Classically Inclined

July 19, 2011

Teaching language through translation – an idea

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 6:31 am
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Back on 6th July (yes, time has run away with me recently), one of the people I follow on Twitter shared an excellent idea for language teaching which I thought deserved further propagation:

Dr. Finch teaches German, so she’s familiar with the usual challenges of teaching a class to translate a passage into breathing English rather than the rather stilted translatese which results from the first pass. My immediate thought about this was how beautifully the idea would transfer to translating Latin poetry. The beauty of using poetry is that each poem is a small self-contained nugget that should make sense, so one could assign something of eight or ten lines’ length without feeling that intermediate students were either being overburdened with translation work, or with the labour of creating poetic masterpieces. Since some of the Roman poets felt they worked best in poems of eight or ten lines’ length, that provides excellent source material for assigning this kind of thing. There’s also no shortage of longer poems (or indeed chunks lifted from the trusty Aeneid or slightly less trustyworthy Metamorphoses) for more advanced students, so it’s an activity that works at any level.

Additional value comes from this exercise because when translations are shared, students are suddenly forced to confront wider issues about translation than simply having to look up an unfamiliar word. Translation issues have been Very Trendy recently, particularly in classical reception fields – why do we translate some words as one thing rather than another? It’s something I did a bit of work on, many moons ago, in my undergraduate dissertation – I was interested under what circumstances we translate the Latin word carmen as ‘song’ and under what circumstances we translate it as ‘spell’ or ‘incantation’ – and why the majority of the latter cases seemed to involve women’s speech. When you are operating as a lone translator, it’s easy to avoid questions of how you choose what word fits where, and to simply opt for whatever meaning you routinely use. Working through translation in a group, and engaging with other people’s choices, creates a greater awareness of the semantic choice you exercise as you translate – and, hopefully, an awareness that when we read translations, whether of ancient texts or modern news broadcasts, we are always subject to someone else’s judgements about what word best communicates the sense of the original.

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