rom the turn of the twentieth century onwards, it has been generally assumed that L2 should be taught without reference to the learners' L1. It has become a popular belief among teachers that the translation of L1 gets in the way with the acquisition of L2.
Newson (1988) argued that using translation as a teaching and testing tool has four disadvantages. Translation (1) encourages thinking in one language and transferring to another, with accompanying interference; (2) deprives teacher and learner of the benefit of working within a single language; (3) gives false belief of the idea that there is a perfect one-to-one correspondence between languages; and (4) does not facilitate achievement of generally accepted aims such as emphasis on the spoken language.
The arguments for using translation in the language classroom outweigh the arguments against it.
Additionally, Carreres (2006) put forward some arguments against using translation as a language teaching tool:
- Translation is an artificial exercise that has no place in a communicative methodology. Also, it is restrictive in that it confines language practice to two skills only: reading and writing.
- Translation into L2 is counterproductive in that it forces learners always to view the foreign language through their mother tongue; this causes interferences and a dependence on L1 that inhibits free expression in L2.
- Translation into L2 is a purposeless exercise that has no application in the real world, since translators normally operate into and not out of their mother tongue.
- Translation, particularly into L2, is a frustrating and de-motivating exercise in that the student can never attain the level of accuracy or stylistic polish of the version presented to them by their teacher. It seems to be an exercise designed to elicit mistakes, rather than accurate use of language.
- Translation is a method that may well work with literary-oriented learners who enjoy probing the intricacies of grammar and lexis, but it is unsuited to the average learner.
It is also a widely held view that translation is not a suitable exercise in the initial stages of learning (Marsh, 1987). It is argued that, before learners can tackle translation productively, they need to have acquired a significant level of proficiency in the L2 language. They need to have moved beyond beginner's level.
According to Owen (2003) the rationale against using translation is founded on obliging learners to share their precious L2 use time with the L1; this is not a productive use of the opportunities given by the class.
Despite the previous arguments against teaching translation, there are strong arguments for teaching translation. The following section will refute the arguments against teaching translation.
From an opposite perspective, translation, misconceived and overused, could be seen as a victim of the grammar-translation method, rather than the source of its evils. The problem was not translation as such, but a teaching methodology that separated language from its communicative function. Indeed, translation itself as it takes place in the real world is essentially linked to a communicative purpose. As Duff (1989: 6) puts it, "translation happens everywhere, all the time, so why not in the classroom?"
The consequence of the violent reaction against the grammar-translation method in teaching languages was a complete discredit of translation itself as a teaching tool. What was wrong with this method was not that translation was made use of, but that it was used badly.
Learners of a foreign language do refer to their mother tongue to aid the process of acquisition of L2 or, in other words they "translate silently" (Titford 1985: 78). In light of this, translation into L2 can help them systematize and rationalize a learning mechanism that is taking place anyway.
As for the contention that learners will never need to translate into L2 in their practical life, in many cases this is the expression of an ideal situation rather than a description of actual practice. It is arguably true that one needs native command of the target language when translating a text. However, in reality EFL learners need to translate into L2 to prepare them for what they might find outside the classroom.
Many researchers support the idea that translation is a motivating activity. Carreres (2006) conducted a questionnaire and came to the conclusion that learners overwhelmingly perceive translation exercises as useful for language learning. Consequently, it was in response to student feedback that he decided to introduce translation more substantially in language classes. He added that translation, by its very nature, is an activity that invites discussion and students are only too happy to contribute to it, often defending their version with remarkable passion and persuasiveness. Furthermore, Lavault (1985) pointed out that one of the reasons quoted by teachers to explain their use of translation in the classroom was that students asked for this exercise and enjoyed it, too. Similarly, Conacher (1996) reported excellent student response to a translation course. Hervey et al. (2002) also gathered enthusiastic feedback from the students attending her translation course at the University of St Andrew's in Scotland.
