first language(s), it is impossible for her/him to know whether the translation is accurate

In fact:

  • viewing L2 by making comparisons with how things work differently in L1 (and vice versa) is a valuable noticing exercise that can facilitate learning
  • taking time carefully to consider the best way to express a thought in L2 is rarely time wasted but simply jumping in and deploying language in L2 that is 'good enough' is often imprecise and ineffective
  • most teachers of English worldwide are not native speakers of the language and most of them will be masters of their learners' first languages so it is easy for them to judge the success of a translation exercise


Translation in the classroom

The activities you choose to do in the classroom which may use some translation will often depend on:

  • your first language(s) / your ability in your students' first language(s).  If you have adequate mastery of your learners' first language(s) as well as English, you can use translation both into and out of English
  • the make up of your class(es).  If you are teaching multi-lingual groups, only translation into English is likely to be a practical proposition
sign1 sign2

Signs and notices

sign3 sign4

Signs and notices are a rich source of translation exercises because they often require very precise and unambiguous language.  We have all seen the results when it goes wrong so a collection of signs in imperfect English can also stimulate learners to correct the language to get it right.  An internet image search for 'wrong English signs' will provide enough examples to keep you supplied for a good while.


Proverbs and idioms

looking for a needle in a haystack  
Idiomatic or formulaic language is another rich source of stimulii for translation.
Getting learners to bring in favourite idioms in their own languages and render them in English to their classmates can educate and amuse.  Some, such as the example above, will translate into many languages exactly but others require a good deal of re-phrasing in English to be comprehensible.  For example:
In ...  the idiom ... is in English ...
Czech to walk around hot porridge to beat about the bush
Dutch to polar bear to pace around
French to have long teeth to have your sights set high
German don't praise the day before the evening don't count your chickens until they are hatched
Japanese to look at with long eyes not crossing bridges till you come to them
Russian to smear eyeglasses to pull the wool over someone's eyes
and so on.
Your learners can come up with many more, of course.



Languages which share roots, such as almost all those indigenous to Europe, will often have recognisable cognate words in common.  There is a guide to cognates and false friends on this site from which the following examples are taken.

English Spanish Italian French Portuguese Romanian
administer administrar amministrare administrer administrar administra
operation operación operazione opération operação operație
expression expresión espressione expression expressão expresie
communication comunicación comunicazione communication comunicação comunicare

These are not false friends but real cognates whose meaning is nearly identical in all the languages.  Some work on translating cognates between the learners' first languages and English can help them to notice that the differences are not random and allow some intelligent guessing that, for example, a word ending in -ción in Spanish is likely to have a cognate in English ending in -tion and so on.
There is, of course a need to alert learners to false friends as well (such as the well known sensible-sensitive problem) and this, too, can be achieved by reference to the learners' first language.  It is worth remembering, however, that true cognates outnumber false friends by a very considerable amount.  In other words, they serve to facilitate learning very much more frequently than they inhibit it.


Focusing on word order and syntax

Languages differ.  This will come as no surprise, of course, but one of the most powerful aspects of using translation in the classroom is to alert people (i.e., get them to notice) just how their first languages differ from English especially in terms of word order and syntax.  There are two guides on this site which will give you some ideas about how to approach this area via translation tasks:
Subjects and objects focuses on identifying the ordering of the essentials of the sentence.
Types of languages takes a wider view of the differences between languages and how they signal grammatical function.
One obvious way forward in this area, especially, but by no means solely, useful for lower-level learners is to compare direct, word-for-word translations with a corrected English sentence or phrase.  For example,

In ...  the direct translation is ... but in English should be ...
Turkish Hasan öküzü aldı
Hasan ox (+accusative) bought
Hasan bought the ox
Malagasy Nahita ny mpianatra ny vehivavy
Saw the student the woman
the woman saw the student
Greek Όλοι έφεραν τα διαβατήριά τους
All brought the passports their
They all brought their passports
French Elle l'a vu et sa peinture étonnante
She he has seen and his painting astonishing
She saw him and his astonishing painting

One obvious target of exercises like this is the distinction between languages, such as English, French, Portuguese, Russian etc. in which the normal word order is Subject - Verb - Object and languages such as Japanese, Korean, Turkish and Tamil in which the normal word order is Subject - Object - Verb.
Languages which use post positions rather then prepositions or those which routinely put the adjective after the noun are also suitable targets for a little one-to-one translation and comparative work in the classroom.


