“To translate or not to translate, that is the question.”
Or rather, that is A question.
But really, not one you should be asking yourself.
For the answer is, or should be, obvious.
A caveat to that: if you’re training to be a translator, or someone is paying you to translate something, or you need to render a quote in Italian into English for, say, a term paper?
But if we’re talking about learning a language?
Well because unless you were a monk in the middle ages, or a nineteenth-century schoolboy, that’s not the way people actually learn languages.
Heard of the Grammar-Translation Method (of teaching/learning languages?) There’s a brief explanation here if you haven’t. But anyone who learnt Latin at school will know what I mean.
“But there’s nothing WRONG with translating”, club members all over the world are objecting right now.
Well actually, yes, there is.
However, let’s consider the ‘pros’ of translating first:
1. Comparing. By translating, say Italian to English or whatever your mother tongue is, you will in time learn in some great detail just how different the two languages are, as well as in which areas they are similar. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? Now all you need to do is memorise it.
2. Comprehensive theoretical knowledge. Over time, you can expect to acquire an impressive ‘paper’ knowledge of grammar structures, to the point when you’ll be able to spot at a distance, like a passionate ornithologist who can tell one species of small brown bird from another when then rest of us can barely make out the tree they’re perched in, various types of ‘congiuntivo’, obscure tenses that no one ever uses, and so on. Give yourself a gold star! You’ll have earned one.
3. Translation skills! In the process of becoming an experienced Italian>English translator, you’ll become expert at using dictionaries and the like. In time, there’ll be few sorts of text that you’re not able to tackle confidently! A job as a freelance translator would await, if only Google hadn’t got there first.
That’s a fair summary, I’d say. Give it a few years of hard work with a dictionary and you should be able to render Italian texts into your own language, confidently and fairly authoritatively. Your high school foreign language teacher would have been impressed.
And so to the ‘cons’ of translating as a way of learning a language:
1. Translation isn’t ‘real time’. If you’re learning a language by translating it, nothing you have done is ‘real time’. Whereas speaking and listening, both essential elements of human interaction, ARE. If you have to translate everything in your head as you hear it (IF you hear it, which you probably won’t, as you have had no practice at doing so), and then translate from your own language back to Italian in order to reply, you will be, at best, an inept and inefficient interlocutor. People write to me all the time complaining that they have to try to translate everything they hear, by which point the conversation has passed them by, Italians speaking so devilishly quickly! Well don’t translate, then. Just stop. Try a different approach.
3. Opportunity cost. All that time spent translating could have been used in ways which might better help you prepare for ‘real life’ interactions. Practicing listening and speaking, for example. Or reading, but reading for the sake of reading, not as a slow and painful process of translation. The more you speak and listen, the better you’ll get at it. The more you read (in a natural way), the easier and faster it will become. While becoming skilled at translation, you’re passing up the ‘opportunity’ to get good at other, more pertinent, things. Which is a ‘cost’, at least when it comes to chatting to people in bars or watching Italian TV with no English subtitles.
3. Not developing effective strategies. Is one of the opportunity costs, but worth mentioning in its own right. Language is vast, complex and varied (think of how any two people you know might speak differently, for example – your parent and your child – about different topics, in a different style, with different words, about people you may or may not know. I can barely understand what my kids are on about most of the time.) Dealing with uncertainty – that is to say, TOLERATING THE GAPS, guessing, putting together mental theories about what you are hearing or reading – is an essential part of effective comprehension. Modern language exams test that – not your detailed knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary used, but your ability to get through a wodge of text in a short time and extract only the meaning that’s asked for, ignoring the rest. Once you understand the point, it’s not hard to do, but it does take pratice, which you won’t be getting if you’re busy translating every word. Speaking? Ditto. You’ll get a lot more of it if the people you interact with regard you as a competent (not perfect, but not irritatingly slow and self-obsessed) conversation parter. And the more speaking you do, the better you’ll become at it. The trick is to focus on positive interactions (spend at least half the time listening to the other person and showing an interest), rather than on labriously translating every thought that enters your head.
I’ll leave you with an analogy, a short one.
Think of an Egyptologist (a man, of course, an elderly one – smokes a pipe, has a bushy beard, clothing suited to the tropics, with stains).
Now think of his camel driver (is that the term?) A local lad, say mid-twenties, been driving camels since he was ten years old, speaks a bit of English, some German, and a smattering of other languages. Is especially skilled at communicating with female passengers, and camels of course.
The former has a detailed knowledge of hieroglyphs, can read academic articles in several European languages, but mostly speaks only in English. Apart from a few phrases of traveller’s Arabic, he relies on colleagues to speak to him in English or, when necessary, hires an interpreter.
The later’s income depends on being able to understand what’s being said to him, no matter whether the client is Japanese or Icelandic. The ability to negotiate prices, destinations and so on is a pre-requisite for the job, and something picked up from childhood. A large part of his income comes in the form of tips, of course. Which means making friends with clients, going above and beyond, showing them a fantastic time, no mattter the linguistic limitations.
What are you learning a language FOR?
For personal satisfaction, out of intellectual curiosity, as if you were doing a Sudoko or a cryptic crossword?
Then by all means translate.
Or for ‘transactional’ reasons – to chat, to be part of a community, to make friends?
In which case resist. Find something more useful to do with your time instead.
Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.
If you’re all out of sudokos, you could translate it, of course you could.
Or, assuming you find the listening part hard as many people do (I understand most of it, but it’s my teenage son reading the text…), then why not seek out other material to practice listening with?
There’s plenty of it on the club website.
If you’ve not done listening practice before (surprisingly, many people never have…), then:
1.) You don’t have to understand everything you hear. It’s normal that you won’t. Just aim to get the ‘gist’, if you can. And listening two or three times before you can even manage that is normal and reasonable.
2.) If it’s too hard, start with the easiest materials and work up gradually. Materials are graded by difficulty on the club website, from A1 (the easiest) to C2 (the hardest). Begin with the baby stuff to build confidence. With ‘graded’ materials you need never feel stressed about listening again (or not until you put your new skills into practice, at least…)
We also SELL ‘easy reader’ ebooks, which are ‘graded’ in the same way. See them all on the Catalog page of our online shop. N.b. the FREE sample chapters normally contains a link to the entire story, available to listen to online, no purchase required.
Why not start with the A1 material, either on the club website or with the free sample chapters, so as to build your listening skills gradually (without spending a cent?)
A venerdì, allora.