Thursday, July 09, 2009

Translation as a teaching tool

I've been doing some thinking about using translation as a teaching tool after sharing tweets with   CotterHUE I have never used translation in any of my classes as a formal activity, but I know my students do it all the time we talk to each other. They want to know how to interpret something in Japanese or English. Since our class is a core curriculum class, one of the very few that they have in their course of study, I am obliged to offer basic humanities style content in addition to the English skills development curriculum. The content I offer is usually comparative culture, which is also a kind of translation or interpretation. My conclusion is that whether we offer translation to our students as a formal activity or not, they are engaged in high level interpretation/translation of words, grammar, and concepts during much of their study.

I do not plan to use formal translation as an activity in my classes though, for two reasons. The students who come to this university have been exposed to translation before in schools, and it has been used as a proscriptive activity where word and phrase equivilants are memorized and regurgitated in meaningless drills, aimed only at creating distinctions between students who-can-and-do and those who-can-but-don't. Somewhere someone has gotten the activity wrong, and has been using it as a punishment rather than a creative activity.

Translation can be a creative activity. I had the privilege of working with a professor in Kumamoto who was translating some of the works of John Steinbeck into Japanese. We talked about his work several times, and discussed how translation is akin to writing a creative work itself, because the translator has to interpret the content of the work on many different levels and create ways to communicate that in another language. On the other hand, our students are expected to be able to read some text and switch it mechanically into the accepted alternative.

The other reason I do not plan to introduce translation as a activity in my classes is purely of time constraints. I do not want to spend the time in class on it, considering the factors above. My students will naturally fall into the role of translator as they progress in their language abilities. They will have to accept the role of people straddling the line between cultures and interpreting them for others.

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