A second look at translation

In my last post I promised to follow up with some more examples of activities involving translation.  I was going to write about translation activities I’d used when I was working in Hungary, with a monolingual group, and no idea whatsoever of Hungarian beyond a few social chunks, answering the phone and asking for a VAT receipt (all essential tasks in my first week as a stand-in DOS).   But last Friday I got involved in a twitter conversation with Mike Harrison and Fiona Mauchline about various possible translation tasks that might also work in a multilingual setting (Mike works in the UK, Fiona and I both work in Spain).

Fiona had been suggesting other opening lines and paragraphs from Spanish literature which would also lend themselves to the translation activity I described in my last post and Mike joined in with these comments:

That got us thinking about the possibilities of adapting the activity to multilingual classes and some interesting ideas were bounced around.  Mike suggested asking students “to translate an idea we go over in class into L1, and then back again into English.”  I’ve never tried this myself, but I think you could get some really interesting feedback on ways the various different languages work, as well as insights into the workings of English as well.  I wish I was working with a multilingual class so that I could try it out!

What I have often done, and I’m sure many other teachers do as well (Andrew Pickles mentions it in his recent post) is ask students in a multilingual class to look for equivalents for fixed expressions and useful chunks in their L1 (and other languages they speak), and then to offer literal word for word translations back into English.  This can be fun – and again can offer insights as to how the students’ L1s work, interesting for the teacher and classmates as well, fostering a curiosity in languages and how they work.

Fiona suggested that with higher levels you could ask students to choose a lyrical paragraph in their L1, translate it into English and share it with the class. She stressed that the translation should be lyrical, but not an “exact, exact translation” :

I think it’d be fascinating to work with translated metaphors and images, to unpack and interpret them and hunt for equivalents in English.

Before I became a teacher, when I was studying English literature as an undergraduate, I shared a flat with a Polish student.  She used to ask me to help her sometimes with her written English.  One day she asked me to help her with a formal thank you letter. She closed the letter with the expression, “may there always be a rainbow on your lifeway.”  I loved the expression so much, I left it untouched. I didn’t want to deprive the recipient of such a wonderful image and such warm thanks.  I guess that as a language teacher I was short-changing her, but the expression has stuck in my mind. I’ve no idea if it’s a fixed expression in Polish, part of the accepted conventions of letter writing, or something more personal.  I wish I could go back and find out! (Or maybe someone reading this can help me out?)

More ideas kept coming and we decided that the conversation needed more space, so I’m going to put my Hungarian stories on hold again and follow up on our brief and unofficial twitter translation chat with an open invitation to you all to join in.  Do you use, or have you ever used, translation activities with multilingual classes?  Have you got any practical lesson ideas to share?  If you do, please add them in a comment, or DM me on twitter @cerirhiannon if you’d like to add a guest post.   I look forward to hearing from you, and in the meantime I’ll be writing up my Hungarian activities, along with a couple more I’ve been experimenting with recently.


Thanks for all the ideas that have been sent it so far. Here’s a quick summary with links to the comments:

ALiCe M suggests working with literal translations of proverbs from the students’ L1

Vladimira suggests comparing ads for the same products in L1 and English

Andrew Pickles (efl101) describes an activity where students prepare a poster for their country and explain it to their classmates in a tourist/promotion fair scenario

Michelle Worgan describes an activity for young learners, where they teach each other useful phrases in each other’s languages.

Ben Goldstein (commenting on the previous post) outlines an activity using film titles.

And here’s a link to a post by David Warr at the Language Garden about the importance of allowing space for L1 in the classroom (with a special emphasis on schools in the UK).


This entry was posted in using translation and L1 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A second look at translation

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A second look at translation | close up -- Topsy.com

  2. I absolutely love your Polish friend’s closing sentence… And you were right in not changing it. I am positive it’s a common expression in Polish – though I have no basis for such claim. But it’s so lovely! 🙂

  3. ALiCe__M says:

    Merci for your ideas an posts about translation activities. With multilingual classes (provided there aren’t any Japonese or Chinese students) I very often use proverbs. In european and american cultures, the proverbs are pretty much alike, the little differences can be looked at more closely, are culture differences can be discussed. In fact, as proverbs are such old popular and common items of language, they carry a lot of the country’s culture in them. It’s also a lot of fun, as everyone wants to explain the slight differences of “their” proverb, and as you said yourself, as they are the “experts”, this position empowers them and boosts their confidence.
    Bonne journée,


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alice. Yes, proverbs can definitely be interesting too and are really useful for emphasising the need to find equivalents.
      Merci beaucoup a toi aussi!

  4. Vladimira says:

    I really enjoyed reading the post.
    Well, to be honest I am not using translations directly in the classroom but I try to get most of the students’ L1 when they leave the class. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about multinational students.
    I often ask my students to use the world around them to practice their English. It’s not problem to come across English phrases, words but I ask them to use their own language expressions and translate them to English. I remember last time, we were talking in the classroom about perfumes and fragrances and I asked them to find some ads in the magazines (in L1) and translate them to English. Then we compared them with ads found on the internet for the same products (in English).
    We did something similar also with TV commercials in L1.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Vladimira, and thanks for calling by.
      I really like your idea for comparing ads from the two languages, so easy to find and really interesting to compare. I’m going to try it out with my Spanish students.

  5. andrewpickles says:

    Hi Ceri,

    nice post and good question, translating with multi-lingual classes is clearly not as straightforward as with mono-lingual ones. Fixed expressions or collocates is one way to get them to translate into their own language of course (thanks for link btw :-)). One possible activity might be to get the students to prepare a part of the wall of the classroom with a presentation on their country in their language, perhaps a few proverbs / survival phrases / descriptions / pictures with captions etc. and have them then stand by their ‘board’ and have other students mingle and ask them to explain the posters/notices in English to them, kind of like a tourist / promotion fair type thing? Hope you get a load of other ideas,

    all the best

    Andrew (@efl101)

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Andrew,
      I love the idea. Quite similar to a couple of things I’ve tried in class as well where students are the “ambassadors” for their cultures or communities. It’s perfect for a multilingual setting.

  6. Some fantastic ideas everyone! I remember doing something similar to Andrew’s activity once in a summer school in the UK where there were lots of Spanish speakers (Spanish and Colombian) but also several other nationalities. They had to make a poster and teach the class a few useful phrases in their language. One group even tried to teach us their national anthem! I think being allowed to talk about their own country and culture is particularly motivating for young learners.

    Thanks for the ideas – I shall be trying them out 🙂
    Ceri, will you be sharing a translation idea with us on Saturday?

    • Ceri says:

      Hi Michelle,
      Great activity – works with adults and YLs alike I should imagine. I’m a huge believer in getting students to “interpret” their languages, worlds, communities in English as much as, and as often as they can. And I guess younger learners get fewer opportunities to be the teacher or the expert.

      Re Saturday’s swap shop – wasn’t planning to – got another old favourite up my sleeve, but maybe I should rethink …

      See you there!

  7. Pingback: translate, übersetzen, çevirmek, traduire, traducir, переводить, 翻译(包括口、笔译) | Idle Thoughts of an Idle EFL Teacher's Blog

  8. Pingback: So Where Did It Go Wrong?

  9. Pingback: translate, übersetzen, çevirmek, traduire, traducir, переводить, 翻译(包括口、笔译) | Idle Thoughts of an Idle EFL Teacher's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s