A close up on translation

Inspired by the twitter #ELTchat conversation yesterday about using translation in class, I’ve decided to take a closer look at a couple of my favourite translation activities.  (I have to confess that I wasn’t actually able to take part in the chat but I followed it later via the transcript and Shaun Wilden‘s great summary .)

The activity I’m going to talk about in this post is one I’ve used with Spanish speaking students at an intermediate plus level (and in workshops with Spanish speaking teachers or teachers based in Spain).  It kicks off with the image of a storm, for example like this one by MontyPython on flickr (a creative commons image).

Thunderstorm II

step 1 :  setting the scene, activating vocabulary

I ask students to imagine the sounds and sensations surrounding the storm and we brainstorm vocabulary to describe the image and the emotions it conjures up. I ask them to think back to when they were last in a storm: where were they? what time of day was it? what were they doing? how did they feel? what could they see and hear?  We then share storm stories, as a whole class, in groups, in pairs – whatever seems to fit at the time.

2 introducing the text for translation

I explain that we are going to read the opening paragraph from a novel.  The novel opens in the middle of a storm, and the main character is introduced to us.  I ask them to answer the following questions:

  • who is the main character?
  • what was the main character doing at the beginning?
  • what do you learn about the main character?
  • are their any echoes in the novel of the descriptions you gave in your storm stories?

Here is the opening paragraph.

Alexander Cold awakened at dawn, startled by a nightmare. He had been dreaming that an enormous black bird had crashed against the window with a clatter of shattered glass, flown into the house, and carried off his mother. In the dream, he watched helplessly as the gigantic vulture clasped Lisa Cold’s clothing in its yellow claws, flew out the same broken window, and disappeared into a sky heavy with dark clouds. What had awakened him was the noise from the storm: wind lashing the trees, rain on the rooftop, and thunder.

When we’ve discussed the questions I set, I ask them what they think the title of the chapter might be. I tell them it’s one word, and that the word is in the description. The answer is nightmare.

3 translating the text from English to the students’ L1 (Spanish)

I explain that the text was originally written in Spanish and that I’m going to ask them to translate it back into its original language. I stress that I don’t want them to translate word for word, but to think about how best to capture the atmosphere and the details in their own words. Some negotiation of meaning is usually necessary with the more difficult or specific vocabulary. I paraphrase or mime (e.g. claws) and let the students decide on the correct term for translation. This stage does not usually take long.  The negotiation is often in a mixture of English and Spanish.

4 comparing their version to the original

I then show them the opening paragraph in the original version of the novel and ask them if anybody recognises it or its author.   It’s taken from Isabel Allende’s City of the Beasts, La cuidad de las bestias, a novel written for young adults. I ask them if any of them know it, or would like to read it. I usually take a copy into class and hand it around, encouraging the students to ask questions about it if they’re interested.

Here’s the opening paragraph in Spanish.

Alexander Cold despertó al amanecer sobresaltado por una pesadilla.  Soñaba que un enorme pájaro negro se estrellaba contra la ventana con un fragor de vidrios destrozados, se introducía a la casa y se llevaba a su madre. En el sueño él observaba impotente cómo el gigantesco buitre cogía a Lisa Cold por la ropa con sus garras amarillas, salía por la misma ventana rota y se perdía en un cielo cargado de densos nubarrones. Lo despertó el ruido de la tormenta, el viento azotando los árboles, la lluvia sobre el techo, los relámpagos y truenos.

I ask the students to compare the two versions and comment on any differences.  I do this as a whole class acitvity in order to bring the language of discussion back to English.  We look back at the English version and there is usually a sense of betrayal.  The students feel that their translation would have been “better” (closer to the original) if the English translation had been “better”.  I ask them to pinpoint specific passages where they think the English has misled them, or let the original down.  We look at these passages and see where the problem might lie which brings us into the next stage.

5 identifying differences between the two languages

Here’s one example.  The English text says : What had awakened him was the noise from the storm. This cleft sentence prompts a cleft structure in Spanish:  Lo que le  despertó fue el ruido de la tormenta.In the original Spanish text there is no cleft, but a simple fronting of the verb.   This prompts a discussion about how sentence syntax in Spanish is more fluid than in English.  The verb can precede the subject, but in order to front the verb in English we need to bring in a “dummy subject” – in this case the cleft structure “what …. was”. We look at how else the sentence could have been translated and if we have any preferences:

He had been woken by the storm. / The storm woke/awakened him up. / It was the storm that had awakened/woken him.

