Thursday, May 18, 2023

Translation is Not Bad...But...

The following post is directed more at Latin teachers than anyone else. This reflects my own personal views on the matter and not necessarily those of the CI/ADI Latin community.

Often I get asked "Why do you consider translation to be bad/wrong?" And my response is simply, "I do not think that it is bad at all...but..." Let me clarify:

  • Translation in and of itself is NOT bad - in fact, it is 100% necessary! Translation from L2 into L1 establishes meaning. I do know that there are those who think that putting L2 into L1 is absolutely wrong (I have many colleagues in the spoken Latin community who feel that L1 is wrong when teaching Latin - in their words, "The ancient Romans never knew puella meant girl - puella meant puella to them!") While I can understand their sentiments, whether we like it or not, when learning a language, our brains are constantly trying to make connections between L2 and L1 when creating a mental representation of L2 and as a result will default to L1 for meaning. 
  • However, big picture, translation is considered a low-level, thinking process. If you look at Bloom's taxonomy, translation is a level-2 function (Understand level), because what you are simply doing is taking L2 and putting it into L1. While there may be some "high level processes" going on to create the L1 translation, in the end all you have is the original L2 now in L1. You have not created any new meaning on your own. You have the author's original meaning now put into your own L1.
  • One can translate something from L2 into L1 but have NO IDEA what is being communicated. When I translate Cicero, his sentence structures are so complex and the vocabulary is way beyond me to such a degree that I must have a Loeb or an English translation to guide me. When I translate his works, although I may have the words and grammar correct (based on my own personal shorthand), I do not always understand the meaning.
  • Translation focuses on accuracy/performance and not on proficiency.
  • But discussing an L2 reading in L2 is actually a high level skill. Even ACTFL and college programs recognize this. After 3-4 years of language instruction, the expected proficiency level for these learners will be Intermediate-Mid, which means being able to answer comprehension questions, to ask questions, and to have a basic low-level discussion. Being able to create responses needed for a higher level discussion in L2 and possessing the language control needed for this are signs of Advanced level proficiency. I consider myself to be at an Intermediate High/Advanced Low level Latin speaker, and I do not think that I could carry on a high level discussion at all in Latin about a passage - that requires a great deal of language control and knowledge of vocabulary. 
  • As a result, our higher level discussions end up being in L1 about the L2 passage. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but for example, when I see what the AP Latin exam essays are asking students to do, the focus becomes more on L1 with support from L2.

It may shock people, but I actually do a lot of translation into L1 in my classes! However, it is solely used to establish meaning, and I implement this very early in a unit lesson plan to expose everyone in the classroom with the L1 meaning. Where I disagree with translation is that when that is the sole end goal and there is no movement up Bloom's Taxonomy with the end goal (or eventual goal) of creating new meaning with that L2 at an appropriate proficiency level.

Essentially, it comes down to what your goals are. If the goal for your students are to be able to translate Latin into English, especially classical literature after 3-4 years and the AP Latin syllabus and then discuss the Latin in English, then your end goal will be translation. The AP Latin syllabus already is a bear to get through in a year as a translation model, so an attempt to create any new meaning in L2 over what is covered in that syllabus is counterproductive to what will be assessed on the AP Latin exam.

To break out of a translation model is very hard for us Latin teachers to do when quite honestly, that is all we know and have really ever known about Latin. Also throw in that this is what goes on in the college/university Latin classes and what Classics program are wanting incoming majors to master. For many Latin teachers, this is what they want Latin to be. If that is you, then great - go out and prosper. I know for myself, I want my students to do more with the language than just L1 translation, and it has taken me YEARS to come to this point. 

So I write this blog post not as an attack on grammar-translationists but rather as a way to clarify for you my own views on translation and what is my motivation behind it.

1 comment:

  1. Keith, this is something I keep having to come back to. I felt I had made so many great changes over the past few years (thanks in great part to your blog's guidance) towards CI, and that had put joy back into my practice over grinding the grammar slog. Then, I get feedback from my HS colleague that the students need more explicit translation practice...more work with Ecce's frustrating.