This morning while I was listening to Richard Vaughan’s Podcast recorded in Madrid, Spain (http://www.ivoox.com/podcast-richard-vaughan-live_sq_f180769_1.html), he mentioned an incident decades ago at a company where he was teaching. He was having lunch with a fellow American and when that “Puritan” American saw that every table had a bottle of “Agua Sin Gas” – he was in shock at the level of sinfulness in a Catholic country. Yes, Virginia; you know “agua sin gas” simply means “still water” not the opposite of “holy water”. Another teacher started his lesson asking his students very tongue in cheek: “Today we’re going to be talking about Great Tits. Do you know what tits are? And one Spanish student shyly translated: “tetas”. After all laughed the teacher explained that he was going to be talking about birds and vocabulary related. In the UK many people know lots of birds species- it’s a national pastime, while most people in Iberian countries, for example, know very few bird species.
Translation activities in class were swept under the carpet for many years in favor of total immersion in Language 2. However, the knowledge the student has of their own mother tongue and culture can and should be used to help them tread around the traps of the language they’re now learning.
A simple exercise that I enjoy giving my students is getting them a headline and first paragraph of the day’s newspaper in their language and ask them to tell me the gist of the story in English. Then they’ll try to translate the sentence. Finally they will write it down (it could be assigned as homework if they ever had to do it).
I remember years ago a teacher of French (of course he HAD to be French) told my wife that a foreigner would NEVER learn to write as a native speaker. That statement is open to interpretation since many people can’t write well in their OWN languages. But I raise another point: does the average learner of a second language need to write like a native speaker or simply be able to write in a clear and objective way?
That leads us to what happened in France this week – all my students saw, heard and read something about the cowardly terrorist attacks in Paris and other areas. So many words came up for translation – Muslim, Censorship, Threat, Grey Area, etc.
As we could see this week some things never get lost in translation.