. . .
Vol 37 No 1, January - March 1999 Page 2 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


A Translation Technique

by Jacqueline Eadie


Following the theme of TESOL Arabia’s 1997 International Conference—Tradition and Innovation—this article encourages readers to look at traditional translation activities in a positive and innovative light. A detailed lesson plan is offered, showing how back-translation (into L1 and then back into L2) (Rose 1985) can be exploited with a monolingual class, whether or not the teacher speaks the students’ mother tongue.

Traditionally, the translation method was used to teach language as a subject, primarily involving the manipulation of grammatical form (Howatt 1984). In recent times, EFL teachers have slowly been reviving the use of translation to present vocabulary (Butera 1991; Heltai 1989) and concept checks (Harmer 1991). Edge (1986) and Thomas (1984) have reported on using whole text translation at advanced levels. Atkinson’s (1987) assertion that "the gap in the methodological literature is presumably partially responsible for the uneasiness which many teachers feel about using or permitting the use of the students’ native language" would seem to continue to hold true today. Because of the very obvious dangers associated with excessive dependency on the mother tongue (Atkinson 1987), one might argue that teachers would benefit from more methodological guidance which clearly delimits the functions for which the mother tongue is appropriate.

Over and above concept checking and vocabulary explanations, it is entirely possible to view translation itself as a relatively communicative activity in which language can be practised at all levels within a meaningful context. Duff (1989:51) stresses that the crucial point about using translation is to retain the context. He recommends the use of mother-tongue exercises whose object is effectively to help students understand that what works in their mother tongue may not work in English. Authors on the subject of translation generally agree that consciousness-raising (the raising of learners’ awareness of grammatical features without directly instilling the rules—see Rutherford 1987) is more important than saving time.

Atkinson’s Teaching Monolingual Classes (1993) includes an excellent chapter on translation and gives a brief lesson plan on comparing student translations. His idea is extended in this paper by the use of a framework to guide the very challenging step of "comparing" different language versions and to help teachers who are unfamiliar with their students’ mother tongue.

At the United Arab Emirates University, initial experiments at using a simple translation plan proved frustrating because, in the Gulf, learner expectations are traditionally oriented toward the teacher’s role as "judge." Clearly, this is an impossible approach where the teacher has only a minimal knowledge of Arabic (as is the case of the author). Moreover, the teacher’s hopes that students would be able to view alternate versions as equally acceptable were not met. Because many first year students at the UAE University General Requirements Unit have trouble thinking critically (MacLean 1997) and are hesitant to follow their own conclusions, they often want the "right" answer directly from the teacher. It soon became clear that for back-translation to work at all in this teaching situation, students would benefit from more guidance and a breakdown of the stages involved. The resulting lesson plan is presented and explained below. The aim is to show that translation can be communicative, intellectually challenging, and fun for the whole class.

Stage Teacher Focus Student Focus Stage Aim
preparation select two equivalent versions (A & B) of  a challenging short text  (consecutive paragraphs, verses of poem etc.    
  prepare 4-column charts for students plus OHT    
warm-up introduce the topic area without preteaching vocabulary discuss the topic to stimulate schema
explanation of aims introduce translation activity, explaining that T is not to use L1 at all but will assist with L2 rephrasing, and stressing that translations will not be graded in any way ask for clarification if required to remove St stress and eliminate pressure on T to use any L1
translation into L1 pair Sts, allowing strongest the option to work alone, and ensuring equal numbers of A & B; set a time limit (10-15 min) translate into L1, using bi-/monolingual dictionaries if desired, and with the weaker of the pair as scribe to practise reading for detail; to draw on Sts' expertise in L1 to generate versions and build confidence
translation into L2 collect in originals and have Sts exchange A & B versions; discourage consultation with original authors; stress that there is no one correct answer translate into L2 the text translated by other Ss, with total freedom to restate, reinterpret to encourage Sts to use what L2 they have to render a version to experiment

Comparison chart

During the first phase, the students draw on reading comprehension skills in order to reach a translation and then write a guided paragraph in L2. In order for this now to become a consciousness-raising activity, most students will need a structured task if the subsequent comparison of the texts is not simply to become a matter of marking things wrong. The following chart has been designed for this purpose. An overhead transparency (OHT) of the chart enables a few examples to be elicited and the class as a whole can advise the teacher where to place the items, according to the criteria of intelligibility and grammar. Examples are included in Appendices II and IV.

Compare your translation with the original.  Find some examples of other ways you translated the words and expressions and decide where to put them in the chart.


