Waiting for Babel – some thoughts on using translation

I was made aware of a recent trend in the use of translation in class via this post by Willy Cardoso which in turn linked to the work of Philip Kerr.


I had done a lesson a couple of years back which involved using a French pop music video where someone had already translated the lyrics into English. The students tried to match the French lines to the translated English lines.

The video itself was interesting to the students and the task itself called for use of dictionaries and my occasional support. But before, during and after the task I had a niggly feeling about whether it was okay to use translation. At the time the school I work in (funnily enough not so much now) insisted that students be discouraged from using their native language in class. Also monolingual dictionaries are heavily promoted there. In addition my French then and now is shaky at the best of times.

My doubts got the better of me even though the actual experience demonstrated the benefits of using translation and consequently I never used translation as the main task in a lesson until recently.


From  my casual readings into the reasons for translating, the principal one in my view is  that of ‘support’ whether in terms of cognitive support (learners naturally use L1 in understanding L2) or motivational support (using material that they may be exposed to in their daily lives outside of the English classroom).

So with two groups of multi-media students I asked them to ‘help your teacher learn French‘ by translating two episodes of a very popular comedy show called “Bref” which is ideal to use since each episode lasts from 1 to 2 mins. Each group (each in turn split into four subgroups) translated a different episode that I assigned.

Also I did not give them a deadline for the work – I wanted to include some measure of motivation which I thought I could gauge by whether the groups would do the task as soon as they could.

The task also included doing a subtitle file for their translation so they also had to look up how to make subtitle files.

What was clear in class was that by framing the task as ‘help your teacher to learn French’ certainly made them curious and managed to spark their interest.

Language points

By the following week one main group had done the translations, and two subgroups from this had done it in the form of a subtitle file. The second main group had not finished the translation.

I took one of the sub-groups’ translation, projected it on the board and went through it. I asked the other subgroups to check how it differed from theirs. After a short discussion of this, which raised some useful language points, I also asked them to share with each other new words and phrases they had learnt.

The language points raised in class included use of no articles, vocabulary choice, use of tense.

I plan to use the translations the groups produced in a reverse translation exercise when I see them next, whereby I would give the translations made by group 1 to group 2 and vice versa and ask them to use Google to translate the English back into French then further revise this into acceptable French.


One limit to using translation appeared when I read the translations after class – the issue of translating humour and in particular play on words type of humour. With an advanced class maybe exploring pragmatics and context in language discourse could be useful but with lower levels the complexity involved would overwhelm. Of course I am assuming this and I may well be wrong!

In any case I would be interested in comments from bi-lingual readers able to translate the bolded words in the following which appears at the start of an episode called ‘I took the metro’:

Le tournage de cet épisode n’a pas été autorisé dans les transports en commun. Il a donc été réalisé sans transports en commun. Ne tentez pas de reproduire cela chez vous.

My attempt so far:

‘The shooting of this episode was not allowed on the public transportation system. So don’t expect it to make you laugh. And don’t try this at home.


Asked this on wordreference.com and best one seems to be:

The filming of this episode in the public transit system was not authorized. Therefore, don’t expect to be carried away by it.

suggested by member pointvirgule.


Penny for your thoughts

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