Another feature which is often highlighted is the repeated use of the reflexive pronoun in the Spanish version, where no reflexive pronoun is necessary in English. Another is the use and translation of the past perfect.

Why do I like this kind of activity? I think the students get a kick out of criticising the English translation, of being able to change it and improve on it. It puts them in the position of being the experts. They know the language of the original version better than I do, they love to explain the niceties and nuances of the Spanish text to me. I think that putting them in the position of being the experts boosts their confidence, and that seeing a text from their L1 translated into English strengths the links between English and their own personal linguistic and cultural identity.

I also like it because it encourages intensive reading and noticing of the forms of the language.  The level of concentration and engagement is invariably high when they are translating and comparing the two texts and they come away feeling that they’ve worked hard and learnt something.  Not a bad pay off!

Of course, I wouldn’t use this type of activity all the time, but every now and then, to shift the focus, to provide variety, I’ll look for other bi-lingual texts in other genres (there are plenty of sources around, tourist information, museum guides, endless websites) also reversing the language direction and choosing texts that have been translated from English to Spanish, but not very successfully. This really helps point out the pitfalls of translation too!

In another post I’d like to explore activities that can be used with multilingual classes and in monolingual classes where the teacher doesn’t know the students’ L1.


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21 Responses to A close up on translation

  1. David Warr says:

    One of the best lesson plans I’ve seen in a long while. Deep discussion of meaning and grammar, and letting learners be in the position of educator. English does seem cumbersome without being able to front so directly. How would the original Spanish translate word for word? “Awakened him was the noise of the storm”?

    • Ceri says:

      Hi David, thank you so much for a lovely comment 🙂
      “Him awakened the noise of the storm” I think.
      Hope you’re having a great start to 2011,

  2. Steve says:

    Great great lesson, Ceri. I think is exactly the kind of way where translation can really bring insights for learners. I’ve done something similar without an ‘original’ text as a way of opening learners’ eyes to their own interlanguage errors: Have them translate a short passage into their L1, go to something else for a while, then come back and translate the passage back into English. When students compare their twice-translated text with the original and think about why there are differences, they can get an insight into (e.g.) persisting grammatical & collocational needs in their English.

    • Ceri says:

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for calling by and thanks for the comment. I like your strategy. I love the idea of the students writing a text, going away to do something else and then coming back to revisit it, be it a translation or whatever. It can sometimes give them a very tangible example of progress as well, as if the text had been processing in their subconscious and when they revisit it they’re ready to see it afresh and improve on it.

  3. Leahn says:

    Hi Ceri,

    I love Allende so I’ll definitely try and use this in class! I hope my ss will like it too! I used a translation activity in class recently which went down really well. I took it from TEFL Clips (Roxanne). Thanks for the inspiration.


  4. Hi Ceri,

    I’m a bit late on this discussion here, but better late than never, right? I actually read your newest post, which refers to the convo you had with mike and Fiona, and then (correctly) thought I should read the original post to get the full grasp. And I was absolutely taken by it. What a fabulous activity Ceri!

    Using translation in class is something very foreign to me. Like you, I teach in a monolingual context, but we are actually told we can’t use translation in class. Not even for words, let alone a whole text or paragraph. So I do not have activities to share here.

    I was amazed at the depth and scope of this activity, at how much it contributes to students’ language acquisition and how it makes them think about the language and its nuances. I have actually sent it to my coordinator to see what she thinks and asked if I could try doing something like this next semester.

    Fingers crossed… I’d really love to do this with one of my groups… I even have a text in mind already 🙂

    Thanks for a fantastic activity / post!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ceci,
      Never too late 🙂 I’m really glad you liked the activity. I hope your coordinator agrees. I’d love to hear about it if you get the go-ahead, and I’d love to see the text as well (whether it goes ahead or not!).

  5. Hi Ceri,

    What a simply wonderful post and a great activity for students. The possibility of feeling you can think of better options if you were to translate the text for yourself is something which enhances the self-esteem of any learner. Plus it´s a great activity for language development itself.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Thank you so much, Valeria.
      I love the self-esteem aspect of these kinds of activities as well. It’s an area I’m exploring at the moment, ways to boost students’ self images in their L2. I’m hoping to write a post about it some time soon.

