Between two types of translation

I’ve said in the past that it’s just a bit wild to give beginning students translation as a task to do, because translation is a high-order skill, not a low-order one. In this post, I want to explore two different types of translation practice, and how they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Firstly, there’s translation to convey meaning. I haven’t really found a satisfactory label for what I mean here. But let me explain. Suppose you’re a fully proficient bilingual, say in English and Portuguese. And you work professionally as a translator (written texts) or interpreter (real-time spoken communication). Translation in this case is about conveying messages that occur in one of these languages, in the other (source > target), as accurately as possible (and, if in real time, with speed). It involves a high degree of language proficiency, and cultural and domain-specific knowledge.

Even if one of these languages is an L2, and adult-acquired language, and not an L1, a native-acquired language, it’s still a very demanding process. And the level of language proficiency, and both general cultural and domain specific knowledge required to translate well, is high. It’s one reason translators tend to only operate into their L1s (i.e. with an L2 source but an L1 target, not so much vice versa).

Translation of this sort relies upon the translator understanding the source text as is, in the language, and so depends upon a very well developed representation of that language in their mind.

Secondly, there’s “translating to comprehend”. This is what goes on in historical language classes. You get presented with a text, you apply your external knowledge of grammar, and your external knowledge of vocabulary, and you output a translation in your L1. You didn’t understand the text when it was presented in the L2, it was beyond your linguistic competency to process and understand that message. Translation in this case is an external, extrinsic process where you conduct a grammatical, or linguistic, analysis, to produce an L1 version, and thus render the original L2 message comprehensible to you.

That’s not just orders of magnitude different, it’s arguably a different category of process going on. And that’s why I don’t consider that second process, “translating to get meaning”, to be a form of reading. If that’s what you’re primarily doing, you’re not reading, you’re operating on texts beyond your linguistic competency. Which, is not the end of the world. Especially if you’re in a traditional-type program. Just remember that the process of creating a translation of a text is actually a mechanical process that renders input, comprehensible. And you are going to need a lot of comprehensible input if you are going to actually acquire that language, not just learn about it (and learn to practice grammar/translation as an externalised skill).

Quantity and rate of comprehensible input, revisited

Recently, I crunched some personal numbers. Using Italian Athenaze, a text I’m reading for CI purposes, I clocked myself reading about a page of text (approx 130 Greek words) at 50 secs a page, which calculated out at 156 wpm. That’s pretty decent, I would say, and especially since I expect Greek to be more ‘word dense’ than English. For me, this represents reading (i) faster than I could possibly parse, (ii) with some vocalisation and sub-vocalisation (so it could be faster), (iii) at a level appropriate to my understanding.

I would probably make a vocab note at an average rate of 1-1.5 per page, and this includes words I’m unfamiliar with, or constructions I’m semi-familiar with but think are not entirely transaparent in context and a note will help me later. So that’s a comfortable 98% vocabulary/comprehension factor.

I think this supports the kinds of numbers I came up with in that earlier post, though I’d want to downgrade reading speed estimates for most people. It also highlights some problems…

You can’t give beginning students 4 hours of reading a week. There’s no way a student can cope with 280 minutes, say even at 100wpm, 28,000 words, when their effective vocabulary is so low. And there’s not enough in the way of sheltered-vocabulary texts. It’s just not feasible to have them learn 2 words every 100, meet those words several times over, and then write your next story with 102 words + 2 new ones.

So early level students are going to have to do more intensive reading than extensive reading. That’s fine, they should. Because they’re at a level that even simple communicative messages in the TL are full of overwhelmingly ‘unknown’ information.

And even at more intermediate levels, well, quantity of suitable text is always going to be a problem. It’s a little hard to estimate exactly how many pages/words of Greek text It. Athenaze has, but if you really did read 4 hours a week in a college level course, *and* had the implicit acquisition required, you could read the whole 2 volumes within a few weeks. This is not actually possible and not actually feasible.

However, I point out these problems to continue saying, “more reading is better, more reading is possible, and lack of suitable texts, more than anything else, is the external factor holding us back here. But anything is better than nothing. We don’t need to shoot for the stars. 10mins a day, 70 a week, 7,000 words of comprehensible extensive reading a week, that’s a great start for anybody, whatever their level.

