The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #10 July / August 2014
Language Learning and Translation
by Hidson Guimarães
July / August 2014 | 

Have you ever been told by a language teacher that you should avoid translating at all costs and try to understand and think in the native language all the time? I have, but it does not work for me, at least not in the early stages. As a matter of fact, I believe that most teachers who refused translating actually didn't know their mother language enough to trace pertinent, contextual parallels between sentences in the target and the mother language. I'm on the side of those who think that translating coherently is an ultimate skills and proves how high one's level is.

In my experience, I noticed that translating can be important for learners in order to make a safe, solid journey through the beginner and intermediate stages. Is it a crutch? Yes, it is a crutch, or a training wheel as you may prefer. Nevertheless, it does have its importance. As different as a language may be from your native language, it's still a communication tool for human beings. So, believe me, you will find millions more of ordinary, daily life situations that can be translated back and from in your target language than you will find those unique, exotic untranslatable words that are listed so often in language trivia stories.

Just like you may use training wheels in different ways - two at once, then only one, then none - you also have different usages and patterns of translating for your language studies. The training wheels are there while turn a learned behaviour - standing on a bicycle - into an automated task. So are the translations during the language process. You make use of them and you check them all the time, then once in a while, and then you don't need them any more, at least not for that specific context where you already got spontaneous answers within your studied language.

I start with two training wheels, and I tend to use textbooks that provide me with both training wheels. They are: a literal translation, which helps me understand how a sentence is formed in the target language, which word order they use and how their morphology differ from the one I'm used to; and what I like to call a 'proper' translation, which is as close to what a professional translator would do if people were only interested in reading the book or watching the film, not in understanding how the target language works.

The need for two types of translations, a literal and an accurate one, may seem less evident for closer languages, like the Romance or the Scandinavian languages, but try to learn a non-Indo European language and you will see how they come in handy. Not surprisingly, proving a literal then an accurate translation is the standard notation for linguists that describe the features of a language in paper. How does this work, after all?

Let's pick the example of Estonian, a Finno-Ugric language. In the case of Estonian, but also in the case of Indo-European languages such as Russian, possession is ordinarily not expressed by a verb, but by declining, changing the possessor to a specific case. So, if you want to say "I have a book" in Estonian, that would be something like:

Mul on raamat.

"Mul' is the pronoun "ma" (=I) in the adessive case, so it sort of means 'on me'. "On" is the verb 'to be', 3rd person = is. Raamat is the dictionary form for the noun 'book' (the so-called nominative case). Now, how can this explanation be expressed in a more concise and practical way, with the help of translations? See below:

Mul on raamat.
on-me is book
I have a book.

Just from these sentences I can learn two things: a) Possession in Estonian is expressed through a noun case, not through a verb. b) Estonian has no indefinite articles (and probably no articles at all). All this information came from providing a literal and an accurate translation one after another. When you are an experienced language learner, this saves a lot of time: if I were studying now, I wouldn't need the paragraphs below to understand this: I'd have learned all the same just from checking the literal and the accurate translation. Even if you're just starting into the language learning business, though, this usage of translations helps save up a lot of time and make the process more intuitive.

I tend to make use of the literal translation while I'm still getting used to the grammar of the language. I gradually get rid of it, using it mostly for some obscure idioms. The more I advance, the more I value having accurate translations that help me understand more precisely what the speaker meant to say. These translations are important at intermediate stages. The good news is that, unlike the literal translations, you do not have to rely on a specific textbook with a specific format to provide them. You may use them until you are comfortable enough to barely look up one or two words now and then. But that's a subject for a later article.

Language Learning and Translation
Writer: Hidson Guimarães
Petey: dictionary

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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