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Major Article 02

Translation: Why the Bad Press? A Natural Activity in an Increasingly Bilingual World

Maria González Davies

Maria González Davies is a teacher at the Teachers’ Training College Blanquerna, Faculty of Education and Psychology, Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona, Spain. She is interested in translation training, the role of translation in FLA, and Children’s and Young Adult’s Literature. She has written several articles on these topics, text books for TEFL and other books. She is currently working on the volume Translating the Verbal and the Visual in Children’s Literature, which she is coediting with Riitta Oittinen from the University of Tampere in Finland. E-mail:



Translation in FLA – why the bad press?

Translation competence applied to FLA: some activities


Activity 1: Connectors in context

Activity 2: TV Advertising


Translation projects: some ideas

Final thoughts


But at the same time, we observe a rapid advancement of bilingualism and multilingualism, which is a lived reality, experienced at both the individual and the institutional level. It has been estimated that there are approximately 30 times more languages in the world than there are states to house them, and Europe is no exception... The reality of bilingualism has given rise to complex political, socio-cultural, linguistic and educational problems... the practice of multiculturalism should be viewed as an important barometer of each country's democratic maturity. (Sadlak 2000)


Should translation return to the world of foreign language learning? If so, how? Here, I argue that translation competence includes skills that can help our students improve their foreign language learning process, but only of we adopt a view of translation far from the artifice of Grammar-Translation premises and we accept that translation is about communication, about relating to previous knowledge in different ways to improve foreign language learning, about applying a widespread practice in a natural and creative way, and about enhancing self-confidence and student-centred learning. Written and oral translation activities that draw from humanistic, collaborative and communicative principles can be designed and used effectively in the foreign language classroom, not as a substitute for current practices, but to complement them.

Translation in FLA – why the bad press?

Translation is back – or is it? It’s always been there, working in the periphery of TEFL. After all, it is thanks to translation that we know about other literatures, other scientific discoveries, or other schools of thought, and that institutions and cultures can come together and their members talk.

Translation has never been properly understood in TEFL, where it has always been taken as a boring static exercise to –supposedly – test language acquisition. What our ability to translate Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela, which we were asked to do in our final English exam at university, was supposed to prove has always been a mystery to us!

The battle rages between advocates of the Natural and Communicative Approaches and die-hard Grammar-Translation followers – but surely there is a midway? The former forget that monolingual communities are a minority: about two thirds of the world's population is bilingual –most children grow up learning two (or more) languages. What these children do is relate their previous knowledge of one language to the other, showing high brain plasticity and an understanding of other world pictures as reflected in their two languages. When they have to learn a third or fourth language, they continue applying their previous knowledge to make their way through the new grammar patterns, accents, cultural references, lexis and so on – publications on bilingualism are full of such examples. Those of us who live in bilingual (or trilingual!) communities are familiar with many everyday examples: cf. linguistic combinations popularly known as Spanglish, Franglais or Catanyol (in Catalonia, Spain) amongst other well-known linguistic contact phenomena besides dyglossia. Contact between languages has always been of interest and has given way to theories and studies related to Contrastive Analysis, Error Analysis and Interlanguage, Cross-Linguistic Influence, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Markedness Differential Hypothesis, Psychotypology, Transferability rules, Full Transfer / Full Access Theory, studies in Pragmatics, etc. (see, e.g., Celaya 2001 for a clear summary of these studies). Undoubtedly, transfer between languages can be negative, but it can be positive, too, as proves that knowing more than one language makes it easier to learn a new one. Besides, what learning a new language alongside its world constructs can do for furthering understanding is well worth the effort – here we’re talking not only about the acquisition of language(s), but also about tolerance and respect for diversity.

Translation, of course, is at the core of all this and, paradoxically, its role in FLA has not been seriously researched. Code and language-switching, calques, bilingual jokes, etc. form part and parcel of bilingual speakers’ interactions – it’s fun, it’s motivating, it encourages questioning the ins and outs of the languages and cultures involved, it can be used to communicate and build bridges – and, let’s face it, FL students learning in Communicative Approach contexts use it anyway when the teacher is not looking...

But Translation is not an artificial or exact transference from one language to another, contrary to what Grammar-Translation advocates affirm. In fact, professional translators never consider it as such. Exercises such as “read this sentence and translate it”, with no context, no previous reflection, no setting of the translation assignment, no work on conventions of presentation or text typology in different communities, etc. lead nowhere. Professional translation is a creative and live activity that bridges the cultures and languages involved using, mainly, transference skills – not all bilinguals are good translators or interpreters. Future translators and interpreters need special training in graduate and undergraduate programmes and, when they are fully-fledged professionals, take part in lifelong learning activities such as academic and professional debates, research, professional forums and publications and so on – obviously, something more that a “read and translate” directive is behind all this activity. Why can’t translation proper be applied in FLA instead of an artificial construct devoid of its original and true reason to exist? What is involved in translation competence and how can these skills be used to improve FL acquisition?

