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A Glance at the Ailing System of Teaching Translation in Iranian Universities

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The age of information explosion has endowed us with huge amounts of information in the form of scientific articles and books mostly produced in developed and industrialized countries. Advances in information technology have made it possible for people in developing countries to have unlimited access to information sources and to exploit them in the process of their development. Effective and efficient use of the information and knowledge in developing countries, however, makes translation of the original sources inevitable. There is, therefore, a pressing need in such countries for the translation of scientific and socio-cultural knowledge. This requires expert and competent translators; those who have received adequate expertise through university education. This paper looks at the present situation of translation teaching in Iranian universities from the following angles:  the whys and wherefores of translation teaching in universities, major weaknesses of translation teaching, and the necessity of viewing translation teaching as a learning process. Besides, an attempt has been made to introduce some remedies for healing the ailing system of teaching translation in Iran's universities. The findings of this paper have been obtained through interviews, and direct observation of translation classes held in Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Imam Reza University as well as Sheikh Bahaeei University of Isfahan.

Key Words: Translation, teaching, Persian, English, Iranian Universities.


It goes without saying that translation plays a crucial role in human communications. In the process of transferring the sense form the source language (SL) to the target language (TL), translators play a pivotal role. At times they act like a bridge connecting two different cultures. By translation, new thoughts, philosophies and points of views are entered into different languages. In many countries, like Iran, there is a pressing need for the translation of scientific and socio-cultural knowledge. This requires expert and competent translators; those who have received adequate expertise through university education. This paper looks at the present situation of translation teaching in Iran's universities from the following angles: the whys and wherefores of translation teaching in universities, major weaknesses of translation teaching, and the necessity of viewing translation teaching as a learning process. Besides, an attempt has been made to introduce some remedies for healing the ailing system of teaching translation in Irainian universities. The findings of this paper have been obtained through interviews, and direct observation of translation classes held in Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Imam Reza University as well as Sheikh Bahaeei University of Isfahan.

The Whys and the Wherefores of Translation Teaching 

Many trainers and trainees can not recognize the importance of translation teaching. In Riazi 's words "those involved in the process of translation teaching and learning, namely trainers and trainees, should be informed of the importance of translation which is a major intellectual discipline and is the key to international understanding and also of the vast world of communication in which competent translators and interpreters are needed''(Riazi & Razmjoo Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities of Shiraz University Vol21 No.1 spring 2004). Through translation teaching, students would be able to deepen their understanding of two languages and two cultures, learn both the foreign language and their mother tongue thoroughly, and enhance their knowledge of structures. The purpose of translation teaching is to give students not only practical bilingual ability, but also to encourage the attitudes that will allow them to do the best possible translation work after graduation. From the students’ point of view, translation is a very useful skill to graduate with. The level of translation reflects comprehensive abilities in a foreign language and the mother tongue (including listening, speaking, reading and writing) and even a comprehensive understanding. Graduates with strong translation or interpreting abilities can more easily find good jobs

Major Weaknesses of Translation Teaching in Iran's Universities

a) A field With No Specific Aim and Identity

A glance at the program of English translation program in Iranian universities reveals that the course of translation constitutes an important component in the English BA program. However, the objectives of this course have either been misunderstood or difficult to achieve. Virtually all descriptions offered by English departments state that the aim of the course is to introduce students to translation theory and train them to translate from English into Persian and vice versa. Nevertheless, there is a wide consensus among teachers of translation that the training falls short of its expectations.

b) Wrong Translation Teaching Methods

Our observations revealed that, Iranian instructors of translation employ only one method so as to teach various translation courses, i.e. a traditional approach towards translation teaching. Translation students are often given a de-contextualized text, and are required to write a translation in their own time, hand it in for marking by the lecturer who then spends most of the class hour going over the piece, highlighting problems.

c) Iranian Translation Students’ Problems

Iranian translation students’ problems are largely attributable to the following factors: (1) Attitude toward their occupation: they do not recognize the importance of translation, so they do their homework casually and carelessly; (2) Weak bilingual foundation: both their comprehension and expression of Farsi and English languages are not good enough. They often make grammatical and spelling mistakes, create Finglish sentences when they do translation, and sometimes use non-standard Farsi and incorrect punctuation marks. (3) Rhetoric and style: students have no clear consciousness of style, and have had little chance to appreciate various styles before they begin to study translation. Correspondingly, they translate without considering the style of the original and often mix different styles together.(4) Translation students can not use reference books: students often ask their teachers the meaning or spelling of a new word rather than looking it up in a dictionary. The teacher is the sage on the stage! All these problems are due to our educational system and traditional teaching method, and indicate that we must pay more attention to students’ study and thinking methods.

