The gift of translation

In one of the recent lessons, I decided to combine my favourite literature genre (inspirational quotes) with a not so popular method of learning/teaching a foreign language (translation).

IMG_20171227_185052First things first. Last year, I got this wonderful hand-made present from a friend of mine – a jar full of inspirational quotes. In the jar, there were precisely 364 colourful slips of paper – one quote for each day of 2018. Since most of them were in English, I thought it would be cool to bring them to school toward the end of this year and share them with my students.

As far as quotes are concerned, I described one way of using them in English lessons here. In this particular case, the teacher works with one quote only and gradually builds the whole lesson around it.

This time, however, I focused on quantity (we used as many quotes as there were students in the class). Also, in this particular lesson, I primarily wanted to check my students’ ability to deal with the translation of a literary genre. I guess that other than that there were no other linguistic aims.

So, each student picked a quote from the jar. I gave them some time to read it silently and let it sink in. Then a random student read their quote out loud. I waited a few moments. Then I picked a different student and asked them to translate the quote into Czech. I encouraged them to divert from the literal translation if necessary. I reminded them of Google Translate and what it sometimes does. The student who had translated their peer’s quote then read theirs, etc. This was a good strategy because it made the students pay attention more than if they had just had to focus on their slip of paper. Sometimes, the quote had to be read several times, often in small chunks, to make it possible for the other student to translate it. This inconvenience was partially caused by the fact that the interpreter couldn’t see the text.

All in all, despite being an English teacher, I was totally impressed by my students’ ability to produce beautiful Czech utterances. Honestly, I was a bit surprised too because we don’t practice L2 > L1 translation a lot in class. Also, since students constantly immerse themselves in English (movies, music, computer games), I sort of supposed they had partially lost their ability to produce decent Czech. 🙂 I was wrong. They only struggled with a couple of individual English words, which was quite natural given that some of the language was way above the B1 level, but overall, they did very well.

This gives me some hope. The German Department at our school takes part in various translation competitions which we, the English Department, usually avoid. We justify this arguing that we teach communicatively, so our students don’t get enough exposure to translation techniques. But again, we may be wrong. Perhaps it’s not just about extensive translation practice but merely about the students’ knowledge of L2 and L1 combined with life experience.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to The gift of translation

  1. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana, thank you for the post! Such a (seemingly) simple activity can generate a lot of learning for students. I guess translation is a skill we sometimes need while communicating in English. For example, I often find it interesting to translate a saying/proverb from my L1(s) to foreign friends, and we discover that something exist in another language, and some are unique. This is translation ‘the other way around’ of course, but a useful exercise for my mind. Code switching, they call it?
    Happy New Year to you, and looking forward to your 2019 posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Zhenya! Thanks for your response. I like working with proverbs too but I find that a bit challenging. I hate it when my husband suddenly asks me ‘How do they say XY in English?’. He doesn’t speak English but whenever he hears a difficult idiom or proverb, in a movie, for example, he likes to test my knowledge. 🙂 Needless to say, I’m not always proud of myself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    I think it’s really important for us to include translation in our lessons – after all, that could be something we end up doing in the real world. When my family and friends are visiting, I end up doing a lot of translation into English for them, and I would imagine that if your students are the only English speakers in their families they might end up doing the same when they’re travelling.
    I have two questions about the activitiy: how many students were involved? How did they respond to being put on the spot to translate in public, without having preparation time first?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Sandy. I think you are right and the examples of when we need to be able to provide L2 > L1 translation are spot-on. To answer your questions, there were about 16 students involved. It was a Christmas lesson so the atmosphere was relaxing. I believe the students felt no pressure to get the answers 100% right. But as I said, they did very well, even without much prep time. The only challenge was to remember the whole thing. Although the quote was only one to two sentences, we had to repeat and ‘chunk’ a lot. But that was OK. Thanks for your comment and support!


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