Guest post by Fiona Mauchline

Translation – the conversation continues

I’m delighted to be able to welcome Fiona Mauchline as a guest blogger on Close up.  It was a conversation with Fiona and Mike Harrison (itself inspired by a recent #eltchat session on twitter)  that sparked the recent series of posts on translation.

Here Fiona picks up on the first two posts (a close up on translation and a second look at translation) and continues the conversation.

Over to you, Fiona.

Translation is a love-affair with other people’s words. Or should be. It can also be a love affair with your own words as you try to ‘transpose’ a message from one language to another. Which we all do when speaking a second or third language; our inner voice is, in fact, a practised translator.

Despite the post-GT (grammar translation, not gin and tonic) era loathing of use of L1 in the L2 classroom, an intelligent use of translation activities can raise awareness (of L1 as well as L2), be fun, create ‘memory pegs’ on which to hang new vocabulary, can help students spot patterns eg when to use the passive and how it’s made… and, well, I’m a huge believer in having as many magic tricks in my teacher-magician box as possible, and my personal maxim has long been ‘the more colours you have on your palette, the more you can paint’. Arty-farty sort that I am.

I know there’s a difference between professional and classroom translation, but the same underlying principles apply. “Doing a text justice” as you, Ceri, and Ben (Goldstein) mention in the initial post and comment. So awareness activities are the place to start. I think translation is far more effective at conveying the subtleties of meaning, difference of meaning, or cultural differences, making a student think first THEN translate.

Grammary thing (monolingual groups)

(very dogme, so non-risk-takers abstain) Take a preposition. Any preposition. Don’t tell me which… no sorry. Take a preposition in L1 and use it to work with English prepositions. There’s a weird truth about prepositions: they are one of the few language items we never really teach the meaning of, other than a nod at prepositions of place (but then, what does ‘by’ mean? Or is that why it gets skipped over in the prepositions of place lesson?) So take a preposition in L1 (or a dative form, or however L1 functions) and ask each student to write down 3 or 4 sentences including that preposition eg in Spanish ‘de’. Compile all the sentences onto eg OHP transparencies (you can get them in groups of three, writing them up) or the board.

Put the list up. Then ask them to decide on the meaning of each ‘de’, if it’s descriptive, possessive, part of an idiom, part of a collective (flock of swans etc), if it’s origin, refers to the subject of something (conversation, film..) etc. Then, working as a group, ask what they know about possession in English (usually ‘s if person or named animal), description (adjectives), origin (from) etc. Ask them to work through quarter/half of the sentences in pairs, then work as a class on the leftovers. Finally, let them loose on the remaining half of the sentences.

The 'legs' of the whisky

“A hair of the dog”

credit: tienvijftien (flickr)

Another grammary thing (monolingual – could maybe work as multilingual?)

Translation is a good way of presenting tenses that have myths about them, like the future with going to being for near future and  the future with will for distant future or, my favourite, the passive being for formal contexts.

Whenever the passive crops up, at some earlyish stage after ascertaining that the students can form it, recognise it, whatever (I can T-T-T it pretty easily in my Spanish context and students can spot it without trauma in texts, as the structure is essentially the same), I focus on use, because the passive as such is far lower frequency in Spanish and other structures take preference, so the passive has the reputation of being for formal and technical contexts.

I give the students a series of sentences, ask them to decide where they might see each sentence, and then ask them to translate them into L1. When we’re at the feedback stage, I ask them if they’re formal or informal contexts (the answer should be in the region of half and half). We discuss what the corresponding structures are in L1 and why the passive was chosen in English.

Examples are:

  • To be taken with food.
  • English is spoken here.
  • My bag’s been nicked!
  • How many hundreds of times have you been told not to jump on the sofa?
  • Passengers are requested not to lean out of the window.
  • These chocolates have been hand-made to ensure perfection.
  • A suspect has been arrested in connection with the murder of Mary Kelly.
  • Mum, I’ve been invited to a party on Friday evening. Can I go?
  • First, the iron is heated over a Bunsen burner….
  • You have been sent an e-card. To view, click here.
  • Well, that’s not what I’ve been told!
  • The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

Compartes Chocolatier treats at Artisanal LA

handmade chocolates (ricardodiaz11 on flickr)

Lexical things

If you read in your students’ L1, keep an eye out for useful sentences or chunks. Also collect oddball menus, signs etc. You can do heaps. It’s also worth flicking through the English translation of books originally written in their L1. Some ideas:

Sentences (monolingual)

As you, teacher-person, read in their L1, imagine what the English would be and spot ‘dangerous’ sentences. Compile them, and hit intermediates with a selection. In a Translation class, my victims, oops, learners do this individually, identify the ‘danger’, translate and compare, but in Gen Eng, pairs then fours is more fun, or make it a team game with a point for spotting the trap and a point for an acceptable translation. An example I use is from ‘100 years of solitude’. There’s a sentence in the original that starts: La casa, blanca como una paloma…..  The ‘typical’ translation is ‘The house, as white as a pigeon…‘, which to me sounds like ‘get a cleaner!’ It should, of course, be ‘The house, as white as a dove,….‘ Also sentences (sorry it’s Spanish again) like ‘Explotan a los niños al hacerles trabajar turnos de más de 12 horas‘. Do they exploit children or explode them? This is similar to Ben’s film subtitle activity (I saw the sentence ‘It’s a trial separation’ on Wallander subtitled as ‘tenemos un juicio y una separación’ ‘We’ve got a trial (in court) and a separation’).