Original Acceptable Not too bad Unacceptable

Noticing phase

Stage Teacher Focus Student Focus Stage Aim
presentation of comparison activity explain that the aim is NOT to look for mistakes but to compare; select examples from texts A & B and enter onto 4-column chart OHT observe how differences are not necessarily not mistakes to encourage Sts to accept more than one level of correctness
comparison of different versions distribute the original A & B texts so Sts can compare with what they have written; circulate and, when asked, help Sts decide acceptability of versions through discussion and explanation look at some of the differences in the original and translated versions and decide which column to enter on chart (asking the T if unsure) to focus Sts' attention on items of lexis or structure and involve them in evaluating degree of difference from original
report back ask each St to select an interesting item and come up to OHP to fill in master chart and explain reasons for the decision; it's better to keep stronger Sts until later as it becomes harder to find examples 1.) explain to the class something you noticed and say why it is acceptable or not and then fill it in on the OHT
2.) listen to the presenter and ask questions or comment as needed
to have Sts responsible for reporting their findings and so provide an opportunity for presenting and listening practice plus whole class discussion
follow-up copy the OHT for each St to keep highlight any of the items that you have had difficulty with in the past to provide a permanent record of achievement and reference
extension shortly after this lesson hold a "problem clinic" on common errors like those which appear in the NOT TOO BAD column collect examples of common errors made by the students you study with to bring to a "problem clinic" to have Sts identify common L2 problems and seek alternatives.


2. Suitability of the Lesson
To all levels

With intermediate to advanced levels, the teacher may leave the entire comparison stage in the hands of the students and only draw attention to points that have been overlooked during the whole-class reporting. Additionally, with the adaptations mentioned below, this lesson plan can be used with low-level classes. It might even be argued that it has essential advantages for these classes because it introduces the all-important concept of tolerance of more than one correct alternative. With elementary classes, the notion of RIGHT vs. WRONG remains strong and students may not have been introduced to the idea that more than one answer might be correct. Therefore, it may be more helpful to have the students look ONLY at spelling, agreement, and obvious synonyms while the teacher circulates and selects a few translated expressions to present to the class as GOOD, OK or NOT GOOD before individuals are invited to come up and present their findings.

To all teachers

Translation can, of course, be used by teachers who speak the students’ L1. These teachers may feel reluctant to use L1 for fear of escalating the use of L1 and therefore reducing exposure to English. With this in mind, it is possible to set down rules such as forbidding the students to ask the teacher to use anything but L2 in answering their questions. Moreover, it is important for the class to understand that the teacher will not be grading the translations so students can and indeed SHOULD be creative in getting around problems without the teacher’s help.

One powerful advantage of the approach described is that it permits the teacher who has absolutely no knowledge of the students’ L1 to utilize the technique because it is the students who are entirely responsible for the translation and no "marking" of the translation is required. Creative interpretation is the only recourse available. Students who are aware of their teacher’s limited knowledge of their language are eager to show (even in very broken English) what they have discovered about common mis-translations as they come to realise that the teacher is as much a learner as anyone in the class. Student presentations can teach us all a great deal about how errors are perceived and how they are explained from the learner’s perspective.

For using L1 to improve L2

Teachers who are concerned about too much L1 in the monolingual classroom should state up front that they will not translate anything for the students. Although students, up to intermediate level, will probably discuss the task in their L1, they are likely to remain focused on L2 reading, writing, and structure throughout. The L1 is used as a valuable resource for remaining on task in the L2. And finally, the reporting stage provides an ideal opportunity for an authentic speaking and listening task in the L2. Most students are very interested in sharing their results. They wish to know whether their own triumphs and mistakes are common to the class. It is quite normal for students to be too harsh on themselves, so the high numbers of items in the "appropriate" and "not too bad" columns generally prove to be a pleasant surprise.

3. But is It Communicative?
Is it Useful?

For those who might feel skeptical as to the levels of communicative language and challenge involved in this type of translation activity, there follows a selection of criteria against which this lesson might be rated.

Communicative and cognitive features of translation

According to Nunan (1989:132), a good communicative language lesson will

1. Derive input from authentic sources;

2. Involve learners in problem-solving activities in which they are required to negotiate meaning;

3. Incorporate tasks, which relate to learners’ real-life communicative needs;

4. Allow learners choices in what, how and when to learn;

5. Allow learners to rehearse, in class, real-world language tasks;

6. Require learners and teachers to adopt a range of roles, and use language in a variety of settings in and out of the classroom;

7. Expose learners to the language as system;

8. Encourage learners to develop skills in learning how to learn;

9. Integrate the four macroskills;

10. Provide controlled practice in enabling microskills; and

11. Involve learners in creative language use.

Oxford (1990) explains that "challenging" language activities are those which have "cognitive depth;" that is to say they draw on a variety of intellectual processes. These are exemplified below, together with links to the lesson plan shown in parentheses:

