Center for Language Studies

The Use of Translation in the Language Classroom | May 20, 2015

This reflection around the place of translation in language teaching springs out of an elementary Portuguese course I took during college. The course met three times a week, MWF, and each Friday we would have a warm-up activity based on translation. The class was divided into two or three groups and the instructor showed us an image on the screen. The image could either be a comic book strip, a film still, or a popular saying to be translated into English. Then, a full class discussion would entail and we decided which was the most “authentic” translation. This example could serve as a starting point for an assessment of the pros and cons of translation exercises within the language classroom. A number of questions emerged from these exercises related to the suitability of translation activities for elementary students, the use of L1 in the classroom, and the practical use of the foreign language. In this reflection I will think of translation in the language classroom as an activity inextricably related to communicative language teaching theories.

According to most CLT theories, translation has little place within the language classroom. The negative connotation of translation derives from its association with the Grammar-Translation method, which emphasized automatic translation and left no room for communicative translation activities. Grammar-Translation method was the traditional way of learning Greek and Latin. It is now almost unanimously disused in that it consisted in the memorization of entire grammar rules and lists, and the literal translation of either historic or literary texts. Other common criticism to translation in the classroom points to the encouragement of L1 use. Whereas modern teaching methodologies seek to remove L1 from the classroom, translation activities depend upon the use, and sometimes the discussion in, the source language. Translation may also not be suitable for all levels of language learners, especially for beginning levels. As I was able to find out in our classroom exercises, translation encompasses a wide variety of linguistic areas such as register and idiom. Instructors take the risk of having elementary students miss the meaning of an entire text if it pertains to an unsuitable level.

Some other common criticisms to the use of translation in the classroom emphasize the specialized nature of translation, the confinement to a narrow set of skills, and the false idea of “equivalence” between two languages. Newson (1988: 2) criticizes the use of translation in the college classroom by arguing that translation is an art that should be taught in specialized institutions. Moreover, he lists a number of reasons for why translation should be excluded from the language syllabus: the interferences entailed in thinking in one language and transferring the thought to another, the disadvantages of working between two languages instead of within one, the enforcement of the belief that there is a direct correspondence between languages, and the minimization of spoken language in the classroom (6). Carreres (2006: 5) summarizes the main arguments against the use of translation in the modern languages curriculum: 1) translation confines activities to only two skills (reading and writing); 2) it confines students to thinking of the L2 through the prism of the source language; 3) it has no real world application; 4) it is an exercise that elicits more mistakes than accurate responses; 5) it is better suited for literary and grammar oriented students than for the average learner.

However, some scholars have shown that translation is not an isolated activity but rather a “functionalist” and interpersonal one (Nord 1997). In particular, Nord (2005: 161) has analyzed the different competences acquired through translation: linguistic competence in both the L1 and the TL, cultural competence (in the culture of the target language), technical competence in research, etc. Duff (1989: 7) has demonstrated that translation activities could be beneficial for the development of the four skills. Instead of spontaneous translation exercises, it is advisable that careful preparatory activities take place in advance. Reading, writing, listening and speaking activities are helpful to prepare for the main translation task. Contrary to the Grammar-Translation method, these preparatory activities establish translation as an interpersonal communicative activity that focuses on all areas of linguistic learning. Harmer (1991) emphasizes the importance of translation for the expansion of vocabulary items. But reducing translation to the memorization of lexical items would be to associate it with Grammar-Translation methodologies and miss the importance of translation activities within the modern classroom. Translation in groups is an activity that helps to trigger discussion around the uses (and misuses) of language, providing a more comprehensive understanding of linguistic meaning.

In addition to the intercultural and interpersonal components of translation activities, I would like to point out the possible relationship between translation and motivation. In a global environment where translation is progressively viewed not as a special skill but as a required competence, students are able to acquire skills necessary for daily as well as professional use. A case on point would be the use of translation from L1 to L2 for writing exercises. With more possibilities of accessing sources in their L1, students could use translation as a supplementary writing activity. A cautionary warning for this type of example is nonetheless necessary–students’ indiscriminate use of online applications such as Google Translate or overdependence on L1 could be detrimental for the learning of the registers, idioms, and styles of the L2.

All the objections to the use of translation in the language classroom are conclusive only when translation activities follow the traditional pattern of the Grammar-Translation method. If designed following a communicative language frame, translation can be a source of interpersonal, intercultural, and “real world” experiences. Traditional ways of teaching translation were beneficial only to students with literary or grammatical interests, whereas communicative approaches to translation are stimulating to groups of students with broad leanings. Translation in the language classroom should shift away from the learning of a specific set of skills, instead addressing the way in which translation helps to learn a foreign language. This transition entails a number of changes in terms of methodology, with the syllabus focusing not only in forming professional translators but also in fostering language speakers. Finally, translation should not be limited to higher language levels but should also include elementary students. For this it is important to destabilize the traditional opposition between translators and language students, thinking of translators as continuing language learners and language learners as inevitable translators.


Nicolas Campisi

PhD Student in Hispanic Studies

Brown University



Works Cited


Carreres, Angeles. “Strange bedfellows: Translation and language teaching. The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees: Uses and limitations.” In Sixth Symposium on Translation, Terminology and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada. Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (2006): 1-21.

Duff, Alan. Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Longman, 1991.

Newson, Dennis. “Making the best of a bad job: The teaching and testing of translation.” Annual Meeting of the International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Edinburgh, Scotland. April, 1988.

Nord, Christiane. Text Analysis in Translation: Theory, Methodology, and Didactic Application of a Model for Translation-Oriented Text Analysis. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

–––. Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 1997.

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1 Comment »

  1. Translation is needed to help students understand and practise grammatical structures,learn the exact meaning of words and expressions, and avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

    Comment by boutalbi omar — January 15, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

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