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Best Translators and their language learning secrets

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The accepted wisdom is this: when learning a foreign language, translation should be avoided and abandoned early. Tonight, I want to look at the other approach.

1. Translation aces and their secrets

September 2006 – I’m giving an inaugural lecture to a group of seriously crazy people. The lecture is short and sweet – it’s the part that follows that counts.
First, we have to choose the best ones – there are twice as many candidates as places on the course. Then, we put them into groups and pair them up. And then – once a hefty course fee has been paid – for a year, they come to see us every weekend, from sunrise to sunset.
These are our students at the translation studies centre. And for the next five years, the people I meet there will inspire, frustrate and amaze me.
The best ones, as it turned out, shared a few common characteristics. It’s hard to say whether we taught our students to behave that way – or they figured it out by themselves. All I know is that translation and interpreting helped them hone these traits:
– Tolerance of ambiguity. Simultaneous interpreting is not good for perfectionists – and even the most rigorous legal texts will not be perfectly clear all at once. Accepting mistakes, imperfections and uncertainty – that’s the first step to getting things done and shipping your wares.
– Using your tools wisely. Within a year of intense study, our trainees got through heaps of notes, gigabytes of data, dozens of dictionaries, and piles of software. They juggled gadgets and laptops, stuck with the tools that they needed for the job – and quickly discarded anything that wasn’t working for them. No time for sentiments: learning to translate had priority over having to learn another gadget’s manual!
– Multi-tasking. You think you’re good at it? Try getting medical English into your headphones and speaking medical Polish into your microphone, taking notes at the same time…some say it fries your brain after a while. Which leads us to –
– Managing own progress. Those people had lives. Jobs, companies, spouses, children. They took time, every weekend, to be there and learn an amazingly hard and impressive skill. We couldn’t hold everyone’s hand as they did so. They had to organize their learning, find time to revise, work towards the exams and build up the resources and knowledge for their future. The successful students did so, and admirably.
– Willingness to fail. When would you prefer to find out that this one medical term refers to something else than you thought – during a class or during an exam, or maybe whilst interpreting for a doctor during an operation? Our students were expecting mistakes. They fed on them, worked them out and grew stronger.
Now, if you’re a foreign language learner, you know where this is headed.

2. The old approach: let’s forget translation

After the long and infamous rule of the grammar-translation method, language learning was in need of a fresher, more lively approach. Several changes followed, et voila – communicative methods came along, and with them – the tendency to ignore or discourage translation.
The philosophy is simple: if you can learn Chinese so well that you don’t need translators, then you are successful. So the goal should be to steer you away from translation, and into thinking independently in the foreign language.
So along came byte-sized activities and “can-do” statements, and various other ways of cutting the language down into manageable chunks. Learners made progress, and were praised for completing the next Spanish course, or getting that German language certificate. It worked (and still works) remarkably well.
But there’s a lot more to language than that – and translation, in my opinion, can help a lot more than in the old days.

3. The new approach: embracing translation and interpreting

The list of all the ways in which translation helps language learners would be too long to fit into a blog post. The above characteristics of successful translation students should be a good starting point. Apart from that, let me just add three points here in defence of translation:
– It helps you make sense. When you translate, you carry the meaning across from one language to another. You decide on the meaning, and how much of it there is to carry. You do the work. The experience, the sense, the work – all that is yours to keep.
– It lets you deal with the “wild” language. Sure, coursebooks and classes can prepare you for pre-designed, timetabled situations. And as you progress, the range of situations you’re comfortable with will increase. But language is always “more than that” – it comes at you in waves and leaps and bounds, it surrounds you and demands attention. The first step, the first mechanism of coping with the abundance of foreign language content – will always be translation. Admit it and get good at it.
– It makes you a better learner. Language learning today is all about “interactive” and “mobile,” and the successful schools make their money by being engaging and “fun” to attend. Translation would not sell well on any foreign language brochure. But by translating a paragraph of text a day – or by interpreting whenever you can, as well as you can – you learn a whole new set of skills. This is not something you can get in most language schools – and it’s worth reaching out for.

4. Resources and starting points

If POL-ENG-POL is your language pair, this centre comes highly recommended.
If you want to teach yourself how to translate, this book is a good guide.
If you just want to find out what translation does, try this entertaining book first.

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