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Translation As an Aid in Teaching English as a Second Language

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The article analyzes the relationship between translating and teaching English language and translation to foreign students at a university where Italian is the lingua franca.

Valeria Petrocchi photo My personal experience includes both translating/interpreting and teaching English language and translation to Italian and foreign students within a course that is not specifically intended for translators/interpreters such as it could be in a professional school for training would-be translators/interpreters. We could define translation in our course as "pedagogic" translation, considering that its purpose is to teach a language. Curiously, at the university where I teach, Italian is the lingua franca and therefore it is either the source (SL) or the target language (TL) in translations. Teaching English is closely tied to teaching translation methods. Translation is a useful tool to learn grammar, syntax, and lexis in both SL and TL. The final text of a written translation is a new one, as Lefevere has underlined; translating is a sort of re-writing. In this sense, the translated work must "stand on its own." Since the text has its own identity, it must respect the rules which govern its language. When students translate, they unconsciously follow three steps: analysis, transfer, and restructuring.

Foreign students must continuously compare English to Italian. My students come from all over the world, and their language is often written with a different alphabet. Italian is the bridge between the students' native languages and English. It is fundamental for the Iranian, Japanese or Chinese students (just to quote some nationalities): they understand not only lexis, but also some specific linguistic constructions in Italian and then re-create them in English. Although English is a Germanic language, it belongs to the same Indo-European family as Italian. Moreover, due to the historical influence of Latin and French, English is closer to Italian than to German.

Teaching is in Italian. Therefore, I try to point out the "false friends" and every possible misunderstanding or pitfall related to Italian. The teaching method is based on my personal experience as a translator; no handbook, I believe, can be more helpful.

Intercultural discourse

In my courses, translations include literary (prose, poetry, theatre), journalistic (economics, politics, current news), technical texts (urbanism, advertising, tourist guides, international organizations such as UN, FAO etc.), so students are able to manage different kinds of special languages. By "special" I do not mean exclusively technical but specific to any field. Translation is a two-way device because a comparison between the two languages--Italian (L1)/English (L2)--also allows one to introduce and deal with many subjects. Every text has its own terminology; even slang and everyday idioms characterize a text. Comparing texts of different sources but belonging to the same genre, for example an article from an Italian political magazine and an English one about the same topic (i. e. PanoramaNewsweek), students discover not only a different vocabulary, but also a different style.

Students must keep a glossary, which they continuously update. Writing down words in a notebook allows the student to exercise his/her memory. Students are also taught how to read a dictionary, including the phonetic alphabet in order to learn the exact pronunciation. They usually undervalue the resources provided by a dictionary and often glance at it superficially. I suggest the use of both bilingual and monolingual dictionaries. Bilingual ones (even the best) are often inadequate: sometimes there are imperfections or they might lead to the wrong meaning. For the same reason I advise them to check online dictionaries and investigate on the Internet, where they can verify the actual and current use of a word, because English is continuously changing. As I stated before, I build my teaching on the basis of my personal experience as a translator.

Students learn that English has a larger vocabulary, and some words that do not exist in Italian must be explained in order to convey their particular nuances. Moreover, paying attention to etymology is another strategy that helps them to memorize and understand the real meaning of that word in its context and co-text. Each word in a text belongs to what is around it on a micro- and macro-level, and the analysis of each lexical unit allows the so-called "disambiguation," thus clarifying the effective meaning of a term within a passage.

Practical tools

By preparing a CV or a cover letter in English, students realize that translating is not only a job, but something that involves their lives, their everyday experience and is not a mechanical action. When translating a CV they must keep cultural differences, as well as differences in educational systems and job titles in mind. I direct them to websites where they can find the equivalent degrees (e.g. ISCED, which is an international document by UNESCO, recently updated in 2005, or specific websites on Italian Education ( and for European qualifications ( They realize that a degree or a job position cannot be simply translated. In this case, apart from stating the name in their language, I suggest that they should "explain" it in detail. Students are directed and encouraged at the same time to search on the Internet: this represents not only an exercise in localization but also in the use of the web in English, thus learning terminology and practicing the English language. And if they make the decision of working as translators in the future they will be more familiar with computers and more skillful when using CAT.

The role of grammar

By starting from grammar, students can reach higher level of translation and, vice-versa, by translating they acquire more competence in the knowledge of grammatical structures. Translation is cultural mediation; therefore, also reading English texts about Italian culture makes them familiar with the image of Italy such as it is perceived in the Anglo-American world. A comparison between two cultures allows the students to familiarize themselves with the linguistic elements that are unavoidably connected to their culture. Grammatical rules are the backbone of a language and cannot be ignored. During translation, but also working on parallel texts, it is possible to discover the role played by a grammatical rule and how it is actually applied. Some students have special difficulty in identifying the right tenses and translating them correctly. The discussion of an entire translated passage or even of one word in classroom teaches the students that a word usually does not have just one possible translation. Students learn that every word assumes a different meaning according to the context.

Translating cannot be separated from interpreting, even when we speak about a written text. The purpose of both is to transfer information from the ST to the TT. Interpreting can serve as a mental exercise to improve the students' speaking skills, although they will still need to practice conversation.

Although our students do not intend to enter the translation profession, for them translating helps relate L1 to L2: a mental process takes place in their minds on an unconscious level, every time they speak the other language.

Classroom translation exercise

As a first approach, it is useful to translate short sentences in order to be able to build a longer paragraph and deepen the structure of the single phrase later on. As pointed out above, grammar is the basis of learning a language. A word-for-word back-translation enables the student to highlight the relationship between the two languages. L1 and L2 have different structures. In Italian the word order is free: the subject does not have to be at the beginning of the sentence like in English, where word order is fixed.

Back-translation involves mainly the syntactical structure, rather than only the lexical level; it is a comparison between the patterns of the two languages where individual lexical units may or may not match. It is possible to understand the sentence on a logical level and consequently convey the meaning in the L2. This exercise entails interpreting a text and the awareness that losses, gains, compensations, omissions and shifts often occur in translation. A short example from common signs in the two languages allows one to understand the concept more easily: "Reduce speed now" is "Rallentare" (Slow down) in Italian. When comparing the words, we see that in English we have three words while in Italian only one, which is an infinitive verb used to express imperative. In English there is the immediacy not only in the verb but also in the adverb "now," which in Italian is conveyed exclusively by the tense. The back-translation is: "Riduci velocità ora." This translation is correct on a semantic level, but not on a formal level. Formal correspondence does not exist, while textual equivalence does. Of course this is an example where the translation entails the knowledge of a culture, I mean a way of life and personal/direct experience. This method shows how an "oblique" translation does not compromise the internal meaning. Besides translation structure, students are forced to pay attention to other elements that exclusively belong to the L2.

Parallel translation is not always possible, not only for reasons of grammar, but also for socio-cultural reasons. A free translation becomes a useful tool to point out aspects of a culture, and consequently to master a language.


Teaching translation on a non-vocational level is different from teaching for training professional translators. However, translation can be a useful tool and an effective method to learn a language.


1 "English" in this article means both North American and British English. During my classes I always specify if I am dealing with the former or the latter.


CATFORD J. C., A Linguistic Theory of Translation, Oxford: OUP, 1965.

FAWCETT P., Translation and Linguistics: Linguistic Theories Explained, Manchester: St. Jerome, 1997.

LEFEVERE A., Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, London/New York: Routledge, 1992.

NIDA, E., "Science of Translation", Language 43.3: 483-98.

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