Not Getting Lost in Translation: Sound Practices with Clear Purposes

I admit that the last time I had a group of students perform a traditional translation exercise was back in the late 1990s when I was working in Russia as an EFL instructor. I had knowledge of the students’ L1, so I was able to evaluate the clarity and accuracy of a translation from Russian into English. In the ESL classroom, I couldn’t repeat such a practice because (1) I didn’t have knowledge of everyone’s native language and (2) students had different L1s, which meant I couldn’t ask for translations of the same text into English.

Nevertheless, have there been times in my ESL instruction when a task called for translation into the target language? Yes. For example, I remember teaching different groups of students from textbooks with chapter themes on superstitions and proverbs. During speaking activities, students had to share beliefs from their own cultures and discuss their meaning and/ or significance. I am absolutely certain that conscious translation was necessary in order to recall particular beliefs and articulate them in English for fellow classmates. Was the process effective in helping students learn English and communicate in a purposeful way? Yes. In the case of superstitions, students were asked to use conditional statements. The activity was done in the context of a grammar class. I’d argue the activity required students to use target grammar in a meaningful and memorable context.

What other formats could make translation an effective and worthwhile exercise in an ESL context? Here’s a suggestion:

  • Translate a joke or fairy tale from L1 to L2. The focus should be on meaning. If possible, have students pair up so that no two students with the same L1 are working together. The first step is done orally. Ask Student 1 to translate the joke or tale into English. Student 2 should listen and ask questions for clarification. Student 2 must then write down the joke or tale and revise the structure or wording as seen fit. The idea is that a second pair of ears (represented by the scribe who has a different L1) increases the chances that there will be a more natural-sounding final product, which could be shared with the class. Note: Before the writing phase begins, both Student 1 and Student 2 should have the chance to share a joke or tale. They write their separate texts at the same time, present their texts to each other, and then submit them to the teacher.

I’ll discuss this question in my next posting.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Roccyi says:

    This is an excellent article! I’ll recommend it to Chinese readers.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Wonderful. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Roccyi says:

    Hello, nice to meet you! My name is Roccyi Okyan. Currently living in China. I love your articles and blog, If you do not mind, I’ll recommend it to Chinese readers.

    Best Regards!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Thanks again, Roccyi. I’m glad you like the posts here.

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