To translate or not to translate?

To translate or not to translate…that is the ultimate question when learning a foreign language as an adult. There are definitely divided opinions on this matter in academia.

From my experience both teaching and learning language, I’m just going to play Switzerland and say it depends.

Let’s focus on the benefits of translation as a beginning language learner, in my experience:

AS A STRATEGY. As adults, we already have a default language system in place. In the early stages of language development it is darn near impossible NOT to translate. One strategy for learning new vocabulary may even be asking “Come si dice ‘spoon’ in italiano?” Use the target language as a tool to translate.

NEW WORDS. When reading or hearing a word for the first time, we may not have a visual reference such as a picture or the actual object in front of us. For example, if I merely see or hear the word cucchiaio for the first time, I might not have enough vocabulary in place to understand an elaborate description in Italian. “Silverware used for eating liquids and soft foods” may mean nothing to me if said in Italian if I have NO Italian! Of course, a picture or situational context would eliminate the need for translation, but only for concrete words, which brings me to my next point…

ABSTRACT VOCABULARY. When we get into the realm of fantasy and abstract notions like ideas and feelings, precision matters. In English, joyful and ecstatic are considered synonyms for happy, but every native speaker knows that they are levels of happiness. Sometimes we might need a translation to get the right connotation.

SECURITY. Sometimes I just want to know that I know. Translation makes me sure that I really understood. It’s a security blanket.

SOMETIMES I JUST CAN’T UNDERSTAND OTHERWISE. Music is one of my favorite ways to learn a language. I am absolutely obsessed with Il Volo. Not only are they all SUPER cute (Gianluca, hello dream boy!), but they are the best voices to come out of Italy since Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, in my humble opinion.

In the song, “Non Farmi Aspettare,” there’s one line that goes, “Dimmi amore da star male.” I knew all of the words literally, but for the life of me I couldn’t make sense of it. “Give me love to stay bad???” Why would you want love to make you bad? It didn’t make sense until I looked at a translation and the context. “Dimmi amore da star male // Poi guariscimi come sai.” Keep in mind that translation is almost never word for word. In English it would be something like “Make me lovesick and then heal me like you know how.”

A word of caution: translating to understand and translating from your first language into the target language are very different things! You will probably end up with wacky sentence structure that is almost incomprehensible to native speakers going from L1 to L2.  

JOB? Possibly the best reason. Accuracy in translation is a serious skill that could get you employed. One time in Rome I saw a sign outside of a restaurant that read “PIZZA NO FROZEN.” Yeah, they could’ve used a translator. But it was cute anyway. 😉

Once you’ve got a solid grasp of the target language, the need to translate naturally falls away. In my opinion, it’s just another language learning tool, but we’ve got to have lots of tools in our toolbox, not just one.

What’s your opinion about the role of translation in second language learning?

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Ciao, I'm Kelly!

Welcome to my adventures in learning Italian, often while cooking authentic Italian recipes and wine tasting! I love discovering the traditional regional cuisine of Italy and trying to recreate those dishes when I'm back home in the US. I'm also on my way to becoming an Italian citizen through jure sanguinis (by ancestry).

WSET Level 2 Certified Wine Blogger

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