How to use translation in the language classroom

Written by: Rossen Stoitchkov, “St. Kliment Ohridski” University of Sofia
Department of Language Teaching and International Students

The paper sets out to explore the hidden potential of translation in teaching monolingual students. It attempts to show that translation in the language classroom can be used as a practical activity, which may indeed be rewarding for the teacher and stimulating for the students. Carefully designed translation activities involve learners in a metalinguistic task, which requires attention to the structural features of language thus having their awareness raised as to the specific way an idea (even the commonest one) is rendered in L1 and L2 (no distinction is made between foreign and second language). It is assumed that an ability (which is also a skill) to look at the stream of speech “with the mind’s eye” is crucial to language learning and the paper explores the means for teaching and acquisition of such a skill through translation classroom activities. The paper also seeks to recast transfer and interference as a helpful learner strategy rather than a negative L1 influence.

The paper tries to rid translation of a too close an association with the Grammar Translation Method (GTM), which has fallen into academic disrepute and has given translation a bad name among language professionals. As a result many language teachers often banish translation from their classrooms as an “evil” of the past, a reminder of teaching methodologies found to be inadequate.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, with the advent of communicative teaching and the influx of Direct Method practitioners to the teaching world, translation has been generally out of fashion within the language teaching community. Yet, for thousands of years this ancient craft had been right at the heart of language learning. Many of the mediaeval universities developed out of what were originally schools of translation.

Today translation is still largely ignored as a valid activity for language practice and improvement. The neglect seems to be partly because of the continual misuse of translation within the classroom. Even where it is still retained, it tends to be used not for language teaching, but for testing. The main reason for this might be that over the centuries translation had gradually become fossilized. It became less and less associated with the excitement of discovery learning, more and more with the boredom of book learning. What should have been a challenging activity had turned into a pointless routine exercise, a chore.

Due to the negative attitude towards GTM, which, for the past three decades has been regarded with mistrust, grammar and translation are tainted by association, making many teachers still feel ill at ease with translation. Although GTM is unsatisfactory for all sorts of reasons, using translation activities doesn’t have to mean using that kind of method. There is no reason why translation should not play a part in a modern approach. It has been my experience that adult learners in particular, being cognitively oriented, value translation and benefit from a mixed approach that contains elements of the communicative approach and more traditional methods, and not from an approach, which is communicative only.

It will be interesting to note that Richards and Rodgers (1986) state, “in modified form it [GTM] continues to be widely used in some parts of the world today and is still widely practiced”, referring to the late 1980s. It appears that translation as a language teaching technique has been making a comeback in Europe, as evidenced by publications such as some of the articles in Malmkjar, 1998, e.g. Klein Braley & Franklin, Newson, Stibbard. In fact, Anderman (1998:45) reports that in a survey of the teaching of translation at British universities, nineteen out of the twenty-one institutions which responded to the questionnaire indicated that translation was taught “as a way of improving students’ linguistic proficiency” (Sewell, 1996: 137). It turns out that language learning and translation studies are much more closely related than scholars in both fields seem to believe. However, there is much more to be done in fostering closer interaction between these two fields.

It goes without saying that translation works best with monolingual classes taught by a non-native speaker teacher. In the Bulgarian context, the majority of language teachers are non-native speakers of the target language with few exceptions: usually Peace Corps volunteers teaching in state schools and the occasional native speaker employed by a private language school. Therefore, contrastive analysis and translation have locally become part of every successful methodology. Native speaker teachers are often frowned upon for not being able to explain language points in the students’ L1 and compare structures causing confusion in the learners. Of course, it is easy to think of convincing reasons why native speakers of English have a lot of advantages as language teachers. Nevertheless, they have never thought about and struggled with the language the way a non-native teacher has. Many non-native speakers have a sophisticated knowledge of L2, a kind of knowledge which native speakers can only develop with special training.

It is often the case that non-native speaker teachers have a better idea than many native speaker teachers of how L2 works. Moreover, all non-native speaker teachers are language learners themselves. They have experienced themselves the difficulties their students have, which puts them in a very good position to understand those difficulties. Also, many errors have their causes in the L1. Knowledge of the L1 is therefore a very important tool for the teacher as he or she is in a position to know which aspects of the language to concentrate on.

Asking students to compare and contrast L2 and L1 is not a new idea. Translation-based foreign language (FL) courses of the past embodied this approach, then translation was abandoned almost completely when “English-only” methods came into vogue. The situation today is changing and it is no longer one of such extremes. Most language professionals would acknowledge that some translation for contrastive purposes can be useful in the language classroom. These apparently opposing situations seem likely to be reconciled.