inquisitive pidgeon

una paloma (credit: JunCTionS on flickr)

Chunks (monolingual and multilingual)

Like Ceri, I use onomatopoeic paragraphs to show how rich language can be. Obviously for higher levels. I’ve also used part of the beginning of Buñuel’s autobiography My last breath, as his voice is clear- the idea is to translate so that a distinct voice can be ‘heard’. A writer’s voice or style is as important as their words, as the message loses colour-or changes colour- if you lose the voice. Have you ever watched your a TV series both dubbed and in original version? Total change of character as the voice changes…  This is what we were tweeting about that day, as with multilingual groups, you can ask students to translate a paragraph of a work in their language to English, read it out to the group and ask for comment not only on the language, but on the message (ask them to paraphrase), mood, how they visualise the writer, gender of the writer etc etc.

Dialogue (manuals, signs etc)

Dialogue is quite difficult to translate as spoken speech patterns don’t always convey well. Consider the difference between:

“I must be off. I’m having lunch with my wife at 2 o’clock and I don’t like being late. See you.”

compared with

“Right. Must go. Having lunch with the wife at 2 sharp. One doesn’t like to be late, you know. Jolly good. Cheerio.”

Certainly, omitting the pronoun in a translation to Spanish would have virtually no effect on connotations and in French the use of ‘one’ doesn’t imply ‘posh’. How would YOU translate it? Have a go…

When I read Spanish novels that have been translated into English, I always catch my inner voice translating them back into Spanish, especially where dialogue is concerned. As a result I’ve used bits of Shadow of the Wind for awareness. The dialogue is riddled with words which are high frequency in Spanish but relatively low frequency in English and phrases like ‘¡por los santos!’, (something akin to ‘good grief!’ or ‘good heavens’), where the official translator has resorted to ‘By the saints!’ etc. which sounds like a stereotypical, cliché Irish character from a 1970s comedy series. Find chunks of dialogue, ask high level students to translate and then compare with the ‘official’. And spot the perils of literal translation.

This also works with odd signs and manuals – you know the sort; at CLIC-IH we were given the English copy of the insurance company’s pamphlet which included gems like ‘In a fire, don’t run down the stairs, use the bannisters’. The Daily Telegraph web has heaps of wacky signs begging re-translation. Menus are good too. Cull examples of odd dishes as you travel, and ask students what they think they’ll get if they order grilled fish jam, head of the chef pâté, or battered bulls bollocks.


This is essentially the same as above, but doesn’t involve improving translations. It is actually more closely related to comparative linguistics, whereby language is compared and related to its socio-cultural context (Sapir Whorf theory etc). You ask students to write down their four favourite idioms/sayings in L1, discuss what they actually mean, then you ask them to find out how to say them in English (not all will have idiomatic translations). You can also do this from English to L1, and, after running dictation, order the words to make sentences or anything that’ll help gel the L2 version ask them to work out what grasping the nettle is or why too many cooks might spoil broth.

You can go into the cultural aspects if you want, as, for example, the Spanish worry about getting caught by the bull, comment that ‘oops, the saint has gone to heaven’ and discuss the sides of a tortilla but the British rarely even contemplate such matters. A Spanish person may be a chorizo but rarely a silly sausage, and while in Spain a pot may scarper, it’ll never call a kettle black.

Detalle del Corte del Chorizo Magno

chorizo  (credit: jlastras on flickr)

Whether you provide the idioms yourself or ‘go dogme’ and ask students to snoop the internet, find idioms in English, work out their meaning, bring them to class, teach their colleagues and then have a group discussion on the possible origins is up to you. Either way, I suggest you grasp this particular nettle and go get lost. In translation.

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8 Responses to Guest post by Fiona Mauchline

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  3. Hi Fiona,

    Thank you so much for all these brilliant ideas! I am always looking for new activities for higher levels and some of these sound perfect. I shall be keeping my eyes open for unusual turns of phrase that may not translate well. I love the ideas for focusing on grammatical differences between the two languages. Thanks again 🙂

    • Fiona (@fionamau) says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for that 🙂 Your teaching context is pretty similar to mine, I think, and I feel my post was a bit too ‘Spanish’ – must self-edit a bit better so the first grammar activity is clearer/more obviously applicable to other language contexts!
      Must admit, though, I really do enjoy using translation, and it is a way of passing on a passion for language… I hope you enjoy trying the ideas out.

    • Leahn says:

      Hi Fiona, Ceri and Michelle,

      I’ve just read this post and I agree with Michelle. Thanks Fiona for some great ideas!


  4. David Warr says:

    Hi Fiona
    This is a really nice post with lots of good activities. I like your writing style too 🙂

  5. Thanks, David! As for my style… well… (is there a blushing emoticon? there used to be one).
    I’ve just been snooping your blog, and it’s great! I’m a fervent dogmeist (albeit a Scot, so red rugby shirts ain’t my thing.. 😉 ) and rugby ‘daughter’ so particularly enjoyed your unplugged post. I’ll visit more often 🙂

  6. Pingback: #KELTchat Summary: L1 Use in the Language Classroom – 7th October 7th, 2012 | #KELTChat

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