About translation

New English word? Translate any word using double click.

I always tell my students to be careful whenever they resort to their native language to understand a new word they have encountered. One big disadvantage of online classes is that you cannot really stop people from ‘googling’ a word they don’t know or are not sure about by checking a translation site (hoping to get a ‘quick fix’ I guess).

I don’t always manage to conceal my impatience with this behavior, especially with advanced students. Besides the issue I have with translation as a learning method. (I will come to that in a minute), I don’t like this ‘secret’ checking. Whenever someone doesn’t know something, I wished they would say so. More often than not others will also be unsure of the word they are looking up for themselves.

Okay, enough student bashing 🙂

Translation is a widely underestimated skill. Falling back on your native language and using translation for learning basic words in a new language might have a place in the very beginnings. But even then, doing so suggests equivalence between your native language and the new language you are learning. In languages strongly related to each other, it might be mostly okay, and I surely would not want to argue dogmatically against it. After all, especially for adult learners, time is limited. But that is basically what translating is, a time saving short cut – not necessarily a good way of learning, even in the beginning stages of second or foreign language learning.

I don’t want to go into the topic of learning a new language from scratch and the role one’s native language plays there. My issue is with continuing to resort to translating when you are already fairly advanced.

Different languages express things, concepts, ideas etc. differently. And the more advanced you become the more you enter more complex and sophisticated areas of vocabulary. From basic words for common objects, we come to expressing more abstract ideas, and the more abstract or complex things become the more languages (embedded in different cultures) will reveal diverging ways of expressing them.

Even on the very basic level, languages do not necessarily ‘work’ the same. Just to give one simple example in two languages that are strongly related and do show similarities: translate the German word ‘duschen’ into English. If you take the first suggestion an internet search gives you, you might get ‘showering’, and in some contexts, especially in written language, you will find it being used. But when speaking about my morning routine, I would more likely use ‘take a shower’ which I would not translate back into German as ‘eine Dusche nehmen’ (though some might).

The translation of verb forms and structures has proven to be a special minefield.

I make a marked difference between translation as a learning method and translation as a contrastive comparison or a ‘contrastive analysis’. The latter can indeed lead to helpful insights into differences, and possible similarities, between two languages.

I have found the following exercise below simple and effective in pointing out and discussing how German and English verb structures differ semantically and structurally. Like in the area of vocabulary we might also speak of false friends when it comes to verb structures. The most commonly known example would be the structural equivalence of the present perfect with the German perfect form. Because of the similarity of the two forms, some German speakers of English use the present perfect as a past tense form.

How would you express the following sentences in English?

Wir gehen heute Abend ins Theater.

Ich arbeite schon seit Tagen an diesem Bericht.

Ich habe gerade gegessen und bin total satt.

Ich habe gestern nicht so viel gegessen.

Ich rufe dich morgen an, versprochen.

Wir fahren gerne im Urlaub in die Berge.

Wir fahren lieber an die See.

Wir reisen schon seit Jahren nicht mehr.

Wir waren schon ewig nicht mehr im Urlaub.

Als wir dann endlich am Kino ankamen, merkte ich, dass ich die Kinotickets vergessen hatte.

Und als wir dann endlich am Kino angekommen waren, hatte ich die Tickets vergessen. 

(What’s the difference between the two German sentences above? How would you say both in English? The same way or differently?)

Ich war schon lange nicht mehr im Kino.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.