Is it possible to think in a dead language? (Yes)

This is probably the most sub-blog post I’ve written, as let’s be honest that it’s a response to a twitter conversation built of a previous post, a twitter conversation in which I appeared more like a bystander.

Here’s the counter-view: you can never truly learn to ‘think’ in Latin because Latin is dead and our access to it is only via translation.

I think this is wrong, but I think it’s wrong in important and interesting ways.

Let me ask a different question: is it possible to think in a living second language?

Gosh, I hope so, because I do this all the time. As do millions of other people. I speak moderately well in Gaelic, and I spoke very well (though now slightly rusty) in Mongolian, and when I speak those languages I think in them. I’m not translating, not (even) mentally. So just anecdotally (and based on a fairly broad anecdata of second language speakers), plenty of people operate in an L2 without ‘translating’.

So what’s different between a living language and a dead one?

Here’s what I’m ‘hearing’ as the difference put forward: there are no native Latin speakers so our only access to Latin is through (a very, very large) corpus of texts. So we never “think” Latin except as we’ve learnt to approximate it by having its meaning translated into (L1).

And this is why this is wrong: there’s no real linguistic difference between this and a living language that’s L2, because in both cases I’m a non-native learner that’s acquiring all this language from an external ‘corpus’, whether written or spoken around me. Sure, the ‘corpus’ of Mongolian I was exposed to was being spoken by native speakers around me constantly for several years, but it was just as ‘external’ as a written corpus of Latin texts.

It is true, that we can never speak Latin as a native 1st cent. BC Roman did, but that’s not what I’m advocating, or arguing for. Neither will I ever speak Mongolian as an L1 native speaker. But neither do I speak English as you do. My English is an idiolect, formed by my linguistic and socio-historical experiences as an Australian of a certain age, gender, geography, demographic, etc. etc.. In this sense, no two people share the same English, they have only Englishes. There is no “English” (unless some platonic “Form of the English”!).

If the answer to whether you can learn to think Latin is “no, because it’s all externalised“, then this is true of all L2s, and so true but trivially true, because no L2 speaker learns to speak an L2 as an L1. That doesn’t equate to all L2 being ‘translation’ or ‘learnt via translation’, that’s a false equivalency.

Let me end by saying, without any offense intended, that if you’re a monoglot whose only experience of a language is an historical one focused on translation, then believing it’s possible to “think in Greek/Latin/ancient Hebrew/etc.” may be difficult, but it’s possible, even at the simplest level. Just this past week I’ve conversed with several people, at different “levels” of complexity (mine and theirs) in a range of languages. This is the norm for most of the world who are proficient in an L2, or the vast number who have more than a single L1.

Listen-Read-Listen

Technique: Listen-Read-Listen

Here’s a technique that works well if you’re intentionally trying to develop aural comprehension skill. You need an audio source with text, so generally either (a) a recording that has an accompanying transcript (I use this for Gaelic with a 5 minute podcast that comes with transcript), or (b) a text for which a good audio recording has been made (for Latin there are quite a few good recordings of poems/letters/etc., which come to mind.

Step 1: Attentively listen to the audio.

Your goal here is just to understand as much as you can. If it’s totally incomprehensible then there’s probably some factor making it too difficult (accent? text? you’re not ready for this particular text?). You’re not trying to recall everything, and definitely don’t try and transcribe it (a different skill and a different task).

Step 2: Read the text

Now it’s time to pull out the text. Depending on your level and the text’s, this might be extensive reading, or it might be intensive. Reading will help make sense of what you heard. My suspicion is that the previous listening doesn’t contribute very much to how much you comprehend reading, but the reading does to the listening.

Step 3: Back to the audio.

So now you go back and listen attentively to the audio. You should understand a lot more this time! There’ll be things you can more accurately ‘pick out’ and recognise, and overall your comprehension will improve. You probably won’t understand everything, and you will feel like there are things you just read that you can’t quite remember while listening. Don’t stress, just listen and seek to understand.

 

And that’s it! Simple, effective, a good way to use audio but leverage it with written material.

Reading to Learn v Learning to Read

Recently I was reading a document about extensive reading and it highlighted the difference between intensive and extensive reading in the above terms (reading to learn, learning to read).

