Practical ideas I

14 Nov

Here, and in the other ‘Practical ideas’ section below, I am assuming a monolingual class where the teacher shares the students’ language. Guy Cook’s book (pp. 151-153) offers some very useful suggestions for adapting activities for contexts where classes are multilingual or where the teacher does not speak the students’ language.

  • Students are presented with a text in which they are asked to underline the passages which they think will be challenging to translate. They also have to explain why they have marked certain passages. Also, all necessary information relevant to the translation (i.e. information regarding specific local, cultural customs, traditions, etc.) is discussed and, if necessary, provided by the teacher. In the next step, small groups of three students translate the text. (Zojer, p.43)
  • Students have to translate a text, but key words are given in translation (without, perhaps, any indication of their referents in the other text).
  • And if you’re a native speaker, get the students to translate stuff that interests you – for you!
  • Students listen to a lecture and take notes in their own language.
  • A phrase is whispered to a student, who mentally translates it into L1 and says it in L1 to the next student who translates it into L2 and passes on to the next student, etc.
  • Students translate a text into L1. The texts collected in. They are redistributed another day, when they have to translate it back into English. They then compare their version with the original.
  • A good variation of ‘reverse translation’ (see the previous 2 bullet points) has been suggested to me by Roger Marshall. This technique is especially useful for students taking examinations. Take a model composition (these can often be found on the websites of the exam boards) for one of the writing tasks in an exam (e.g. FCE). Translate it into L1 and give this to the class. They work together at translating it into English, before being asked to compare their versions with the original. Another suggestion by Roger Marshall is to get students to write part (or all) of an examination writing task in L1, and then pass it on to other students for translation into English.
  • Students discuss word-for-word translations and mistranslations (hundreds of fun mistranslations can be found online: Google ‘Chinglish’)
  • Tell the students a lateral thinking puzzle. Students must ask yes / no questions to solve the puzzle. They can ask these Qs in MT (perhaps limit the number of MT Qs that can be asked), but someone, a stronger student, say, will translate these into English and write them on the board. (this activity is taken from Dellar & Rinvolucri, p.32)
  • Modify roleplays and other speaking activities by having one person speaking MT, and one person translating. (e.g. tourist / student as go-between)
  • In discussion tasks, sts work first in MT, before summarising their points, then translate them into English, and presenting their idea to other groups / sts. Or tell students to code-switch in the middle of an activity.
  • In speaking activities, one student has to write down anything that is said in MT. This is then worked on later.
  • Students compare two translations of the same text without seeing the original.
  • Give students two or more different syntactic translations (from MT into English) of a sentence from a text. Their task is to decide which is most appropriate.
  • Different groups work on translating the same short text. They then compare and decide which versions they prefer – perhaps compiling the versions to make one collectively improved version.

6 Responses to “Practical ideas I”

  1. philipjkerr November 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Activities where students translate a text or part of a text back and forth between languages are known as ‘reverse translation’. References to this technique go back to the 16th century and the English scholar, Roger Ascham, who taught Queen Elizabeth I, and the Spanish humanist, Juan Luis Vives.

    • philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 12:45 am #

      I’ve come across an interesting account of reverse translation in a book by Jason Lawrence 2005 ‘Who the devil taught thee so much Italian?’: Italian language learning and literary imitation in Early Modern England Manchester: Manchester University Press pp.25-26

