Lesson: Translation in the Classroom

Translation in the English Classroom

I would like to offer the idea that integrating translation into the English classroom is a valid and worthwhile venture. I would not recommend introducing it too early or building a larger unit in an introductory course, but there are several approaches to the subject which could prove useful and entertaining.

The basic thesis of this exercise is to start with a sentence, paragraph, or some body of text in another language, and then translate it. In the process of translating it we can also diagram it in a way that shows some aspects of structure in a foreign language. After getting a literal translation, the students have an opportunity to rearrange and rephrase the rough sentence into what they consider a ‘proper’ sentence (or other unit). The purpose of this is to get them thinking (and talking) about the choices involved in creating a sentence in language, and how seemingly small decisions can have greater effect on meaning and emphasis. It also exposes them to a different, foreign set of structures which may serve as a useful bridge to discussing different grammars both within and without their native language.

Thoughts & Concerns

When discussing this idea with a colleague, they expressed worry that students would use a slew of inaccurate, ready-made resources like Babelfish, Google Translate, and any other number of programs in order to take the easy way out of translation.

I believe this ease of access is a tool that can be worked with to take students one step further. If this is something you wanted to take outside of the classroom, we can offer them appropriate online resources in addition to any hard-copy dictionaries or such material. This way the pressure can be taken off of the actual translation, given that we can bolster the credibility of their origins.

Bonus points if the language you’re using is one you have a good grasp on. (I suppose credibility is a concern, but I might imply some relation between the teaching trade and multilingual prowess here.) If a student in your class is fluent in another language, this might be an opportunity for them to offer unique experience and insight into their processes and composition in general.

Possible Exercises

Here are a few of my ideas for using translation in the classroom, though they can be modified and appropriated as necessary:

In-Class Translation Exercise:
You can work on the board with a single sentence. A longer one is preferred in order to offer a more thorough examination of structure and choice. After reading it in proper language, offer a translation as a whole. Then you can break it down into individual parts, describing the meaning of each word, its particle, and the way that language is structured. Once everyone is on the same page, you can discuss construction values within and across languages.


Sono heya wa samui de, dakara Sara ga toshokan ni ikimashita.

(Which translates, rough literal:
That room (particle – object) cold is, therefore Sara (particle – subject) library (particle — to) went.)

Here we can see that the structure in this Japanese is ‘Subject Object Verb’ as opposed to ‘Subject Verb Object’ as we are more accustomed to. It illustrates a simple but crucial difference in the language construction. We might rewrite it in English in several ways:

  • The room was cold, so Sara went to the library.
  • Because the room was cold, Sara went to the library.
  • Sara went to the library because the room was cold.
  • And so forth…

We gravitate towards whichever form seems most natural to us. That’s because there are certain structures that we find most effective and acceptable, and these structures might vary from person to person. Not nearly as much as they do from language to language, but it’s still there.

Another possibility is to substitute in more effective language, since the translation is only a basic analog of the sentiment. Perhaps ‘The room was freezing‘ might be more appropriate. Of course, this might also be a good place to discuss when is and isn’t appropriate to take liberties with the translation process, if you think it necessary.

Translation Assignment:
As a homework assignment, you can send students home with a sentence to translate and a place (that you have thoroughly researched) or book to translate from. In doing this assignment you would ask them to

1) Perform a literal translation
2) Identify the meaning of each word
3) Describe the subject, object, verb, and other modifiers such as adjectives
4) Rewrite the sentence however feels the most natural to them.
5) Have them describe why they made the changes they made, and why that feels more effective to them.

Bigger Picture

Out of this comes an opportunity for interested students to engage in translation works for some of their larger essays. Depending on how flexible you are and how serious the student is, this might provide a viable alternative for other prompts that they may not find as personally engaging. You can help them find literature relevant to their interests and offer them a chance to translate it, explaining the choices they made along the way.

(Careers and occupations in translation are very valuable, I think, and locally will have their roots in studies of English as much as other languages & the specific study of translation.)


Leave a comment