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Translation direction

  Tags: Translation
 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies Post Reply
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atama warui
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 Message 9 of 46
2012 05 March at 7:15am | IP Logged 
Wulfgar wrote:

In my experience, this isn't true. But I'm a native English speaker, so our perspectives are very different. Almost
every textbook I've ever used has had translation, and most of my teachers have used it to some extent.

It's sort of a fad today to talk about the evils of translation. And obviously everyone has to wean themselves off of it
eventually. But people have been successfully using translation in language learning for thousands of years, and we
don't learn languages any better today than they did in the past.

When you learn a grammar point, having translations and explanations is useful. Same for when you encounter vocabulary - instead of trying to guess the meaning (and maybe getting it right after you saw it in varying context), just looking it up is faster.
But for training purposes, I would refrain from using translations.

Saying that "people did X for Y amount of time and it worked" has no value IMHO. People did all kinds of silly stuff and until today avoided extinction. Progress is not a Bad Thing (TM).

It might even be good to translate a lot in the beginning, but from Intermediate up there's no point to this anymore. The further you get, the harder it will even become to translate. Since you speak Japanese, you know very well that there are grammar points without equivalent in English, so.. why even try to force it?
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 Message 10 of 46
2012 05 March at 10:22am | IP Logged 
This. Translate if someone asks you what something means.
I seriously doubt that pre-Internet there were more than a handful of people who reached high levels of proficiency without direct interaction with native speakers.

BTW I agree that L2-L1 translation is just practising expressing yourself in your native language. But when you're still a beginner, L1-L2 translation isn't any better.
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 Message 11 of 46
2012 05 March at 11:13am | IP Logged 
Balliballi wrote:
Translation direction is crucial when learning a new language in my opinion. I believe the best direction is from NL to TL. Unfortunately, most textbook writers and other language educators do not think so. They encourage learners to translate from TL to NL.(..)
The best language books are the ones that have the word-for-word literal NL translation underneath the TL as well as the natural-sounding NL translation.

I don't systematically use textbooks, and when I do they are often old editions. But in my experience there are mostly translation exercises in both directions, but - as stated by Balliballi - often without the necessary information contained in the adjacent explanations, tables and wordlists. This makes translating into something like a solving a crossword with a dictionary, and although this in the long run may add to your vocabulary it isn't helpful here and now.

In my view language learners need a lot of comprehensible input AND they need to put their knowledge to practical use. Let's take those things separately.

A beginner will need either to scrutinize small amounts of text intensively AND scan a lot of extremely easy material extensively. Translation from target to native language is very relevant for the first task, but with the exception of "the best language books" as defined by Balliballi this kind of direction has been thoroughly mishandled by almost any historical language tradition. The big fallacy is that those people have thought that the result should resemble natural native texts as closely as possible. But 'beautiful' translations are made for people who don't have time or are too lazy to learn the target language, not for language learners. In fact they are directly harmful for language learners because they induce them into thinking that the relevant thing is to get the meaning. Which is wrong. The important thing is to learn the mechanics and collect the building blocks, and the meaning is just something you get as a reward for learning those things. If you use translations from target to native language then the result should be as close as possible to the source text, and when you have learnt how its language 'ticks' you can stop doing them. If you decide to make translations of the 'beautiful' kind then that's a separate exercise which isn't relevant for beginners and hardly for intermediate learners.

Translations are also useful for extensive reading because they can make otherwise incomprehensible texts comprehensible. But these translations are made by others, except maybe in one case: when you reuse materials you have previously studied intensively. The point is however that even these translations should be as close to the original as possible. A free translation is worse than no translation, and a literal translation with tons of errors is better than a 'beautiful' literary translation where half the time goes with identifying which phrases are supposed to correspond with which phrases in the original. Even a Google translation which for instance has left out an essential negation may contain a translation of precisely that word which is causing you trouble, and then you don't need anything more. An accompanying translation should be seen as help to selfhelp, not as a finished solution.

When it comes to the active situation there are several scenarios. Making native -> target language translations is an excellent way of testing whether you can express the same tings in your target language as in your native language - but it isn't a foolproof method. You may be able to say things in your target language which you learned directly without using your native language, and then the expressions in your native language may not evoke those things in your mind when you sit there at the table with a text to be translated in front of your nose. But by and large doing native -> target language translation is an excellent way of controlling your actual level in a target language (which may be why teachers love it).

Doing a translating job while you are expressing yourself is basically a beginners' tactic which should be abolished as soon as possible because is slows you down. But before you can drop this habit you need to know a good amount of patterns and words and expressions in your target language, and you need to keep them in your active longterm memory. And describing how to do this is really tantamount to saying how you memorize in general. I'll only focus on one situation, namely the pattern thing. And I do so because the textbooks I have seen rarely deal with this in a logical way.

To learn a pattern you need a simplified scheme of some kind, but also a series of examples where practical examples based on this scheme are shown - one isn't enough. And then you need to make your own variations on the pattern. This is actually the close to the definition of a drill, but text book authors for some reason try to make their examples as varied as possible which makes it more difficult to see and use a certain pattern. If you need to work hard to 'fill in' those patterns then something has gone seriously wrong - patterns only become automatic in your mind if you can do them with ease. However the solution to this is NOT multiple choice drills - multiple choice is another bad habit invented by bad text book writers.

So what has this to do with translation? Well, patterns + words + fixed expressions are the elements you need to avoid doing translations.    

