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Translation – tangled, rock climbing, bubble, mosaic, ping-pong….

 My students don’t actually realise that I teach them a ‘foreign’ language through a ‘foreign’ language. As I am not English, speak with an accent and teach another language, they always assume that the language I teach must be my mother tongue.

So, once they find out that this is not the case, the questions start pouring in…

‘Miss, how many languages do you speak?’

‘Which language do you think in?’

‘Do you have to translate in your head what you are saying, or can you just speak normally?’

‘How long did it take you to speak fluently?’

‘Do you think I would be able to speak it after I completed my GCSE?’…

It is not just the students who are often in awe when they meet someone who speaks another language. Speaking another language is an amazing skill that will open the doors to new worlds and possibilities; it is impossible to deny that we experience the life and culture of another country on a completely different level when we speak its language and I always try to show this to my students even through my own experiences. 

Before I moved to U.K and became a teacher, I actually worked as a translator and interpreter in fashion business. The art of translation is a careful act of balancing the character of original language and giving it a new life in the second language; trying to figure out what is meant in one language and then transferring this meaning into another language. This can be quite challenging at times, especially when it comes to little cultural nuances or idioms. No two translations will be always identical, especially when we are attempting to translate paragraphs. The way these are translated often depends on the ability, interpretation and creativity of the translator.

However, in the school environment, how can we teach translation skills to our students? I am sure you have encountered the same problem that I have. Students often try to translate the words or the text literally and in a linear way, basically thinking they can replace word from one language with a word from another language in the same way and order.

In my opinion we – teachers should not approach translation of more complex passages (similar to those assessed in the GCSE higher paper) with our students before students have thoroughly studied and understood the syntax of the target language – in other words, they have studied and understand the rules of how words and other elements of sentence structure are combined together to form grammatical sentences.

When it comes to translation of simple sentences/paragraphs  – taught from KS3, there are various ways how we can support our young learners to build their confidence in translation.

After thorough processing of the language taught, I often use  scaffolds such as rock climbing, bubble, ping-pong, mosaic, gap fill or first letter translations amongst so many available in order to vary the ‘diet’ and in order to keep students motivated and focussed. 

These all provide different levels of support and can be used to target different needs of different learners and also allow all students to succeed which is so important in order to keep students motivated and nurture the ‘I can do’ culture within our classroom. I often introduce an element of competition to translation tasks as it increases students’ motivation, especially when it comes to motivating boys.

However, many of these translation activities can be used with with GCSE students as well, as most of the GCSE classes we teach are mixed classes and students will need different levels of support to build confidence in translation skills.

I find scaffolded tasks crucial for building students’ confidence and self-efficacy. Many structures are repetitive (there is/are; I would like, I find …) and if students are exposed to them repeatedly they become more natural to use in other skills too.

Translation activities:

Example of rock climbing translation – scaffold – students translate/re-construct the L1 sentences by choosing the right L2 chunks from the grid. Methodically, working their way upwards through the grid.

Example of ping-pong translation – my year 9 especially like this activity. We set it out as a competition with a time limit which proves to be a great motivator. Two sheets (A and B) with sentences and mirroring answers, students take turns in translating their sentences. The most accurate translation wins. Inspired by Gianfranco Conti.

Example of mosaic translation – scaffold – 3 different levels – level 1 – translate/re-construct the text using the chunks from the grid; level 2 – fill in the missing gaps – no words provided (you could provide the first letter of the missing word for extra support); level 3 – translate the text – only 5 key words provided. Level 2 and 3 inspired by Kim Davies.

Example of tangled translation – text contains parts in L1 and L2 ‘tangled’ – students highlight L1 text in one colour, L2 text in a different colour – then translate/re-construct the texts in both – L1 and L2. This lay-out was inspired by @MflMullen, which I find in line with CLT – split-attention effect reduced than the standard lay-out. If interested in research on Metacognition, see my post on CLT here.

Example of bubble and sweet translation – seen and inspired by Esther Mercier – @atantot. Similar to mosaic translation – students use the bubbles to translate the text. The sweet translation (instructions on the sheet) is also a great motivator with all ages.

Example of pyramid translation – inspired by Gianfranco Conti. The repetition of some key phrases is also useful for independent writing and speaking.

Example of first letter translation – scaffold – this would be used during the production phase as the support is minimal. I also prefer this lay-out as it reduces the split-attention effect than the more traditional lay-out – ( H…, i… h… B… u… i … h……) – Gianfranco Conti.

Example of text puzzles – inspired by @HFooteMFL. This task could be followed by a writing task.

Example of honey comb translation – inspired by Esther Mercier/Lesley Welsh. This type of translation provides more challenge for my higher achievers.

For GCSE specific translation, especially when looking at more complex passages with more eloquent language, a variety of steps should be considered before tackling the translation. I also believe that these should be taught explicitly to avoid common misconceptions.

Pre-translation steps:

  • read the sentence/paragraph

  • highlight or underline what you can translate immediately

  • check the tense / the person / the verb ending / the adjectival endings / the gender of nouns / plural / singular

  • more complex sentences – break them down into chunks or two separate sentences

  • translate each sentence individually checking the word order

  • apply any rules you need to when connecting them together (conjugated verb at the end etc….) 

  • words you don’t know – find a suitable synonym that will not impair the message being conveyed

  • gaps – think of words which would logically fill them in 

The GCSE mark scheme criteria for the translation task do not require the student to translate the text exactly and as examiners we have been encouraged to accept translations as correct as long as the meaning has been fully conveyed even if students have used synonyms. 

To score the top mark for translation is states clearly that the meaning of the passage is fully and not exactly communicated.

If translation skills are taught and practised early on, from year 7 they should not pose such a difficult and impossible task later on at GCSE. It is worth spending time nurturing this skill which in long term will pay off when preparing students for their summative assessments.

Examples for some GCSE translation tasks in the work books in my previous post

These activities whether for KS3 or our GCSE classes would be also suitable for remote learning we are facing in the coming weeks.

For low prep tasks, adaptable templates and example tasks, please see my resource page.


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