As for the point of limiting the use of translation to advanced levels only, Carreres (2006) views translation activities as forming a continuum between the extremes of literal, explicative translation and that of communicative translation as it takes place in the professional world. In the former, translation into L1 is merely a tool--and a very effective one--to help learners grasp a particular L2 structure. As such, stylistic considerations are set aside. In the latter, the focus is on the communicative value of a given text. Learners are then expected to produce a text that could function in the L2 culture. Both approaches, provided they are carefully applied, have their place in the languages classroom and they should be viewed as mutually enhancing rather than exclusive.
The way translation is taught makes a difference. Malmkjaer (1998) argues that translation, if taught in a way that resembles the real life activity of translating, can bring into play the four basic language skills and yield benefits in L2 acquisition. He adds that some recent thinking on language learning has stressed the potential of translation as a means of language learning, if the process is regarded as the development of multi-linguistic competence.
From a local point of view, Shiyab and Abdullateef (2001) consider translation extremely important for foreign language teaching simply because it allows conscious learning and control of the foreign language, and as a result, it reduces native language interference. Using translation can make learning meaningful because the learner is an active participant in the process.
Translation has also been used to teach grammar. In this respect, teachers can show students equivalent and non-equivalent structures between L1 and L2.
Many studies suggested a positive and facilitative role of translation (Newmark 1991; Husain 1994; Kern 1994; Omura 1996). Recent research in pragmatics also suggests that greater awareness of L1 helps in the more effective communicative use of L2. Translation is a means by which both languages can be assessed. Rather than being seen as an obstacle to real language use, translation might more effectively be viewed as a way of fine-tuning the language to be used in given situations and conditions (Owen, 2003).
Liao (2006) summarizes the positive aspects of using translation: (1) it can help students comprehend L2; (2) it can help students to check whether their comprehension is correct; (3) it eases memory constraints in memorizing more words, idioms, grammar, and sentence structures; (4) it can help students develop and express ideas in another language; and (5) it can help reduce learning anxiety and enhance motivation to learn L2.
In summary, the arguments for using translation in the language classroom outweigh the arguments against it.
- Carreres, A. (2006, December). Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching. The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees: Uses and limitations. In Sixth Symposium on Translation, Terminology and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada. Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council. Retrieved from http://www.cttic.org/publications_06Symposium.asp.
- Duff, A. (1994). Translation. Oxford University Press.
- Hervey, S., Higgins, I., & Haywood, L. (2002). A course in translation method: Spanish to English. London: Routledge.
- Husain, K. (1994). Translation in the ESL classroom: Emerging trends, International Journal of Translation 1 (2), 115-30.
- Kern, R. G. (1994). The role of mental translation in second language reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 16, 441-61.
- Lavault, T. E. (1985). Les fonctions de la traduction dans l'enseignement des langues. Paris: Didier Erudition.
- Liao, P. (2006). EFL learners' beliefs about and strategy use of translation in English learning. RELC Journal 37 (2), 191-215.
- Malmkjaer, K. (1998). Translation and language teaching. Manchester, UK: St Jerome.
- Marsh, M. (1987). The value of L1/L2 translation on undergraduate courses in modern languages. In H. Keith and I. Mason (Eds.), Translation in the modern languages degree (pp. 22-30). London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.
- Newmark, P. (1991). About translation. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
- Newson, D. (1988, April). Making the best of a bad job: The teaching and testing of translation. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Languag. Edinburgh, Scotland.
- Omura, Y. (1996). Role of translation in second language acquisition: Do learners automatically translate? Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Texas, USA.
- Owen, D. (2003). Where's the treason in translation? Humanizing Language Teaching 5 (1).
- Shiyab, S., & Abdullateef, M. (2001). Translation and foreign language teaching.Journal of King Saud University Language & Translation 13. 1-9
- Titford, C. (1985). Translation: A post-communicative activity. C. Titford and A. E. Hieke (eds.) Translation in foreign language teaching and testing. Tübingen: Narr. 73-86.