1. Thinking about both form and meaning (recoding meaning into L2 form);

2. Understanding (recoding content so meaning is consistent with the original text);

3. Reasoning and inferencing (interacting with the text; choosing the appropriate vocabulary and form);

4 Generalising (extracting the gist);

5. Solving problems (circumlocuting and simplifying form);

6. Monitoring output (checking translated version);

7. Evaluating and comparing alternatives (completing the comparison chart); and

8. Deduction (noting patterns).

Communicative and cognitive features of this lesson plan

Referring to Nunan and Oxford’s features, the author asserts that back-translation will

1. Allow for any type of input, including authentic sources;

2. Involve learners in problem-solving as they negotiate the meaning of the original text in order to find a suitable translation and as they attempt to encode each others’ expressions—encouragement to simplify, paraphrase and guess is most helpful at this stage;

3. Relate to such real-life communicative needs as translating in class for peers, decoding signs and notices in the environment, translating notes and letters for friends and relations, etc.;

4. NOT really allow learners choices in what, how, or when to learn, in that the text is selected and presented by the teacher, who then instructs the students on precisely what they have to do;

5. Allow learners to rehearse such real-world language tasks as asking for explanation and exemplification, evaluating choice of form, presenting information in L2, organizing data, etc.;

6. Require learners to act as experts in L1 and take the responsibility for the final product and the teacher to adopt the role of learner and observer, besides being an informant;

7. Expose learners directly to the contrasting language systems of L1 and L2 as they assess and explain to each other the appropriacy of their translated versions;

8. Encourage the learners to become more tolerant of their "mistakes," gain the confidence to experiment, rely on their own intuitions more, consult their peers, and reduce dependence on asking the teacher for translations;

9. Integrate reading and writing, speaking, and listening;

10. Provide guided practice in reading for gist and for detail, written accuracy, recognizing and using discourse and reference markers, listening for specific information, and oral presentation;

11. Involve learners in creative language use as they attempt to find negations, simplifications, and circumlocutions to render a version; and

12. Utilize all and more of the intellectual processes discussed by Oxford.

A multiplicity of cognitive tasks is clearly involved in this lesson. Their primary value is that they help the learner to develop cognitive strategies, which will subsequently improve his or her ability to learn or remember new information. Thus, translation might naturally be expected to promote vocabulary development and structural pattern recognition (Heltai 1989), as well as improve reading comprehension and writing skills (Hummel 1995). When combined with a total of 10 out of 11 features of Nunan’s ideal communicative lesson, this plan starts to look like a powerful addition to any language teacher’s repertoire.


There are potential pitfalls to be considered such as the time spent deliberating translation into the mother tongue. A time limit is essential to help regulate this. It is a lesson that depends on cooperation. Students who are not on task during the translation will cause problems when those who are ready to back-translate into English find they have too little material. Teacher monitoring and encouragement are crucial at this time. Very weak students will depend strongly on others and so there is always the temptation for them to simply give up and have partners do the work for them. Assigning such students the role of secretary helps. Following the use of a translation activity, students might be keen to use translation of what the teacher says to help each other. There is a real danger of weak listeners coming to rely on this and losing motivation to listen to the teacher at all. It should be made clear that translation has a place, but not in every class.

The author’s experience with this technique has shown that students from a lower-intermediate to an advanced level are generally capable of accomplishing the task with minimal assistance. They enjoy it immensely. This activity is a valuable break from more routine classroom activities; it is highly challenging with real meaning for the learners (Danchev 1982, cited by Harbord 1992). After all, they frequently translate in their heads or to each other whether one wants them to or not!

References and Further Reading

Atkinson, D. 1987. The mother tongue in the classroom, a neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41, 4, pp. 241–47.

———. 1993. Teaching monolingual classes. NY: Longman.

Butera, A. 1991. Translation anyone? TESOL Newsletter, March, 24–28, p. 8.

Danchev, A. 1982. Transfer and translation. Finnlance, 2, pp. 39–61.

Duff, A. 1989. Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edge, J. 1986. Acquisition disappears in adultery: Interaction in the translation class. ELT Journal, 40, 2, pp. 121–24.

Harbord, J. 1992. The use of the mother tongue in the classroom. ELT Journal 46, 4, pp. 350–55.

Harmer, J. 1991. The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Longman.

Heltai, P. 1989. Teaching vocabulary by oral translation. ELT Journal, 43, 4, pp. 288–93.

Howatt, A. 1984. A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hummel, K. 1995. Translation and second language learning. Canadian Modern Language Review, 51, 3, pp. 444–55.

MacLean, J. 1997. Critical thinking in the English classroom. Workshop presentation at TESOL Arabia Conference, Al Ain, UAE.

Nunan, D. 1989. Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R. 1990. Language learning strategies. New York: Newbury House.

