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Translation and translating

14 Nov

Traditional approaches to translation have usually focussed on the product of the translating process: the final, ‘correct’ translated text. In more contemporary approaches (including mine), the focus is on the process of translating itself. In some ways, the ‘correct’ answer is not really important: much more relevant are the learning opportunities that may be provided along the way towards an appropriate translation.

At its most minimal, translation may simply entail the glossing of an L2 word with an L1 ‘equivalent’, or a teacher repeating instructions in L1. It may involve the use of bilingual dictionaries or bilingual grammars. It may involve activities where L1 is used in some way and it may mean translation of longer texts. I have conflated these in some of the posts that follow – a less than satisfactory shortcut, but one imposed by constraints of space and time. Sorry.


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.

Practical ideas II

30 Oct

The suggestions in this group all make use of online technology. In some cases, the students will also need access to this technology.

  • This activity is a valuable way of looking again at a text that you have already studied in class, perhaps four or five lessons previously. But it can also be used with any text that has intrinsic interest (e.g. current news). Type a text into an online translation tool (see 25 October posting: Web resources) and convert it into your students’ mother tongue. Distribute this to the students, whose task (in groups) is to edit the translation to make it ‘acceptable’. To help them, you may underline the bits that need attention.
  • Google Translate offers translations that are usually riddled with errors. However, if you point the cursor over the offered translation, it breaks it down into shorter phrases which you can then click on to be offered alternative translations. Students can usefully work in groups going through the alternatives that are on offer, selecting the best … or rejecting them all, and replacing with their own versions.
  • Find a movie clip in original English with subtitles in the students’ language. Show the students the clip with the sound down. Their task is to work out what was actually said. Once done, they can compare their versions with the original. If you think your students would enjoy this kind of work, check out … ‘levis’ stand for ‘learning via subtitling.
  • Translating video clips (from English) is often more motivating than using a paper-based text. If your students work with movie extracts, they will also be focusing, inevitably, on dialogue. They will enjoy seeing their own subtitles appear on screeen, and this is easily achieved. See for easy-to-follow instructions.
  • Chuchotage (or lectoring) is a voice-over simultaneous translation that is still used on TV in some countries. Find short clips that you want your students to work on (or, perhaps, they can select their own). In groups, the students prepare a mother tongue voice-over script to accompany the clip. It usually works best if the students must do this orally, without taking written notes. They then practice delivering their mother tongue voice-over so that it is synchronised with the clip. Finally, they present their work to other groups of students.

Practical ideas III

25 Oct

Just the day-to-day business of managing classroom activities … There’s no reason why there should be a ‘translation’ phase of any lesson. Here are some ways of experimenting with translation / L1.


When you are speaking to the class in English and you use a word or a phrase that you think they are unlikely to know, provide a quick gloss of it in the students’ own language, repeat it in English, and then carry on. Butzkamm and Caldwell suggest that this should be a central technique of any foreign language teacher.

Speaking activities

When learners are ‘involved’ in a speaking activity, you may be relieved if they’re speaking at all. One way of making speaking activities less intimidating is by allowing a certain amount of mother tongue. When a learner really feels the need to express themselves in their mother tongue, another student’s job should be to translate and write down the challenging words / expressions. Exactly how you fix the rules is up to you! (Thanks to Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri for first putting this idea my way.)

Allow groups of students to prepare their ideas for a discussion task in their mother tongue. Then get them to summarise these ideas in English. They then move into a different group to do the discussion itself.

Experiment with code-switching in the middle of, or at various moments during, an activity.

Add an extra dimension to roleplays by including a third person who interprets for the other two (one of whom only uses mother tongue, the other English).


During some activities, allow some students to use a bilingual dictionary and others to use a monolingual English one. At the end of the activity, encourage them to discuss the relative merits of these tools. This is a lot more fun if the dictionaries are apps on a handheld device, rather than a great clunky book.