Grammar translation as a method of teaching languages (other than specifically for the purpose of learning to read classical texts) is an outdated and largely discredited methodology. However, just because it doesn’t appear to be a good basis for learning how to communicate in another language, this doesn’t mean that activities involving translation should all be junked altogether. If they can be made fun and relevant and adapted to fit in with a modern communicative syllabus, translation is another tool language teachers can use as the basis for a variety of activities.

Over the last few years, we have been privileged to be on the judging panel for several language competitions that have simultaneous oral translation at their heart – and have also been involved in preparing students for exams with a translation element. I have to say, we have been blown away by the linguistic and communicative skills of the young people involved! Translation of this kind is a real-life skill and the communication involved – often with participants having to negotiate three or more languages – is an incredible feat.

You may also have noticed our recent tweeted book reviews of the International Booker Prize short-listed titles. This is a prize that rewards ground-breaking modern fiction written in the writers’ L1 and translated into English by creatively minded translators. With the prize winner due to be announced shortly, we thought we would take the opportunity to celebrate the art of translation by providing just a few translation activities you might like to try with your students.

Subtitling Projects

First, ask your students, in pairs or small groups to research and choose a short video that interests them and has been produced in their own language.

Subtitling projects are a great way of getting students to collaborate on a language project – it really gets them engaged with listening to English and encourages them to think about, not just literal translation, but also the creative process involved in translating from one language to another. This includes raising awareness of how meaning may be encoded differently in different languages and the prevalence of embedded metaphors, idioms and colloquial expressions. Encourage students to think not just about translating the basic meaning, but how the more nuanced ideas, feelings and connotations may be expressed in English.

These days, there are lots of editing tools and apps available that allow you to add subtitles to a video quickly and easily. If you have a YouTube account, it’s also worth noting that YouTube also has its own subtitling tool in its video manager.

If you prefer your students to focus more on spoken English, you can do a similar project by dubbing a video into English – or offer your students the choice.

A good introduction to this project is a general question about whether your learners prefer watching foreign-language TV and video programmes with subtitles or with dubbing – and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each. It is interesting how trends vary from country-to-country, and how strongly people feel about one form or the other. Personally, I watch a lot of streamed shows in other languages and find dubbed programmes almost impossible to listen to – give me subtitles any day! Having said this, I know people who hate subtitles because they find it difficult to read and watch what is going on at the same time.

Anyway, whether they choose subtitling or dubbing, this kind of project can be really valuable for learners. When they have completed the project, give a lesson over to screenings of the videos. Discuss with the groups how they went about the task, the most challenging aspects – and what they learnt from the project.

Partial Translation

Partial translation is a way of providing a frameworked translation activity – particularly for lower-level learners. As well as meaning that there is less to translate, the L1 elements help provide an understandable context, helping learners with their translation of the English language elements.

You will need to create a text that is partially in the students’ L1 and partially in the target language. Have them translate the L1 elements into the target language to produce a full text in English.

The beauty of this activity is that you can adapt the proportions of L1/L2 content according to the level of the class. You can also choose to focus on particular linguistic elements, structures or classes of words.

As a variation, you could produce two or more versions of the same text, each needing different elements translating. Have students compare their translations and discuss their choices.

Simultaneous Translation

This activity mirrors the kinds of tasks that tend to be set in exams and language competitions.

Set up some simple A-B role plays in the students’ L1. Have two volunteers act out the role play, pausing at the end of each conversational turn. Two further volunteers, act as translators, explaining in English what has been said by each participant.

Alternatively, ask for two volunteers – preferably, confident students. Ask volunteer A to role-play a situation with you. Keep it simple, for example:

  • You are shopping for a new pair of jeans and the volunteer is a sales assistant.
  • You are a customer in a restaurant and the volunteer is a customer.
  • You are a tourist who needs directions, and the volunteer is someone who lives in the area.
  • You are a tourist wanting to find out about things they can do in the local area and the volunteer works for the tourist board.
  • Could be done as a role play with the class teacher, who speaks English and needs the other side of the conversation translating.

During the role-play, your character only speaks English and volunteer A only speaks their L1. During the role-play, volunteer B must act as the translator, translating your English into L1 for volunteer A, and translating Volunteer A’s responses into English for you. Make sure to allow time for the translator to do their work, not speaking too quickly and waiting for each turn to be translated before responding.

Whilst the role-play is happening, the rest of the class watch and note any inaccuracies in the translating and anything the translator misses out. Be sure to thank both volunteers and have them talk about how they found the task – particularly the translator. Ask for feedback from the class and discuss any language points arising from this.

False Friends versus True Friends (cognates)

Create a list of words, some of which can be guessed because of their similarity to English, others which seem similar, but have very different meanings.

Have your students try to guess and translate the true friends and identify which are the false friends.

This activity can help minimise L1-L2 interference and can also provide learners with some ‘quick wins’ by identifying some useful cognates.

As a lead-in to this activity, it might be useful to provide some examples of ‘false friends’ so that learners understand the concept. I have provided a list of a dozen Spanish-English false cognates below, which you can use for this purpose.

Running Dictation Incorporating Translation

For those of you who use running dictations, here is an interesting twist:

  • Stick a series of numbered English-language sentences on the walls around the classroom.
  • Divide students into pairs: a ‘runner’ and a ‘writer’. Tell them these roles must be swapped halfway through the activity.
  • The runner’s task is to go to a sentence, read it and mentally translate it into their L1.
  • They then return to the writer and tell them their L1 translation of the sentence.
  • The writer listens and writes their own English-language translation of the sentence they hear.
  • Continue until each pair has worked through all of the sentences.
  • Compare the sentences that have been written with the originals and discuss any differences.

The activities listed here provide just a few examples of some translation activities you can try and, if you give them a go, I’m sure you will be able to think of a range of others. In the meantime, watch out for the Booker International winner announcement, and maybe try reading a piece of translated fiction from a different country and literary tradition. Happy reading!

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