Rose, M. 1985. Back-translating to recover from. Babel International Journal of Translation, 31, 1, pp. 6–11.

Rutherford, W. 1987. Second language grammar: Learning and teaching. London: Longman.

Thomas, H. 1984. Developing the stylistic and lexical awareness of advanced learners. ELT Journal, 38, 3, pp. 187–191.

Back To Top


Appendix I: Example taken from a lower intermediate level class

There are many ways of sending secret messages. An interesting method was used by a Chinese general, called Pingyo, 2000 years ago. Pingyo’s army was far from their homeland. Between the soldiers and home there were many enemies. But Pingyo sent letters to his king and the enemy could not read them. He sent them like this:

A strong messenger was chosen from the soldiers. His hair was cut off and a letter was written on his bald head. Then he was dressed as a poor farmer and sent home. His journey lasted many weeks. During this time his hair grew and covered the message. The enemy stopped him many times. He was searched but the letter was not found. When he reached the king’s palace his hair was cut off again and the letter was read to the king.

Return To Article


Appendix II: Lexical Choice

Original version Acceptable Not too bad Unacceptable
journey (example) trip travel (usually a verb) picnic
clothes   cloth  
reached arrived at; returned to arrived; arrived to  
messenger   reporter postman; profit; prophet
message letter massage handwriting paper;
method way    
interesting important; exciting enjoyable; funny enjoyment
strong brave   strange
enemies     bad guys
king; general leader   the owner
army military group of soldiers  
was not found disappeared; didn't  appear was/ did not appeared  
homeland home state; home; country   house
like this: as following as follows; as this:
2000 years ago   before 2000 years  
his journey lasted his journey took    
bald head   without hair  
his hair grew his hair got longer his hair grew up  

Appendix II: (Continued): Passive voice

Original version Acceptable Not too bad Unacceptable
he was dressed as he wore he wear the clothes of he weared him a dress
a letter was written on his bald head they wrote a letter on his bald head   he bald his head where the messages were written on his head
his hair was cut off the man cut his hair; his hair was shaved; his hair was cut    
searched him he was checked they are looking for  
was chosen was selected they looked  
the letter was not found the letter was not there the letter was missing; the letter was disappeared no bodies can found the letter
ways of sending ways to send ways of sending  

Return To Article


Appendix III: Example taken from an elementary level class

Today I want to talk to you about my home country—The United Arab Emirates. I am going to talk briefly about the following topics: geography, population, government, exports, and traditions. First, where is the UAE? Well, if you look at this map you will see that the country is in the Middle East. It is situated in the southern part of the Arabian Gulf and it shares land borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman. Most of the country is hot, dry desert but there are mountains in the eastern part of the country. The capital is Abu Dhabi. The population is about 2 million. Like the USA, the UAE is a union of separate states. There are seven emirates.

My name is Mitsuko Tanaka and I come from Japan. Today I want to tell you something about my country. First, I will talk briefly about the geography and population of Japan. Japan consists of a group of islands in the North Pacific Ocean near to China and Korea. Can you see them on the map? Japan has many mountains and many rivers. As for population, Japan has a lot of people—about 130 million. Now let us look at agriculture. The Japanese grow a lot of rice. They also produce wheat, vegetables, fruit, and tea. Japan has many important industries....

Extract from reading material written for UGRU, UAE University

Return To Article


Appendix IV: Example taken from an elementary level class

Original version Good OK Not good
my home country my home in the UAE    
I am going to talk   I will speak  
briefly quickly    
geography geograph place gogrefe
population     opligtion
where is the UAE?   wheres find the UAE  
look at this map see the map    
it is situated     you can find him
the Middle East   east middle  
in the southern part of the Arabian Gulf in th north of UAE is seas    
it shares borders with SA in th south of UAE is SA    
most of the country many areas of UAE    
there are mountains it consist of mountains    
the population is about 2 million the population are 2 million    
I come from Japan I am from Japan    
Today I want to tell you I toke you today    
my country   my contry  
grow a lot of rice     grow rich
vegetables, fruit   vegetable, fried  
many important industries many important business    
near to China nixe to china    
Japan has a lot of people   The Japan is a crowded opligation  
Japan consists of a group of islands   Japan counten many island  
Can you see them on the map? you can look in the map    


Jacqueline Eadie is an EFL Lecturer at the General Requirements Unit of the United Arab Emirates University where she teaches women undergraduates. She has taught in Korea, Mexico, Russia, and Spain and has also worked in Britain as a technical translator.




Vol 37 No 1, January - March 1999 Page 2 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT
. .

On October 1, 1999, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs will become part of the
U.S. Department of State. Bureau webpages are being updated accordingly. Thank you for your patience.