Believe it or not, from time to time, an unexpected, real-life, natural, extra-curricular task comes up. And sometimes it’s worth giving it a chance even if it eats into the regular class time. You can always catch up so there’s no need to worry.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do some translations for the Erasmus+ project, namely English > Czech translations of texts the participating students had produced during an activity here in the Czech Republic. As part of the dissemination process, the English texts are translated into several European languages and they are shared on a website created by the Belgian partner.
At first, I planned to do the translations on my own, but then a cunning idea came to mind and I decided to assign the task to my students. And it proved to be a good decision in the end. As I later found out, it would have taken me ages to do it on my own. Moreover, this type of learning experience was extremely beneficial for my intermediate students. Finally, I realised that spreading the results of the Erasmus+ project among other students in all possible ways is just the right type of dissemination.
The trouble is, though, that I don’t normally ask my students to translate texts. If I do ask them to do some translations, these are usually only sentences from Czech into English. Plus I assign such tasks to test the knowledge of vocabulary and grammar points. This time, however, they had to deal with semi-cohesive texts produced by students of other L1s – students they hadn’t even met before. This made the task a real challenge. Fortunately, the texts were accompanied by photos (and they had already been translated into several languages), which was helpful since my students had something to hold on to whenever they encountered a difficulty.
But it wasn’t an easy task anyways. I observed that my students mostly struggled to understand what the authors of the texts really meant. Occasionally, the wrong choice of English vocabulary (English was L2 for all the participants) made it impossible to decode the message. Ironically, my students also struggled with their own language, i.e. Czech. Some of the most problematic areas were, for example, an incorrect use of commas (too many or none), grammar mistakes which I think they would never make if they were writing their own texts in Czech, clumsy wording and sentence order, a tendency to avoid declension of proper names, wrong decoding of abbreviations and acronyms which needed to be translated, inappropriate use of spoken/colloquial language, etc.
However, I was very pleased to see my students collaborate and discuss the problems during the translation process; they asked one another for peer feedback, for synonyms, as well as for background knowledge they didn’t have in a particular field of expertise. Also, I was happy to see they used different translation strategies – some of them even used Google Translate in the early stages of the translation process, which, to be frank, I didn’t really mind as it only proved how tricky Google Translate can be. All in all, each of them approached the task in a slightly different way – some of them tended to hand the work in without any proofreading whatsoever, while others tried to refine the final product to its best by playing with words and sentence structure. Needless to say, the latter approach paid off.
My students probably didn’t see the activity as something to primarily help them learn English. However, I hope it helped them realise that translation is a difficult but rewarding skill, mainly because one needs to take into account meaning as well as a range of other issues, including form, register, style, idiom and metaphor. And some types of learner may find this type of work pleasantly challenging. Furthermore, translation requires accuracy, clarity and flexibility. It is quite time-consuming too – it took us two full lessons to finalise the products. Thus I’m well-aware of the fact that this activity couldn’t be done with every class; a highly-motivated group of fairly proficient language learners is definitely a must.