Polishing machine translations

Machine translations are ubiquitous and improving all the time but they still produce translations which are, to a native speaker, poorly expressed.  A useful exercise is to start with a text translated from the learners' first language into English by a machine or website facility and then to polish it until it is in acceptable English.  Almost any text will do but it should be something at the learners' level or the exercise can become disheartening.
The first sentence of this paragraph has been translated into and out of French by Google translate.  The result is:

Automatic translations are omnipresent and improve all the time but continue to produce translations of which they are, to a native speaker, poorly expressed.

Clearly, that is still comprehensible but needs to be altered to make it sound like natural English.


Chain translations

A similar exercise, which can be done without computer access, is to start with a short text in English.  This is given to the first pair to translate it into the class's mother tongue who then pass it on to the next pair who translate it back into English and so on.  To keep everyone occupied, a separate text can be used to start the process from the other end of the queue.
A comparison of the end product with the original text can be extremely informative and show the learners just where natural expression in English differs from expression in their first language(s).

This can, of course, be done with a short spoken text, too, in which case, the activity involves individual learners whispering their translation to the next learner and so on.  The product at the end is often unrecognisable from the original text and a good deal of useful and educational discussion can be premised on why that should be and what went 'wrong'.


Learner research

With classes in English for specific purposes in particular, getting learners to do their own research into how particular technical or business-related terms are best rendered in English can encourage autonomy and provide a valuable learning experience for groups who then report back to the class as a whole.


Oral translation work

Apart from chain translations (see above), there is no reason why translation exercises need to focus on written texts.  One of the reasons that translation has suffered from its poor reputation is that it was overly focused on writing and reading at the expense of speaking and listening.  Here are a few suggestions (some from Heltai, 1989):

  1. Read a short text to the class in their first language and then get the learners, in pairs or as individuals, to see if they can come up with an oral summary of the main points in English.  This can be preceded by a few comprehension questions in English to make sure there is some delay between hearing the text in L1 and summarising it in English.  It is the gist of the text that is the target of the exercise, not a word-for-word or exact translation.
  2. Learners listen to or watch a dialogue between two characters in their L1.  In English, they then discuss the attitudes, opinions and wishes of the speakers and then re-construct the dialogue in English.
  3. Learners are asked to read or listen to a news report in their L1 and to prepare a rough oral summary of the main points of the report in English.  This they then deliver to the class as a whole (or to groups within it), discussing, as they go along, whether there were any special terms which they found difficult to render in English.  This can lead to group self-help and dictionary work to refine and polish their ability to summarise the events in English.
  4. A similar activity can also be done in classes focused on English for Specific Purposes but in this case, the learners read a first-language text at home (it should be something related to the area of specialism) and then give a short summary, in English, of what they have read.  The object is to alert the learners to gaps in their specialist lexical range.  It does that well.

Related guides
subjects and objects for the simple guide to getting the difference clear
types of languages for a view of the differences between languages and how they signal grammatical function
cognates and false friends for a guide to a clearly related area
noticing for a guide to an important learning strategy sometimes enhanced by translation
inferencing for more on a related and important learning skill

Carreres, A., 2006, Strange bedfellows: Translation and Language teaching The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees; uses and limitations, Available from: http://www.cttic.org/ACTI/2006/papers/Carreres.pdf [retrieved 17/12/2016]
Comrie, B, 1989, Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Duff, A., 1994, Translation, Oxford : Oxford University Press
Heltai, P, 1989, Teaching vocabulary by oral translation, ELT Journal Volume 43/4 October 1989, Oxford: Oxford University Press