Weschler (1997) shows that by combining the best of the “grammar-translation” method with the best of “communicative” methods, a new, more powerful hybrid can emerge in which the focus is more on the negotiated meaning of the message than its sterile form. He calls his coinage “The Functional-Translation Method” (FTM). Its goal is to allow students to learn the useful English they want to learn as efficiently and enjoyably as possible. This entails taking advantage of the knowledge they already possess in their L1 as well as their innate, higher-order cognitive skills.

The following chart, taken from Weschler’s article can illustrate the differences between the traditional GTM and the newly coined FTM. The differences concern one particular area: the type of language being  translated.

The Type of Language
Traditional Grammar-Translation Proposed Functional-Translation
  1. Word-for-word level
  2. Referential meaning
  3. Literary, narrative or technical written text
  4. Obsolete, stiff and formal language
  5. Irrelevant to students’ needs and interests
  6. Grammar (i.e. Form)
  7. Many infrequent, useless words
  8. Too complex and difficult
  9. Deductive rule-driven
  10. Out-of-context (discrete and indigestible)
  11. Bad-test driven
  12. Language no native-speaker would say
  13. Lexis of formal composition
  1. Chunked phrase/idea level
  2. Social-functional meaning
  3. Spoken conversational patterns and dialogues
  4. Current, colloquial, idiomatic language
  5. Relevant to students’ needs and interests
  6. Function (i.e. Meaning)
  7. Fewer frequent, useful phrases
  8. Simple and direct
  9. Inductive, discovery-driven
  10. In-context (Embedded and memorizable)
  11. Necessary-language driven
  12. Correct, natural language
  13. Lexis of conversational management

As the communicative movement has begun to run short of ideas, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional practices such as translation. It is my contention that translation could be renovated and made communicative. Translation does not have to be a lone, pointless struggle between student and text. Many other approaches are possible. It can be introduced purposefully and imaginatively into the language learning programme. If we could shift the emphasis from learning translation as a set of discrete skills (although it may have its own merits) to using translation as a resource for the promotion of language learning, we might be able to reinterpret and humanize it, using it to our advantage as a powerful tool for developing language awareness.

I believe translation deserves its place for the following reasons:

  • It helps learners understand the influence of L1 on L2 and correct errors of misuse of particular words or structures, allowing them to think comparatively;
  • Because translation involves contrast, it enables us to explore the potential of both languages – their strengths and weaknesses;
  • It forces learners to think carefully about meaning, not just to mechanically manipulate forms;
  • It encourages students to take risks rather than avoid them;
  • Outside the classroom translation is going on all the time. Why not inside the classroom?
  • Translation develops three qualities, which are essential to language learning: accuracy, clarity and flexibility, training the learner to search for the most appropriate words to convey what is meant.
  • It invites speculation and discussion;
  • Translation activities develop learners’ metalinguistic awareness.

I will dwell on this last reason, justifying the place of translation in the FL classroom, as I consider it to be vitally important. Metalinguistic awareness may be defined as “an awareness of the underlying linguistic nature of language use”. (Byalistok, 147) It allows the individual to step back from the comprehension or production of an utterance in order to consider the linguistic form and structure underlying the meaning of the utterance. Cazden (1976) defines the construct as “the ability to make language forms opaque and attend to them in and for themselves” (p.603). A metalinguistic task, in the most general sense, is one which requires the individual to think about the linguistic nature of the message: to attend to and reflect on the structural features of language. Tunmer and Herriman (1984) note that:

To be metalinguistically aware is to begin to appreciate that the stream of speech, beginning with the acoustic signal and ending with the speaker’s intended meaning, can be looked at with the mind’s eye and taken apart. (1984:12)

Bialystok and Ryan (1985) treat metalinguistic awareness not as a unique ability, but as the ability to successfully approach and solve certain types of problems. In this sense, it is both an awareness and a skill: the problem is metalinguistic and the skill is recognizing the nature and demands of the problem.

The rejection of the use of translation FL classroom seems to be based on a limited, partial understanding. As a result, application of translation has failed without even trying to exploit its full communicative potential. Not only was translation over-used; it was used inefficiently, too. Uninteresting dull texts were set, and the exercise was not prepared; it was mostly a written exercise; there was heavy reliance on bilingual dictionaries, and was not integrated with other types of activities.