      Eliot’s instructions are intended specifically for English students of French , but are of course equally appropriate for those learning Italian, or indeed for native French and Italian speakers wishing to learn English. All of the Elizabethan language manuals make use of these parallel texts, including one, Holyband’s Campo di Fior (1583), which prints its dialogues in four languages (Italian, Latin, French, and English) and thus significantly expands the reader’s language-learning opportunities, as Sidney endeavours to do with his multilingual exercises in Italy. This technique for using the dialogues can be seen as a deliberate development from Ascham’s method in The Scholemaster. There the first step is for the master to explain ‘the cause, and matter’ of the lesson, before he construes and then parses the Latin passage into English for the student, who repeats the process for himself to ensure understanding. The title and description of the dialogues in the manuals fulfil this first stage, and it is then left to the reader to use the parallel translation as the means of ‘conferring it [the passage in the original language] word for word with the English’. This careful verbal comparison of the two languages is the equivalent of the acts of construing and parsing, intended both to teach the reader vocabulary and also to familiarise him with important grammatical properties of the language. Eliot envisages the ‘conferring’ stage continuing for up to a month; repetition is clearly a key element of the process, not merely to help the student to commit words to memory but also to guarantee a fuller understanding.
      Once the student has achieved a reading comprehension of the dialogue in the original, he is ready to progress on to translation exercises. The task for the translator using the language manuals omits the initial stage of translation into English in Ascham’s model; rather he is expected to pass immediately on to the more difficult level of translation into French or Italian, covering up the dialogue in the target language as he works. By already providing English versions, the authors of the dialogues correspond to the teachers at a more advanced level of instruction; Ascham urges them to offer pupils their own translations of Cicero, which the students must then translate unseen and unaided into Latin:
      And for translating, vse you your selfe, euery second or third day, to chose out, some Epistle Ad Atticum, some notable commonplace out of his Orations, or some other part of Tullie, by your discretion, which your scholer may not know where to finde: and translate it you your selfe, into plaine natural English, and than giue it him to translate into Latin againe: allowing him good space and tyme to do it, with diligent heede and good aduisement … Whan he bringeth it translated vnto you, bring you forth the place of Tullie: lay them together: compare the one with the other: commend his good choice, & right placing of words: Shew his faultes iently, but blame them not ouer sharply.
      The teacher’s comparison of original and translation to elucidate the successes and errors in the pupil’s version can be replicated in the manuals through the reader’s self-correction and revision of his translation against the uncovered original dialogue, exactly as Eliot recommends.

  2. Zarina January 5, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    A variation of Zojer’s example: In groups, students translate the challenging passages suggesting as many versions as possible, which are then discussed.

    One more: Students themselves look for phrases/sentences/paragraphs (both in L1 and L2) which they find difficult to translate. These suggestions are categorized, i.e. difficulties caused by word play, cultural specifics, syntax, and translated either individually or in groups. Once a month, students vote for the most difficult suggestion in a category.

    The fourth activity – taking notes in L1 while listening to a lecture in L2 could be wonderful for students practising to become interpreters. I’ve always found such note taking extremely difficult and would not do it with lower levels.

  3. philipjkerr January 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    For more Hungarian / English translation problems (cf fuckups with marmalade), have a look at this:

  4. philipjkerr November 25, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Here’s another variation on reverse translation:
    Many or most of our lessons contain some element of grammar or vocabulary teaching. Very often, this language is practised with a gap-fill of some sort. Once the students have completed a gap-fill and you have conducted whole-class feedback on the activity, tell the students to close their books. Then, explain that they are going to do a dictation … but a dictation with a difference. Tell them that they must not write down what you say (i.e. they must not write any English); they must only write down a translation (into their own language) of what they hear.
    Dictate the completed sentences from the gap-fill exercise (there are usually six to eight sentences in such exercises). The students should work individually. Give them enough time to think about and write down their translations. When they have finished, give them some time to compare their answers with a partner. Then, you spring your surprise: tell them that they must now translate these sentences back into English. They must not consult their books, but they can work with a partner. After a sufficient amount of time (monitor how they’re getting on!), tell the students that they can now look at the original exercise in their books. Conclude this activity by answering any questions that the students ask, or by discussing anything interesting that you have noticed while monitoring.


  1. Dictionnaire Cobra – A striking corpus based tool | EFL Notes - May 30, 2013

    […] The lesson idea is based on a variation of a reverse translation as described by Phillip Kerr. […]

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