d) Inefficiency of Instructors of Translation

Many experts in the field of translation do believe that translation instructors must be highly qualified, and have extensively studied the theories of translation, linguistics, literature, aesthetics and other related branches of learning. They should be able to connect translation theory with practice and to apply the theory to translation skills. Instructors of translation should have a rich experience in the practice of translation and have published books or articles on translation studies. They should be familiar with English and American literature and with the cultural systems of both Farsi and English. They should also be aware of the mistakes most often made by students, and be able to accurately analyze the causes of these mistakes from the theories of linguistics, culture, literature, rhetoric, style, aesthetics and so on. Nevertheless, not many teachers of translation in Iranian universities have received proper training in translation. They are holders of post graduate degrees in English literature or linguistics from Iranian or Anglo Saxon universities. Any teacher in the department of English who shows interest in teaching translation may be assigned the course. There are no requirements whatsoever. Hence, the trainers are at best merely interested rather than specialized in translation.

The absence of continuous training programs for university translation teachers has contributed to the current status quo. Teachers may very well take personal initiatives and train themselves. However, their efforts can hardly come to fruition. This is because they are overworked and they teach various courses, including a hybrid of language courses and content courses at various levels. A cogent evidence of this fact is that not a single department of English in Iran has published a book on translation or even an in-house manual for students, to my knowledge. Further, no department of English engages in a serious translation project of any kind at the national or international levels.

To cut a long way short, our observations revealed that the students are not satisfied with the performance of their translation teachers; that those who teach translation have never received any sort of training in teaching translation; that most translation teachers have never been engaged in translation research activities; and that most translation teachers lack professional background in translating. In a word, those teaching translation courses in Iran Universities are not that familiar with ins and outs of translation. Prof. Constanza Gerding-Salas believes that proficient trainees should enjoy the following characteristics:

  • "Sound knowledge of the SL and the TL, translation theory, transfer procedures, cognition and methodology
  • Comprehension of what translation is and how it occurs (Bell, 1994)
  • Permanent interest in reading various kinds of texts
  • Ability to communicate ideas clearly, empathically and openly
  • Ability to work out synthesis and interrelationship of ideas
  • Capacity to create, foster and maintain a warm work environment, "an atmosphere of sympathetic encouragement" (Kussmaul, 1995)
  • Capacity to foster search and research
  • Accuracy and truthfulness; critical, self-critical and analytical capacity
  • Clear assessment criteria"

The Necessity of Viewing Translation as a Learning Process 

It is about time that Iranian instructors of translation looked at the process of translation teaching form a different angle i.e. considering translation as a systematic learning process. The key question is that: How can we make translation an effective learning process? Ways to do this include:

1. Translation instructors can use parallel texts. It is a basic pedagogical principle that one should show learners how to do something before asking them to do it themselves. In translation one of the best ways to do this is to give students a parallel text which allows a contrastive analysis of the two languages. It shows how the translator has set about his/her task and reveals interesting discrepancies, even mistakes, which are a source of fascination to students, and prompt questions such as:

  • Why has this been done?
  • Why would a literal translation not have worked?
  • What is missing?

Apart from lexical and grammatical points, students can look for differences in tone, style and register.

If the teacher takes the L2 text back in at the end of a class spent working on the parallel texts, students can be asked to translate the English version into the foreign language and to hand it in for marking. This removes some of the worst pitfalls: the things that it is unreasonable to ask learners to do on their own. Marking involves a lot less red pen, the process is less de-motivating for everyone, and feedback using the original L2 text can focus on students’ alternative renderings, thus emphasizing that there is always more than one correct version. This reinforces the message that translators should do their best to convey the meaning.

An alternative approach is to take the work in to check that it has been done, and give it back to students together with the parallel version. They discover, of course, that their version is different from the original. Then, students may be asked to find out how and why it differs. This leads to much valuable discussion on a range of language issues.

2. Instructors can use two L2 versions. Students can be asked to compare two translations of the same text, focusing on, for example, lexis, grammar or even idiom. This is a demanding task which is probably best suited to final-year students but it offers the opportunity for more sophisticated contrastive analysis and thus has great teaching and learning potential.

3. Instructors can use group preparation. In Dr.Riazi's words "shifting from teacher-centered orientation in classes to a more workshop-like one would help the trainees to solve their problems with peers and with supervision of their teacher." Kiraly ,also, puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of collaborative learning.