I am convinced, however, that translation from L1 into L2, can be streamlined, so that under given conditions it can be fitted in with the latest approaches to foreign language teaching. Translation can be a worthwhile exercise under the following conditions:

  • Translation should not be used where it does not belong;
  • It should not be used excessively or to the exclusion of other types of work;
  • A translation exercise should always be thoroughly prepared;
  • Teachers should always know why they are using a translation activity and what they expect students to get out of it;
  • Proper attention should be paid to integrate it with other activities;
  • Measures should be taken to ensure that the exercise is interesting and motivating, both in the oral and the written mode.

Translation belongs in the curriculum when:

  • it is an end in itself;
  • adult students are concerned, whose previous learning habits predispose them towards conscious learning;
  • formal correctness is considered important;
  • students take an active interest in the formal aspects of the foreign language;
  • the teacher speaks the same native language as his or her students.

The real usefulness of translation in the FL classroom lies in exploiting it in order to compare grammar, vocabulary, word order and other language points in L2 and L1. The areas where difficulties occur range from relatively small points such as “false friends”, through sizeable areas such as tense systems, to more complex fields such as contrastive rhetoric. However, in all cases, if students are aware of the differences, interference is likely to be reduced. It may be appropriate at this point to draw on Perkins’ observations:

In order to develop in the students a linguistic awareness of contrast between L1 and L2 grammatical structures, and thus counteract interlingual interference, the teacher can quite legitimately get students to translate L1 sentences designed to pinpoint and clarify structures and patterns the student still has not assimilated.

(Perkins, 1985)

Newmark also gives a more specific description of the kind of FL translation activities he envisages:

In the elementary stages, translation from L1 to L2 may be useful as a form of control and consolidation of basic grammar and vocabulary. This form of control should be regular but sparing, should not usually introduce new L2 items and must not dominate the teaching. In the middle stages, translation from L2 to L1 of words and clauses may be useful in dealing with errors; therefore interference, interlanguage or unconscious translationese can be illuminated by back-translation, as an aid in the production of creative discourse or texts.

(Newmark, 1991)

In other words, after some work on contrastive analysis – comparing L2 and L1 – the actual practice of problem areas can also involve some translation from time to time. In this sense, translation also becomes useful as a means of consolidating and controlling (not necessarily testing) performance in those areas where interference may occur.

Many grammar points lend themselves to some form of contrastive analysis. An ideal time to make such a comparison might be when grammar points are reviewed. After focusing on an area of grammar, the students can be asked to translate a series of model sentences from L2 into L1 and see what patterns emerge. Students should provide a natural – not a “forced” – translation in their own language and then be encouraged to come to some conclusions about how their language compares with L2.

Once differences and similarities between the two languages have been noted, further practice is to be encouraged. This could be in the form of a traditional grammar exercise, a speaking task where the grammar point is likely to be used, a piece of writing where such language forms will presumably arise, and/or a translation. The translation exercise can take the form of a few sentences to be translated into the student’s L1, or L2 sentences to translate into L1 and then translate back into L2, perhaps with a time lapse in between. However, a short passage is usually much more stimulating and practical rather than a list of sentences with little context.

In vocabulary practice, translation comes into its own in an exercise to check that some fairly common “false friends” are known. Spotting the deceptive cognates in a number of sentences might be the first stage, discussing which are possible traps for the languages in question could be the second step. Then, after the meanings have been made clear, a suitable translation may be put forward.

For speakers of some languages cognates are an enormously valuable resource. There are huge areas of vocabulary which are much easier to learn because of the similarities between L1 and L2. It is worth making students aware of and exploit those cognates. Beginners should be introduced to as many cognates as possible, which is good for helping them grow confident. False cognates should not be ignored as they can cause a lot of problems of mistranslation. What is more, students should be encouraged to guess cognates. At the same time, they should be given guidance about the sorts of words which are likely to be “true friends”. They should be taught to always check in a dictionary to see whether a word really is a true friend before using it. Last but not least, students should be encouraged to pay attention to pronunciation. This can be a considerable problem, particularly when L1 has borrowed a word from L2.

As I already mentioned above, a translation exercise has to be well-prepared. Preparation begins by selecting an appropriate text, which can be a story from a newspaper or any other source. The text should be short, so that the students are able to remember it after reading or listening to it once. The prime objective is not to learn or teach new words, but to consolidate vocabulary and to clarify sense relations between words in meaningful contexts, and also to draw attention to cross-linguistic problems. Therefore, ideally the text should not contain unfamiliar vocabulary. However, it would be silly not to use an excellent text because it contains an unfamiliar item. If such an item is of key importance within the text, it can be presented and practiced in advance. The teacher should translate the text beforehand, noting the points where difficulties might be expected, and studying all the possible variations in grammar, lexis, and style that his or her students are likely to offer.

