The Return of Translation – action research

The other day I watched an interesting presentation on YouTube called – The Return of Translation. Philip Kerr begins his talk with an overview of the arguments for using L1 in language teaching and then looks at a range of activities involving translation. He mentions:

  1. Reverse/back translation > learners translate a piece of text into L1, then translate it back into L2, compare versions and discuss why there are differences
  2. Assisted translation > the teacher provides a bilingual glossary including words that may cause trouble during the translation process
  3. Translation fuckups > learners look at ‘bad’ translations and discuss the causes of errors

In this post, I’d like to share some of the results of a small project I’ve done to test the first activity above. I call it a project rather than a lesson because I did the same activity (with small variations) with four different classes – on the same day.

Although I see this as a kind of action research, I believe this project perfectly fits into my no-prep activity bank as well. As I tried a couple of variations, I hope you’ll find at least one of them useful/applicable in your teaching context.

Group One

number of students: 14, age: 12-year-olds, level: A1-A2

  1. I divided a piece of a text my students were already familiar with into seven chunks.
  2. I assigned the texts in a way that two Sts in the class had the same piece (these Sts were not sitting next to each other at this point).
  3. I distributed blank sheets of paper which I had folded into halves to indicate where they should start/stop writing (see photos below).
  4. Each student then translated their piece of text into Czech.
  5. When they finished, I paired Sts up so that Sts with the same texts worked together.
  6. They compared their translations and made necessary adjustments.
  7. We sent the translations around the class for other Sts to read. Their task was to polish the Czech version. This time, they were not biased by the English versions which, by the way, they could look at but didn’t have to. Note: at this stage, they only looked at the original text when they weren’t sure about a word but otherwise they only seemed to focus on the Czech versions.
  8.  When the texts finally got to their original authors, they translated the polished versions back into English. Their books were closed at this stage but they were allowed to cooperate with their partners (who had the same piece of text).
  9. Finally, they compared the English translations against the original text in the coursebook. They marked some of the problematic areas with a coloured pen.
  10. They commented on the process as well as the results: they said which phase was easier/more difficult, more interesting, what caused trouble, etc. IMG_20170412_141056

Group Two

number of students: 18, age: 16-year-olds, level: A2+

I knew I had less time with this group so I decided to try a variation of the procedure described above:

  1. I chose two paragraphs from a coursebook text my Sts were already familiar with.
  2. In this particular lesson, Sts were sitting in a traditional seating arrangement, in pairs.
  3. Student A translated paragraph 1 from English into their mother tongue while Student B worked on paragraph 2.
  4. When they finished, I asked them to swap their products. However, before they started translating the Czech texts their partners had produced into English, I gave them a few seconds to look at the English text their partners had translated (to make it easier for them and to allow for some memorization to happen). I skipped the polishing stage this time but it happened naturally anyway during the back-translation process.
  5. They compared the English translations against the original text in the coursebook.
  6. They commented on the process as well as the results.


Group Three

number of students: 10, age: 17-year-olds, level: B1-B2

The technique I applied here was the same as with Group 1 and again, it took up the whole 45-minute lesson. However, the texts I had chosen were new to Sts. I decided to go for 5 job adverts from a page in the coursebook we hadn’t covered yet. Again, each text was assigned to 2 students. Before I revealed what we were going to do, we discussed some of the specifics of job ads, such as the style and form in which they are written.

As the language used in ads is specific (some words are often omitted, for example), Sts had to apply a slightly different approach to translation. In other words, they had to keep the genre in mind, not just the right choice of vocabulary and grammar. This was very challenging but feasible as they are more advanced than the other groups.


Group Four

number of students: 13, age: 16-year-olds, level: lower B1

With this group, I chose the same technique as with Group 2 (mainly for time constraints). I chose two paragraphs from a coursebook text on cybercrime Sts were familiar with. The activity went well until I found out that an odd number of Sts is an issue. There was no way to swap the Czech translations so that everybody had a different piece of text. So one student ended up back-translating her own translation. This, however, turned out to be another interesting variation.


My random observations/deductions/guesses/hunches: 

  1. Judging by the way they approached the task, some Sts seemed to really enjoy the activity – especially those who are not so keen on speaking activities and prefer quiet, individual work.
  2. It was motivating for those students who have a wide range of vocabulary but are not very confident speakers. It was also motivating for those who are good at their mother tongue.
  3. Many students were surprised how difficult it is to produce a decent piece of Czech text.
  4. I observed that during the polishing stage, Sts finally broke free from English and their improvements developed with each go.
  5. Most Sts felt that translating from English into Czech is easier.
  6. The self-feedback stage – after Sts had compared the English translations against the original text – seemed too quick and somewhat insufficient, from my point of view. Some Sts looked too happy with what they had produced. Thus I insisted on them physically highlighting the areas that differed/deviated from the original in some way. I pointed out, though, that deviations don’t necessarily mean errors (but they may, of course). Anyway, I suspect that the analysis should happen in a subsequent lesson – it’s simply too much to manage all the stages within one class.
  7. I’d like to add that I believe that back-translating your own translation (Group 1 and 3) has different benefits than when you back-translate somebody else’s translation (Group 2 and 4) – especially from the vocabulary retention perspective.
  8. If you don’t know which variation of the activity to choose, set your learning goals first. If you want your students to learn how to write a job advert in English, go for option 1 (back-translating one’s own translation). However, if you want them to practice translation skills as such or if you want to recycle a piece of text, choose option 2 (back-translating somebody else’s translation).

Published by

Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

5 thoughts on “The Return of Translation – action research”

  1. If we are to encourage action research, we must surely suggest ways of doing it effectively. Your report falls down in a few ways.

    We suppose that your study was prompted by an interest in looking at the efficacy of Reverse/back translation. Learners are asked to translate a piece of text from the L2 into L1, then translate it back into L2, compare versions and discuss why there are differences.

    First, you should tell us what prompted your interest in this question.
    Next, you should acticulate a Research Question.

    Then you should explain your procedure: what text was chosen, and why? What informed your decision to ask the different groups to to the task in the 3 different ways?

    Then you should give us the results.

    Then you should discuss the results, referring back to your research question.

    There is no need for any more work than you did, nor much more time to be spent on the report. What’s lacking is focus, an elementary grasp of research methods, and an appreciation of the need for critical analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your advice, Geoff. I’m well aware of the fact that it was too ambitious to call my attempt *action research”.

      Regarding my motivation, I suppose I wanted to see my students’ reactions to this method, which I don’t apply often but which I’m attracted to. Thus, perhaps, *experiment* would be more suitable as a title of the post.

      Anyway, I think your description of the way action research should be carried out is some food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry for the typos.

    “acticulate” should be “articulate”.

    “ask the different groups to to the task” should be “ask the different groups to do the task”.


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