I believe that [autonomous learning] skills must be grounded in collaborative social experiences in the construction of meaning. I thus place considerable emphasis on group learning, on shifting the focus of attention in the classroom away from the one-way distribution of knowledge in the traditional classroom, towards multi-faceted, multi-directional interaction between the various participants in the classroom situation. Autonomy from this viewpoint is both a group phenomenon as well as an individual one (Kiraly, 2000)


As an alternative to ‘cold’ translation, instructors should choose a portion of English text and put students into pairs. They underline any structures they think are going to be problematic in the target language and circle any vocabulary they do not know. They then get into fours and pool their suggested translations. Finally, the groups are brought together for plenary discussion. Vocabulary can be shared on an overhead. If students come up with, say, three acceptable ways of translating a particular expression, they should all be listed. The same procedure is followed with structures. The text is then set for homework. When conducted with dictionaries on the table, the exercise can further be used to teach good dictionary skills.

The advantages of group preparation are:

  • Knowledge is pooled
  • Everyone has a chance to produce a decent piece of work, therefore increasing motivation among even the weaker ones in the group
  • Students are faced with alternatives, and selecting the most appropriate is an invaluable learning process
  • The weaker benefit from collaboration with their more able peers
  • Marking time is reduced as the teacher applies less ‘red pen’
  • Lesson preparation allows individual diagnosis of errors: the relative lack of ‘red pen’ enables both teacher and students to focus on specific areas of weakness.

1. Knowledge is pooled

 The advantages of group preparation

2. Increased motivation

3. Weaker benefit from collaboration

4. Marking less time-consuming

5. Preparation allows better individual diagnosis

6. Comments more targeted/useful

 Table.1 The advantages of group preparation

4. Instructors should bear in mind that students should never ever be given a de-contextualized piece of writing. They need to be told where the text has come from, i.e.:


  • If it is part of a larger work,
  • Where it comes in the work,
  • What has gone before,
  • What comes after it.
  • Furthermore, students should be told the imagined purpose of their translation i.e. a) Why is the translation needed, what use will it be put to? b) Who will be using the translation?

    Instructors of English can provide their students with a translation brief e.g. An Iranian company has decided to start a business like “The Writers’ Bureau,” with offices in Tehran, Shiraz .Isfahan and Mashhad to teach writing in Persian. You have been asked to translate the following advertisement, taken from the front page of The Guardian. Your translation will be published in Jam-e-Jam exactly as you have delivered it to the Iranian newspaper.

    With greater experience of translation, students can be encouraged to seek the above information themselves and to act on what they discover.

    Some Suggestions for Teaching Methods

    Instructors of translation can require their students to do exercises such as translating a piece of writing before the lecture. In class, they would then explain the translation theories and skills relevant to the exercise. This can be a useful and effective method, but would be difficult for most instructors, since it requires that they be familiar with translation theories and skills themselves, and be able to combine these theories with translation practice. That is to say, they must be highly qualified translators first of all, and be able to explain translation theories and skills vividly and clearly so that their students can understand and assimilate these explanations. This is a challenge for all translation instructors. The second alternative is to explain translation skills first, and then giving an assignment. After correcting the rendered texts, instructors would give a lecture again to highlight misunderstandings, mistaken translations and to point out the correct translation. Another alternative is to require students to compare the correct translation with their own exercise in order to find their mistakes, analyze the reasons for these mistakes, and improve the translation themselves. The instructors can also discuss excellent passages from translations done by famous translators with their students. The instructors must emphasize the importance of translating whole paragraphs or texts. They can provide articles of various styles in order to enrich practical translation abilities and stimulate the interest of students.

    More Suggestions for Teaching Translation in Iranian Universities

    Instructors of translation can employ the following techniques in order to make translation teaching a more fruitful procedure.

    a)   Translation Dossiers

    Instructors of translation should encourage beginners to keep a translation dossier. Although students are encouraged to learn vocabulary systematically, in translation work they tend to do translation after translation, and there is often little evidence that they are actually learning: similar problems come up repeatedly but they usually do not make a note of them. To address this problem, students should use a dossier arranged under alphabetical, structure or key word headings. Here they can record systematically possible translations of or strategies for coping with expressions/phrases which recur in their translation work.