Translation competence applied to FLA: some activities

A good translator or interpreter combines specific aptitudes and attititudes to produce an appropriate text, oral or written. If we think in triads, a good mnemotecnic exercise, we can list the following translation competence skills (González Davies 2004: 131, 217)

A. APTITUDE: Linguistic, encyclopedic and transferential knowledge

B. ATTITUDE: Translation aptitudes, professional know-how, dealing with subjectivity


1) Linguistic knowledge: this include not only written and oral knowledge of the source and target languages, but also of the interferences between them – by making them surface, we may channel them positively. Here we can think of activities that involve positive and negative transfer: false friends, calques, collocations, but also similar constructions or vocabulary: for example, “mushroom” in English is similar to “moixernó” in Catalan, or think of words that come from French, Spanish, German etc. in English – use the students’ own language(s) to establish relations in their brain, boost the self-esteem of non-English speakers in your class or of all speakers if you are teaching English abroad, and make the way easier for everybody. Also, try intralingual translation, that is, from one variant of English to another.

Activity1 : Connectors in context

To become aware of the importance of contextualising connectors and of potential interferences, give the students a worksheet which includes different activities on translating connectors (see sample worksheet below). Once they have completed the worksheet, they can prepare another one, individually or in pairs, drawing from their notes from other classes and exchange them with other pairs. Finally, ask them to sit together, either one-to-one or pair-to-pair and pool their answers, with the teacher circulating and helping.

1. How many translations can you think of for the following?

and, nor, or, besides, yet, but, so, since, for, then

2. Look at the sentences and translate the connectors according to the context:

a/ I love bread AND butter AND jam for breakfast.

b/ Well, why don’t you try AND understand?

c/ Joan got weaker AND weaker as the days went by.

2) Encyclopedic knowledge: in these days where CLIL (Content and Integrated Language Learning) is becoming an exponent of meaningful FL learning, knowing about the subject in hand is essential. Translators and interpreters usually specialise in several disciplines, read about them and command the specialised vocabulary. Once again, contrast can be useful: careful with puddings when talking about food and drink, or with magistrates if dealing with legal topics, Mr. or Dr. in medical texts etc.

This area is also directly related with cultural references, both from the L1 and L2 communities, and can help develop intercultural awareness and understanding: What do different colours mean in different comunities? What about similies between animals, flowers, fruits and so on? Are they the same? Do you have a blue day or a grey one when you’re sad? Is 6 p.m. the afternoon or the evening? Would Harry Potter drink tea or coffee in Spain, Italy or France? Different translation strategies can be and have been used to solve the translation problems spotted above, mainly but not only among them, domestication or foreignizing. In the first case, the text is adapted to the target readers’ culture (see the Catalan illustration of Alice (below), where the teapot has become a coffee-pot, for instance); in the second case, the text keeps it “foreign” flavour thus highlighting the differences, so that we can learn about the other culture.

These questions take us to a third topic in this section: reflecting about translation by setting questions followed by activities based on them such as, what kind of text type do I have? Can I translate road signs into written or oral language? Can I summarise a text in another language? Who am I writing the new text for? Can I read a piece of news in the paper in one language and make up a story based on it in another language? Should I adapt the cultural references in the story to the target community or not? If I’m playing with the Spanish painter’s name, Murillo, which also means “low wall”, should I keep the same word play or should I use a different one? What’s more important in this case, the message or the humourous effect of the sentence?

Activity 2: TV Advertising

This activity can be part of a wider topic revolving around advertising. It can help students become aware of linguistic creativity in advertising techniques in different communities (word play, intertextuality, catchphrases, superlatives, fashionable concepts such as “natural” or “calorie-free”), as well as of means to keep the same message and effect as the source text when addressing a different target audience, and to discuss translators’ options and choices.