Intensive reading is reading ‘above’ our level, or sometimes below our level but with a lot of analysis thrown in. This is “learning to read”. It’s when we encounter a whole lot of ‘unknowns’ – unknown words, concepts, structures – and we need to do “work” to make a text comprehensible. It’s slow, and because the amount of “unknowns” is so high, we are not really reading. We are learning to read. We are using a bunch of tools-that-aren’t-reading in order to make reading possible.

Which is fine, there’s a place for this. Unfortunately this is almost everything that historical languages students (looking at you, Greek, Latin) do. They read texts that are far, far too difficult for themselves, and they agonisingly pull them apart until they understand the meaning. And then they go on.

Extensive reading is reading that is at, or even ‘below’ our level. It’s when you read for the sake of the message being transmitted by the text, you operate mentally in the language of the text, you don’t stop to analyse the text per se, though perhaps you might linger to savour the text! You can read a lot faster at this level, and you’re not looking up unknowns, except maybe a very occasional one that you kind of thought you knew the meaning of, but wanted to check or were just interested.

This is reading to learn. The skill being practices is reading, and the object is learning, not vice versa. This is what is missing from most language students’ practices. And this is what’s particularly hard for classics and biblical students. There simply isn’t enough material at an easy enough level to do “a lot” of reading. Better for Latin than any other classical/historical language, but still difficult to obtain. For Greek, a nightmare. I’m working on a little side-project to help with that (btw).

So, if you want to improve as a reader, or a language learner in general, you almost certainly need a lot more extensive reading.

(The document I was reading is the Extensive Reading Foundation’s  Guide to Extensive Readering, see here;

For a great presentation of this applied to Latin, see Justin Slocum Bailey here (31 min video))

A much shorter presentation of the case for Extensive Reading, again by JSB, here (6 min video)

Know/Don’t Know: the myth of binary knowledge in language learning.

The other day I was in a conversation and couldn’t for the life of me retrieve the Gàidhlig word for “question”. All I could think of was freagairt, which is “answer”. I had to ask what it was. It’s ceist, of course. Duh. That’s a word I “know”, or “am meant to know.”

But the real question is never ‘do you know this “word/phrase/structure/chunk of language”?’ It’s always, ‘can you comprehend this chunk of language right at this instant, or produce this chunk in a way that effects communication?’

Which means the strongly binary model most of us inherit of language learning, which includes “Teacher taught word X, therefore student learnt word X” (wrong not just for languages, but for instruction in general), and “You memorised word X, therefore you know word X in all circumstances” or even “you once got X right on a multiple choice question, therefore you can actively recall X for communication production”, and so on – these are just wrong.

‘Knowing’ is a lot fuzzier. It’s a huge range of contextualised, circumstantial, bits and pieces that determine whether communication is going to take place in any particular instance, and how well a message is going to go from producer to receiver.

Which is why, at the end of the day, “vocab testing” is mere approximation. It’s testing, “can you on particular occasion X, recall particular word Y (actively? passively?) in particular context/decontext Z which may or may not bear much relation to any genuine language encounter?”

It’s also why we should basically ‘lighten up’ on students. “I taught you this” has no real place in a language teacher’s teaching vocabulary (except maybe as a joke?). Students don’t really need to feel shame/guilt/frustration at not knowing a chunk of language in that moment, they just need the minimum amount of help to make the utterance comprehensible, so they can get on with getting meaning and so acquiring language. And the next time they encounter, or need, “chunk X”, it will hopefully come a little easier. Or the next time. Or the time after that. Or however many times.

Don’t use “means” when you mean “translates as”

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit, and the title is it. Everytime I find myself writing something like, “the word ὑπόστασις means “blah de blah blah'”, I stop and rewrite it to something more like, “the word ὑπόστασις translates as ‘blah’ or ‘blech'”.

The reason is that ‘means’ in these cases tends to perpetuate an implicit approach to language that treats it as mere code or cipher, as if other languages really encode ‘meaning’ that is genuine in English. Which is patently false. ὑπόστασις doesn’t mean “subsistence” or “person” or “being”.

On this issue I’m not trying to be some kind of hardline “no, you can never say X in one language ‘means’ Y in another”, but I do think it would serve our writing better to avoid the construction because of its implicit connotations.

This is particularly a problem with Biblical Exegetes and their tendency to say, “Ah, yes, the Greek word ‘means’…English.” Let’s at least start killing that.