    b) Annotated Translations 

    From time to time students should be get to explain in writing the reasons for their translation. This forces them to focus consciously on the act of translation. Not just to put A into B, but to reflect on why they have done it. If they have chosen one of five possibilities in a dictionary, why have they chosen this one? This is a valuable exercise to do occasionally because it makes students realize that they should be reflective translators. If they just do translation after translation, hand them in for marking and receive a bit of ad hoc feedback in class, there is no real evidence that students are learning and that they are progressing in their translation work.

    c) Correcting a Translation

    It is a good idea to ask students to correct an inaccurate translation which, depending on their proficiency, can be at a simple factual level or may include idiom, collocation, metaphor, etc. This can be an excellent source of discussion on finer linguistic nuances. The task can be varied by using an incorrect translation alongside a ‘correct’ one, but not telling students which is which.

    d) Translation-task Issues 

    To avoid literal and ‘safe’ translations, it is important to direct students’ attention away from grammar and lexis towards whole-text and translation-task issues. Ways to do this include:

    • Instructors of translation can give students a specific brief which requires clear explication of cultural references or events.
    •  Students can be asked to translate a passage for inclusion in a specialist English-language journal and to adapt their translation to the particular ‘house style’; this might be a suitable task for final-year students.

    e) Research Tools

    To encourage students to adopt a pro-active approach to translation, instructors should encourage them to consult as wide a range of reference sources as possible in their translation work, including: a monolingual target-language dictionary, bilingual dictionaries, a thesaurus, English dictionaries, and samples or models of writing for the particular genre or text type they are working on (e.g. if they are being asked to translate an advertisement article for a Persian newspaper, they should get a ‘feel’ for the appropriate style by reading a few examples of the relevant genre in Farsi).


    f) Quality of English 

    One of the major challenges for anyone teaching translation in Iran 's universities is to help students with poor English. This is likely to be a particular problem for instructors who are non-native speakers of English. Apart from enlisting the help of a native English colleague, instructors can encourage students to employ self-help strategies here; for example, by asking fellow students to read their final draft and to discuss any problematic stylistic features.


    Conclusion Drawn From the Observations and Interviews

    1. Those who teach translation are academics, with no professional background in translation.
    2. Translation teachers have not received any kind of training in teaching translation.
    3. The processes of developing objectives and selecting material are carried out randomly.
    4. There is a severe shortage in resources and classroom facilities. This limits the choice of appropriate teaching methods and keeps teachers from distributing handouts and correcting assignments. It further undermines the roles played by the teachers.
    5. The spirit of teamwork among translation teachers is virtually non-existent.
    6. There is severe lack of coordination in the program, and as a result the overall program is not very successful.

    Overall Conclusion and Recommendations

    Our observations revealed that no serious research has been conducted to evaluate the criteria set for designing and implementing the translation courses being taught in Iranian universities , and whether it is appropriate. This exploration was carried out by observing the attitudes of undergraduate students towards the course content, the teaching methods, and the efficiency of translation teachers in the classes they attended. Our study also showed that, in Iranian Universities lecture was the dominant, if not the only, method used by the instructors of translation. Moreover, it revealed that classroom facilities and teaching aids that could enable the teacher to diversify teaching techniques are almost non-existent. Research in teaching pedagogy shows, however, that a combination of the lecture method, which is a passive mode of instruction, and other active modes such as discussion, role-playing, audiovisuals, etc., can facilitate the transfer of knowledge and acquisition of skills. Nevertheless, the selection of appropriate teaching methods depends on other resources, such as classroom facilities, available equipment, availability of time, and above all the skill of the teacher in using these resources.


    Hatim, B. & Munday, J. (1997). The Translator as Communicator. London: Routledge.

    Hatim, B. & Munday, J. (2004). Translation, an Advanced Resource Book. Canada & United State of America: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

    Kuhiwczak, P., & Littau, K. (2007). A Companion toTranslation Studies. Great Britain: The Cromwell Press Ltd.

    Newmark, P. (2001). A textbook of translation. London: Prentice Hall.

    Riazi, A.M. & Razmjoo, L. (2004). Developing Some Guidelines for a Change in the Program of English Translation in Iranian Universities, Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities of Shiraz University. Vol.21, NO.1, 28-39.

    Shuttleworth, M. & Cowie, M. (1997). Dictionary of Translation Studies. UK: St. Jerome Publishing.


    خزايي فر، علي.1370." ترجمه،آموزش زبان وتربيت مترجم". مجله ي مترجم،ش 28، 3-11.

    قنسولي، بهزاد.1372." تاملي در روش كنوني آموزش ترجمه". مجله ي مترجم، 4-4،3-7.



    Published - August 2009

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