Record 4 or 5 ads and show them to the students. During a second viewing, they complete a grid similar to this one:




Advertising technique

Ad 1

Ad 2

The students check their answers with other students and the teacher. If necessary, a further viewing can take place. Then, they imagine they have been asked by the advertisers to translate the ad for one of the products. They have to bear in mind the target audience’s expectations, which may differ from those of the source audience. They must keep the images, but can change the language as necessary. Also, they should be careful with pitfalls such as keeping a brand name or an expression that works in the source language but may pose a problem in the target culture as, for instance, when Coors' beer "Turn It Loose" slogan was mistranslated into Mexican Spanish as something similar to Sufra de diarrea (“Have diarrhea”)! In pairs or groups of three, the students choose two of the ads and work on them. They should write their final ad on a transparency. Finally, each group explains to the class the process they followed to obtain their final translation. A general discussion on the reasons for the differences between the source and target ads may follow.

3) Transferential skills: These have to do with translation proper. It is in the command of these skills that non-bilinguals may beat bilingual speakers. They involve problem-spotting and solving, deciding, mental agility, flexibility, adaptability, and resourcing skills (paper, electronic and human), among others. And this is where students have more fun, as the activities are quite challenging (see, for instance, Reverse Dictation or Bilingual reading in González Davies 2002,


1) Translation aptitudes: The translator’s attitude will vary depending on his or her years of experience, maturity and command of translation aptitudes: the more self-confidence, the higher intrapersonal knowledge and the better the product.

2) Professional know-how: This is about controlling contraints such as equipment, money, time, deadlines, new technologies, handling clients; keeping updated through the literature, conferences, courses and so on; knowing the market: legal issues, networking or knowing how to market herself and her product. All these require high intra and interpersonal skills.

3) Self-concept and subjectivity: Perhaps of more interest in an EFL situation are the skills required to deal with subjectivity. Subjectivity is inherent to any human task and is mainly positive. However, in translation and interpreting, one has to adapt to a certain degree to the initiator’s (i.e., the person who initiates the translating process: a client, yourself, etc.), subjectivity. Depending on one’s self-concept or self-confidence and the translation assignment, one will take certain decisions, such as to translate keeping closely to the source text or adapting it to the target conventions...

Take this very simple drawing and write a caption to go with it:


The more people do it, the more captions will be produced as I have observed each year with my students!

In this line, an eye-opening activity is to compare original illustrations with those in translated books. Let’s take, for instance, two illustrations of Alice in Wonderland which clearly depend on the country or historical period where the book has been published, or the translator’s and the illustrator’s sociocultural background, style or ideology – can illustrations be translated? Should they? A meaningful activity that takes artistic intelligence as a starting point is to compare two illustrations and write a composition either on the one you like most, or comparing both and speculating as to the reasons behind each illustrator’s subjectivity, or to draw a new Alice yourself and justify your adaptation, etc.

Here, Carroll’s underlying nightmarish and nonsensical atmosphere comes across in Tenniel’s Mad Hatter, a grotesque and clownish creature, which in the drawings of Catalan illustrator, Lola Anglada, has been transformed into a distinguished 19th century Catalan gentleman, in consonance with the premises of the Catalan cultural revival movement, Noucentisme. The other characters at the tea-party have also been sweetened up and we can see how an English cottage has become a Catalan masia (country house) surrounded by Mediterranean conifers and fruit trees: the tea-party has become a berenar (afternoon snack) in a typical pati de masia (country house courtyard). Although the translation by Catalan writer Josep Carner says l’hora del te, the teapot has become a coffee-pot, coffee being a much more common drink in Catalonia, so that an inconsistency has been established between text and illustration (González Davies 2002: 14).

We see, then, that translating involves re-creating, it is not a lifeless mechanical exercise. There exist different translating styles just like there are different writing styles: depending on experience, maturity, previous knowledge, degree of self-confidence, willingness to take risks, on the one hand, and on communicating, learning and writing styles on the other, the students’ translations –and illustrations in translations, if they choose to do them!– may vary: some will be very close to the source text, with no new word play or illustrations, probably with calques and no adaptations to the target community conventions of presentation. Others will take more risks, adapt to the target readers and cultural conventions and produce a target text and illustrations where some of the source references may have been adapted to make their new texts familiar to the target culture readers. Both these extreme translation styles and those that lie in between may or not be acceptable, depending mainly on the main question before engaging in any translation assignment: who is this translation for? what kind of text is expected? should I make any changes? If the answer is “for my teacher in an exam, so it has to be a calque of the source text whether it makes sense in the target language or not”, we’re obviously not on the right track as far as real-world translation is concerned!