Preparation should be particularly careful on the lexical side; the teacher should check the meanings of synonyms, record the collocational properties of individual items, and study the relevant semantic fields. Such meticulous preparations may appear to be too exacting, but I am convinced that most teachers prefer devoting extra time to preparation, rather than facing a situation where they have to deal with vocabulary problems on an ad hoc basis, which frequently happens during the course of a role-play exercise, or when a group discussion develops and takes unexpected turns.

Speaking from experience, I have found that a translation exercise is best introduced by a short discussion focusing on the same topic as the text. If the text is about a controversial subject, the arguments for and against it can be discussed. This way, much of the vocabulary that will be needed in translating the text will have been reactivated. This is an important consideration, since if students have not recently been practicing some of the lexical items from the text, they might have slipped from their active lexical repertoire.

Integration with other activities can take various forms. A translation exercise can be preceded by grammatical and lexical exercises to provide additional practice on certain points, and also to prepare the translation exercise. Alternatively, the translation exercise can be used as a starting point for further oral practice. Translation can also be integrated with teaching functions in the foreign language. For instance, the function of warning can be practiced in various communicative oral exercises, and then complemented with the more formal types of warning based on oral translation of written texts.

Translation should not be a dull exercise. The text to be translated must be interesting and relevant to the needs of the students. Interest can be created by applying the standard procedures of communicative teaching. An information gap can be created if only one student has the text, and invites comments after he or she has translated it for the class. Alternatively, if the text is a bit long, a selected student sums it up to the class and then the text is handed out to all of the students and a full translation is worked out jointly, making use of questions and comments from the whole class. Translation can be done as pair work, followed by a discussion as a class. To sum up, as Edge points out, there is no reason why “a translation class should not benefit from a communicative and interactive approach.” (Edge, 1986:121)

Now I would like to move on to describing some effective translation activities I have been using in my classes with adult learners of English. What I often do is read out a short story in Bulgarian and then ask a student to provide a summary of the story in English. Other students are asked to add details or offer alternative translations. Finally, a student is called upon to reproduce the complete story. The discussion of alternative translations always generates lively interest.

I have also tried out another version of the activity with longer texts containing more sophisticated vocabulary. I read out the text in Bulgarian and then ask questions in English. Students are asked to sum up or translate the story, either in pairs or as a class.

Sometimes I hand out the text to the students and ask them to underline the words that they think could be omitted, simplified, or paraphrased in translation. Then I get them to work out a simplified translation and subsequently to refine it searching for more precise equivalents for the items, which have been bypassed. Students are usually assigned homework to translate the same text using a bilingual dictionary. What is puzzling is the fact that in many cases the original simplified translation turns out to be the best one. This type of exercise demonstrates how over-reliance on the dictionary can be dangerous as well as the pitfalls of too close a translation.

Correcting wrong translation has turned out to be an intriguing activity. The teacher prepares some incorrect word for word translations and the students discuss them and correct them. This can be done with common phrases [e.g. *What hour is it?* or *Have you fire?*] , or, at higher levels the activity can focus on a specific aspect of grammar, for example, tense and time [e.g. *I live here since 2 years.*]. This sort of activity gets students to focus intensively on problematic areas and helps to make clear to them the dangers of word for word translation.

Another motivating type of translation exercise which my students enjoy is consolidation translation. This kind of exercise gives learners further practice in an area of grammar or vocabulary or a function they have been studying recently. The teacher writes a text in L1 whose translation into English includes a number of examples of one particular area of difficulty. This kind of translation is done most frequently from L1 to L2. Its purpose is to give learners practice in producing a particular area of L2, which is often a pattern, or a chunked phrase, not just in understanding it [e.g. Did you succeed in convincing your father that you were telling him the truth?].

I often ask students to compare different versions of a translation. Usually they are given three different versions of a text. The teacher designs the three translations so that each of them has different strengths and weaknesses. Students discuss different aspects of the text and finally they are asked to write in pairs or groups a new “ideal” translation. An activity like this should encourage students to think about aspects of context and to pay attention to the “social” meaning of the words and phrases which they select. This activity can be done either from L2 to L1 or the other way round.