Edited by Iversen on 2012 05 March at 11:27am

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 Message 12 of 46
2012 05 March at 11:57am | IP Logged 
Awesome post, as always.
I think textbook authors just try to teach too much at once, hence the varied examples. They may think examples are useless if they don't teach/reinforce new or barely known vocabulary.
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 Message 13 of 46
2012 05 March at 1:07pm | IP Logged 
atama warui wrote:
When you learn a grammar point, having translations and explanations is useful. Same for when you
encounter vocabulary - instead of trying to guess the meaning (and maybe getting it right after you saw it in varying context),
just looking it up is faster.


You use translation, as most people do. Your idea of where the line should be drawn seems to be about the same as mine.
There's no need to imply that translation is bad in general; almost everybody uses it. Making posts like your last one, explaining
when translation should be used, is much more useful. Why do you want to encourage people to buy Rosetta Stone?
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Korea, SouthRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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 Message 14 of 46
2012 05 March at 2:52pm | IP Logged 
You are involuntarily translating in your head even if you think you aren't when you are learning a new language (either from TL to NL or NL to TL). This is because when you want to express yourself in the target language, the thought you want to express appears in your mind in English (or the native language that you speak) because as a native speaker of English you think in English. Also, when you try to understand the meaning of a target language sentence, the meaning is expressed in English in your head because you think in English (once again) or in the NL you speak. That is what I am getting at. I do not mean you should do written translation exercises from NL to TL per se, which is what many people think I mean. You may but that is not the focal point of my discussion. I am not debating doing written translations versus not doing written translations in this thread.

The gist of what I am trying to get across is that you should try to understand how MEANING is EXPRESSED in the target language when you are first learning a language, and not the other way around (deriving meaning of the target language sentences). (And meaning that you want to express in the TL can be represented by written words in the NL, spoken words in the NL, pictures, actions, sign language, and so on. I am not too fussed about how the meaning is represented before it is expressed in the target language, so long as the meaning of what you want to express is clear to you. The written form is just the most convenient one and the form that is the most versatile, especially when it comes to complex and abstract meanings.)

Of course, once you reach the advanced level, you will probably start to think in the target language and that is the goal, but to get there, in the initial stages of study, you need to go from meaning (which requires you to think in the native language) to target language.

And I do not mean you have to start speaking straightaway either. You can just listen to the way meaning is expressed in the target language for as long as you want.

Understanding the meaning of the target language is only half the job done if the goal is to be a fluent speaker of the target language. The other half is to know how to express meaning in the target language. It does not follow that just because you understand the meaning of a target language sentence, you will be able to express that meaning in the target language. You have to do meaning->TL activities in order to achieve that.

Isn't it better to do just meaning->TL activities instead of doing TL->meaning activities PLUS meaning->TL activities? Why double the work? (And you HAVE to do meaning->TL activities in order to achieve speaking fluency in the target language. There is no getting around that.) You can't do just TL->meaning activities and become fluent. See my example of Korean students.

And when one gets around to doing TL->meaning activities later on (when one is more advanced and is starting to read more difficult texts), having done a lot of meaning->TL activities helps one do those TL->meaning activities more easily. People who haven't done much meaning->TL activities struggle more with TL->meaning activities. They haven't internalized the grammar well. They mainly know grammar descriptively (they can describe how grammar is used in the language but are poor at employing grammar in practice). Once again, see the example of Korean students learning English. These students spend a lot of time doing TL->meaning activities, but they perform lousily in international English comprehension tests compared to people in most other countries. The only other country that does worse than Korea in the TOEFL test is Japan, I think, and Japan has a similar teaching approach to Korea with respect to English education.

If you do a lot of meaning->TL activities, doing TL->meaning activities becomes easier. For instance, if you already know how to speak English, learning to READ English is less hard than if you did not know how to speak English.

As for literal word-for-word translations, they are useful in the initial stages of learning, especially for getting the feel of the grammar of the target language. But as time progresses and one starts to internalize the target language grammar more and the target language vocabulary as well, the natural or more colloquial translations start to become more important than the literal translations because some things just sound funny when directly translated. For example, sayings. The saying in English "Strike while the iron is hot" is stated as "Do ancestral rites when you see rice cake" in Korean. You might not understand the proverb if it was just translated literally. But with the natural/colloquial translation present ("Strike while the iron is hot"), you would understand what the proverb was about.

Edited by Balliballi on 2012 05 March at 3:49pm

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Andrew C
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 Message 15 of 46
2012 05 March at 3:35pm | IP Logged 
If you are learning L2, you obviously have to start with L2. You can't for example look at a picture of an apple and then out of a vacuum know how to say it in Arabic.

If you are producing L2 sentences based on L1 (and what else would you be basing it on if you haven't seen L2?), you are in danger of producing a frankenstein version of L2, heavily influenced by your L1. I think Pimsleur suffers from this to a certain extent, as the same English dialogues are used for all languages of the world, whereas if they were written by L2 natives, they would be more natural.

Of course you should also try to produce L2 sentences and preferably with an L2 native to correct you, or at least show he/she understands you or not.

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 Message 16 of 46
2012 05 March at 4:30pm | IP Logged 
I see no difference between translating into L2 and pure oral L2 production... You have a specific meaning in mind and you need to produce accurate L2 language to convey that meaning. It's an essential skill.

The only translation that's potentially detrimental is word-for-word translation where one completely ignores the requirements of the L2.

I was just studying Finnish with Assimil and everytime they had a translation exercice, I did it orally and into Finnish. Translating back into L1 is a waste of time. You see the L2 sentence and you either get it or you don't; there is no point in concentrating on accurate L1 production...

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