Translation projects: some ideas

I have found that it is very motivating for my students to carry out translation projects that run parallel to conventional FL classroom instruction, as a whole semester or year projects to be carried out collaboratively. We have translated webpages or other publications for NGOs or academic institutions (all of which are non-profit translations) and we have exchanged translations with other groups which I teach or, on several occasions, we have translated stories for Primary School children, or experimented with different translation options: domesticating or foreignising the text, translating it from a gender studies viewpoint (changing the feminine and masculine characters to bring to light stereotypes and hidden agendas, for instance), in a politically correct way (following James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, for example) and so on. We have translated using both pencil and paper and new technologies (comparing human and machine-produced translations using free software on the Internet, for instance). There is no end to what can be done with translation activities: from straightforward direct or reverse translation to discovering whole new ways of writing the same text (see Duff 1989/1994, or González Davies 2002, 2004 for more ideas).

Final thoughts

When translation enters the foreign language classroom as a meaningful communicative procedure, far from Grammar-Translation artifice, reality enters the classroom: it involves authentic communication with a clear aim –“How can you express X in Y?”–; it is also unavoidable, for students often use “translate” and “understand” as synonyms: “I can’t say this in Spanish or Catalan” or “yes, ok the explanation is fine but, how do you translate it?” – could it be that we are not listening to one of the most frequent questions our students (or we as lifelong language learners!) ask? Research tells us that we should cater for our students’ needs, so, if we do not listen they end up not asking, but that doesn’t mean the question isn’t lurking under the surface... The students’ –and, often, the teacher’s– L1 should be considered as previous knowledge that can be useful to introduce new knowledge from different perspectives using problem-solving, creative and critical thinking and transference skills. This will help them improve different aspects of their FL such as language and syntax, along with pragmatic and cultural aspects. Also, socially and affectively, students are released from the pressure of using an unknown language for the full session, can spot and solve problems more quickly and fluently among themselves without the teacher’s help, and relate to a clear text against which they can peer and self-evaluate their performance, all of which boosts their self-confidence. Therefore, we can say that translation favours diversity in the classroom and caters for different students' needs giving them a sense of security.

From the linguistic and syntactic point of view, through translation languages are explored and respected, interferences are brought to surface and talked about and strategies can be discussed to tackle them. Accuracy is favoured in the sense that avoidance strategies are reduced: the students have to translate a text which may contain structures and words they have not encountered before or may have forgotten, but which they must face and solve. Noticing skills are developed when, for instance, the difference between morning, afternoon, evening and night is discussed and it’s discovered that there’s no evening in Spanish... or when we have to speculate on why grasshoppers hop over the grass in English, but over mountains in Spain (“saltamontes”)! We learn that reality is chunked in different ways in different communities so – hopefully – we learn about tolerance and ambiguity: this is more likely to happen in depth in translation contexts...

... which takes us to the pragmatic and cultural view. It is now widely accepted that language and culture are closely linked. However, traditionally, culture was studied as a separate compartment in language classes without relating it to the students’ own culture except to highlight differences. When a intercultural perspective is adopted, cultural references can be woven into the language classes naturally and discussed from the students’ own cultural point of view highlighting similarities and overcoming stereotyping. Translating texts favours an awareness of the similarities and differences between languages, and the interpretation of reality of different communities favours intercultural communication by incorporating a degree of tolerance and ambiguity.

Finally, in an increasingly multicultural world where bilingualism is already the norm, it seems to be unavoidable to use translation as one other useful procedure to learn a foreign language. If we don’t do so, we are denying our students a tool that is motivating, applicable at any stage, that they use naturally and that they may need in their future for personal or professional reasons. If we use it as professional translators do and as it is understood in Translation Studies, it can be a profitable techinique that will open windows to other communities and help intercultural understanding, even of those areas we do not share for, as Goethe once said: “When translating one must proceed up to the untranslatable; only then one becomes aware of the foreign nation and the foreign tongue.“ Sayings in Prose (posthumous).


Carroll, L. (illustrator, J. Tenniel), Alice in Wonderland

--- Carner, J. (translator) (illustrator, L. Anglada), 1927, Alícia en Terra de Meravelles, Barcelona: Joventut.

Celaya, Mª L., 2001. "'I've got 12 years old': L1 in SLA", talk delivered at the APAC-ELT Convention.

Finn Garner, J., 1994/1995, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Bath: Souvenir Press.

Duff, A., 189/1994, Translation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

González Davies, M. 2002. “Humanising Translation: Tackling a Secret Practice”, Humanising Language Teaching, July,

González Davies, M. 2002. “Translating Children’s Literature in a Bilingual Context: Alice in Catalan”, The Knight Letter, Princeton: the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, pp. 12-16.

González Davies, M., 2004. Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom. Activities, Tasks and Projects. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Sadlak, J. 2000, Speech delivered at the European Centre for Higher Education, “The Bilingual University - Its Origins, Mission, and Functioning”, Bucharest, 15-19 March,


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