What is a still more exciting activity is comparing different versions written by the students. The teacher prepares two short texts for translation from L2 into L1: text A and text B. The students work in pairs. In each pair, one student gets text A and the other text B. They do not show each other their texts. Individually, each student writes a quick translation of their text into L1. In each pair, the students swap the translations that they have written. They do not give each other the original texts A and B. Individually, each student writes a quick translation of the L1 text, which they now have, into L2. At this point each student has translated into L2 the text that their partner translated from L2. In each pair, the students now show each other the original texts A and B. They compare their translations and discuss the differences between the two L2 versions of each text. This activity is a good way of raising students’ awareness of the skills of translation and the differences between their own language and the target language. The final discussion may have to take place in L1.

Lost in translation is really an exhilarating activity. Students form a circle of up to 10 seated students. All students receive a number from 1 to 10. Each even numbered student receives a different English sentence written across the top of a piece of paper. Odd numbered students receive one of the same English sentences translated into L1, also written on the top of a piece of paper. Students then proceed to translate the main idea of the sentence and write their translation below the original sentence. Students then fold the paper over concealing the original sentence, only showing their translated version of the sentence. Students then each pass their papers in a clockwise fashion, repeating the same procedure of folding to conceal the sentence that a student has read to write his translated sentence. When a piece of paper has completed the circle the activity stops. Now students examine what meaning has been lost in the translation of the sentences. This helps students not only to improve their vocabulary, which is crucial for accessing meaning, but it also allows them to participate in a consciousness raising exercise concerning grammatical and contextual structures in L1 and L2.

Students seem to be very involved when doing bilingual dialogues. This technique employs pairing students off. One receives a native language version of the same dialogue. Then both students attempt to translate it. Later, the two students compare results and act out the English dialogue. Again, this is another activity which serves as a consciousness raiser in comparing students’ L1 and L2. Students will generally be able to access their L1 and use it to learn new vocabulary by translating. This activity is also useful for pointing out language redundancy. Finally, the acting out of the English dialogue offers the students production practice, which is vital for improving their speaking skills.

Role-plays with L1 brainstorming have also proved to be very inspiring and effective. This is a technique where a set of English discussion phrases are usually pre-taught and practiced. Students break into brainstorming groups to develop strategies for their later discussion with an opposing group. They may use L1 for their brainstorming. They may ask the teacher for help after they have consulted a bilingual dictionary, attempting to formulate expressions themselves. The teacher should point out some distinctions in meaning or formality for some words to be used in the discussion. Students may also be given a list of possible strategies/positions they may use in later discussion sessions. Finally, the students prepare for the discussion practicing the English expressions the teacher has given them before getting to the discussion itself. The teacher should follow with a critique of the discussion. This might include presentation sequencing, word usage, grammar errors, body language, etc. Now may be included a further discussion of cultural differences related to the subject discussed or the situation and how it would differ in L1.

Students benefit from this activity in a number of ways. Firstly, they improve their ability to formulate a strategy. Secondly, they work on their dictionary usage skills with the teacher introducing different levels of appropriate language. Thirdly, students gain useful vocabulary and phrases within a contextual framework with examples provided by teacher and peers. What is more, students gain production practice for improving their speaking skills in a conversational format. Finally, students are introduced to L1 and L2 cultural differences by the teacher’s critique of their discussion concerning presentation, word usage and any follow-up discussion.

Finally, I will go back to the issue of rethinking GTM. A lot has been happening in what is now known as Translation Studies since the 1980s and we have come a long way from considering translation as a “search-and-replace” exercise. In fact, it has mostly been considered as such by GTM followers, not by translation practitioners or scholars. In Basil Hatim’s and Ian Mason’s words, translation is now mainly considered as “a dynamic process of communication” (1990: 52), communication being the key word here. The purpose of communicative language teaching is to facilitate the acquisition of communicative competence: the ability to express, interpret and negotiate meaning.

Translation shares with language use a communicative purpose: it is a special form of communicative language use and therefore “a unique form of second language education.” (Kiraly, 1995:34). There is no reason why we should not regard translation as a “fifth skill” (Newmark, 1991) alongside the other four basic skills in modern language teaching and exploit purposeful translation within a communicative context. Talking about skills, translation has a twofold nature: it could be both a vocational skill and a learning strategy which is an aid to language learning. Although this article touched on some aspects of professional translation and Translation Studies and their relevance to language teaching, it is the latter that it attempts to elaborate on. Yet, the interaction between Translator Training and language teaching is to be explored in a separate paper. On the whole, language teachers should be warned that translation can be “too much of a good thing” and be encouraged to use it in moderation. While it is generally agreed that too much translation is a bad thing when trying to deal with the practicalities of learning to speak a foreign language, perhaps too little is also a bad thing.

References:

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