  6. Hi Ceri,
    I was caught by this interesting discussion which I’d like to submit a comment. Like Cecilia said “better late, than never”. This is such a great activity that gives the students the possibility not only to achieve the exercise but also to think and understand the whole process making them feel how capable they are to accomplish a translation .
    At the school I teach, we are not allowed to translate any word, but I will try on this activity with my private group.
    Congratulations Ceri!
    Luciana Podschun

  7. Ceri says:

    Hi Lu!
    Thank you for your lovely comment 🙂
    Please let me know how it goes with your class.

  8. Hi Ceri,

    I love the way that the task you’ve designed allows these nuances of language to come to the surface. Fascinating that students felt ‘betrayed’ by the weak English translation. This clearly highlights that they feel protective towards the original text (written in their mother tongue) and want it to transmitted in the best possible way in English, that really does justice to the original.

    Your task reminded me of translation activities that I have done with movie subtitles which, of course, often include mistranslations and simplifications due to lack of space on the screen. Very often the nuances are the things that escape the translator as they are often not central to the message being communicated, and students are quick to pick up on these, especially if you prime them. I remember doing this with a scene from Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”. The fact of the matter is that the film is still incredibly enjoyable if you just read the subtitles but you miss so much as well because so many of the jokes are so difficult to unpack.

    So, then, there is the untranslatable to consider, including puns in advertising, for example, and newspaper headlines. It’s also interesting to focus on film titles here, and see how they are often translated very differently because of cultural associations (‘Some like it Hot’ is a well-known example). This is something that could be done in multi-lingual groups as well, with different students doing research at home and then coming to class with literal translations of how the same film is known in their language.

    I think the value of tasks like this is that they provide playful, memorable examples, exploiting short accessible texts – openings of novels are a great example, as you say, as are songs. Students might know a bit about these texts already and can bring in their own examples, they would then be more willing to invest time in analyzing them.


  9. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for a great comment. I’m going to add a link in the second post where we’re collecting ideas for activities in multilingual classes to your idea about using film titles. That’s a great activity! I’ve used it in monolingual classes, but I guess it’d probably be even more fun with more languages. Maybe it works the other way as well. Students could think of films in their L1 and then find out if the title is changed when it’s subtitled in English. A nice in-class webquest if you’ve got the technology.

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  12. Ceri, if some of the later comments on this blog were coming ‘late to the party’ then I’ve probably turned up at the right time but the wrong day! I came to this through your more recent post about teaching Welsh and I just wanted to say that this looks like a brilliant lesson and I’m sure it was a lot of fun to teach!

    Thankfully I don’t work in a restrictive environment that doesn’t allow for any L1 and I’ve used that latitude to do some experimenting with translation to try and raise awareness more than anything else. I’ve been working from L1 (also Spanish, in Argentina) to L2 based on L1 compositions I get the students to write at the beginning but your method looks very inviting. If you don’t mind, I might just try to teach it as close to how you describe it as possible – love the picture by the way.

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ll let you know how it goes.


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Gordon!
      Thanks for calling by, I love impromptu parties 🙂
      I’ve just visited your blog and read your post on using translation with news stories (http://gordonscruton.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/translation-in-class-part-1/.) I’m so glad you’re sticking with it! That reference you give from Guy Cook is so on the money.
      I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experiments with translation.
      Please let me know if the lesson works for you!

      • What a day to do this lesson – during a lightning storm! Really helped to set the mood.

        I used the lesson twice today, once with a B2/C1 class and again with a A2/B1 class. I won’t bore you with the details but two interesting points that were raised:

        A. One of the high level students preferred the English translation to the Spanish original as he felt that the writing style and vocabulary was a little more ‘dumbed down’ in the Spanish. I would imagine that this reflects the difference in his abilities in Spanish and English and his obviously superior grasp and knowledge of Spanish.

        B. With the lower level class, I only had to go through half as many words as I had expected and thankfully the concept of onomatopoeia made it easy to get across the meanings of words such as “crash”, “clatter”, “shatter” and “lashing”… I may very well think about trying to develop more materials for vocabulary development capitalizing on onomatopoeic qualities.

        It was also very useful for me to see how a variety of words were correctly guessed and translated from context; “grasp” for example. In a way this works well as a means to visually assess the students’ gist reading abilities.

        Thanks for a great idea… now I’m off to find more Spanish books! Excellent choice of material!

      • Ceri Jones says:

        Hi Gordon,
        Thanks for reporting back 🙂
        I’ve never taught that class in a storm – would love to though!
        Enjoying your blog, Hoping to make time to comment soon, but still catching up after a two week holiday at the moment.

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