Hidden merits of the translation class

Author: Penelope Sewell


This paper discusses a unit of a BA course at Birkbeck College, London in 'translation from and into French’. It considers what transferable skills and knowledge can be developed through such a course, as well as the many issues that translators have to deal with.

Table of contents


Prose and Unseen what memories those words conjure up! Indeed, many of us remember the weekly Prose class and the weekly Unseen class. Some of us might even remember them from the Latin Os and A levels we did years ago. They were fun: we were given a text to translate into the foreign language (Prose) and a piece to translate into English (Unseen). They were usually handed in, and the next week we got our marked work back, and each of us had to read out a sentence he/she had translated so that the class could discuss the rendering. Usually, we just wrote down what the teacher said was the best version, then tried to memorise "equivalent" phrasing in the two languages so that we could perform well at the end-of-year examination.

Of "transferable skills" there was no mention, though there was an acceptance that (a) we were learning things about the two languages, and (b) that the practice was "good intellectual training". These two aspects still apply today, but they are now in the company of a whole host of other, more clearly defined, attributes which are directly applicable to the world outside education. What might these be? To find out, we must first set the scene, which, in this case, will be a BA course unit, one of eleven which make up the degree, taken in the student's final year, and entitled "Translation from and into French", as delivered in this College of the University of London. (For further discussion of the course, see Sewell 1996.)


  • Length: 25 weeks at 1h30 per week
  • No. of students: 22, divided into 2 groups, 2 teachers
  • Workload:
    • 6 x 250-word texts into French, the same into English (including mock and real examinations)
    • one long translation (1000 words) with commentary
  • Text-types: modern fiction and quality journalism only
  • Assessment:
    • course-work (including mock exam) counts for 15%
    • the long translation and commentary, also 15%
    • 3-hr examination, translate 2 x 250-word texts, one French, one English (70%)
  • Aims:
    To study the theory and practice of translation from and into French, with an emphasis on practical tasks. (Note. The priority is on the study and implementation of translation strategies, rather than on the perfecting of proficiency in French and English.)
  • Source book: Hervey & Higgins, Thinking Translation, Routledge, 1992

Each text is preceded by a text (called text Alpha) taken from the same source, together with its translation. In class, students study and comment on this sensitizing text, they then study in twos the text for translation (text Beta), and its properties are discussed. They write a draft of a 5-line extract in class (which is graded), then complete the draft at home, send it in within the week (it is not graded). The next class is spent studying the coded error-indicators, and then each pair of students is allocated a section of the text for comment. 15 minutes preparation-time with teacher circulating. Then each pair presents their section and raises the translation issues in their section (strategies, options, wider questions of translatability). The final version is done at home, handed in, graded and returned in a 10-minute slot.

What transferable skills and knowledge are developed?

Although Birkbeck students are not offered courses in translating earlier in their university careers, the Final-year course is not divorced from their previous experience as language learners. Indeed, at each level, the language course they take contains some emphasis on reading and text analysis, which form the basis of the translation course. Register and the study of text-type are major features of First, Second and Third year courses. Birkbeck students are mature students, already in work, who graduate after four years of part-time study. When thinking about translating as a new career, many discover that translation is a far more complex activity than they had at first thought, demanding high standards and considerable linguistic sensitivity. We have our share of disappointed students (disappointed not with the course but with the limits of their own abilities) but we also have our share of outstanding translators, some of whom go on to further study and professional engagement with translation. The course is not vocational, but it introduces students to many of the issues that professional translators have to deal with. It also fosters excellent transferable skills (see below), useful for a person of any age engaged professionally in linguistic activity.

Let us start by discussing text Alpha, usually a passage taken from an earlier part of the source text. Its most important function is to cue students into the text-type, the register, and the lexis of the source text to be translated.

Since text Alpha comes with its translation, analysis of which focuses on tense choice, register, and particular sentences or passages which are examples of good (or bad) translation practice. Students thus pick up clues about how to translate the passage they will be given. Apart from contributing to students' understanding of what is expected of them, this phase establishes the need and ideally this should become an automatic feature in any translation activity to stand back from the task and jot down what type of text it is, what its dominant features are, what the purpose of the translation is and therefore what translation strategies are the most appropriate. Awareness that all these questions are important, and mastery of the metalanguage used to answer them constitute attributes which are transferable to many professional tasks involving texts.

The question of what are transferable skills and knowledge is a moot one. Using as a model such lists as drawn up by Gibbs, Rust, Jenkins & Jacques 1994, and Moon 1995, and relying on observation and instinct in my identification of transferable skills and knowledge, I have drawn up a list of twelve such skills. They are the ability to:

  1. Read accurately.
  2. Operate effectively socio-linguistically: be aware of register, text-type
  3. Understand a theory of communication and see one's role as a link in a chain of communication.
  4. Use contextual knowledge effectively.
  5. Work to a brief, carry out instructions, i.e. adopt the attitude of a professional.
  6. See when extra research is needed, and do it, i.e. act autonomously.
  7. Prioritise work, pace oneself, manage one's time have work ready early if possible.
  8. Produce reader-friendly documents, work on lay-out.
  9. Step back from one's work and evaluate it with objectivity.
  10. Post-edit one's own and other people's work (requires considerable language-awareness).
  11. Understand what makes the two languages tick.
  12. Articulate unspoken assumptions (translation strategies, and reasons for translation decisions).

Surprisingly, and because the focus of the Birkbeck French/English translation course is on the source text and the process of translating, the first skill developed is that of reading, specific, targeted reading. If you ask students to paraphrase a paragraph to their neighbour, they discover that they sometimes interpret a text differently. In class, we look for ambiguities, we try to visualise what is going on in the source text, (Mitchell, 1996), we check words in dictionaries. We discuss register, style, and text-type, we think of the source text as a product, to be described and "marketed" as such. Students become aware of the socio-linguistic dimension of any text, they delve into its components, they try to situate it in a communication context. We therefore discuss theories of communication: who produced the text? For whom? With what intention? No theory of communication will contest the basic model of

Emitter --> Text --> Receiver

a model one can apply to all texts. For instance, if the text is part of a novel, one would say that the emitter is the novellist, producing a text for a particular set of readers with the purpose of entertaining them. One would then go on to ask about the characteristics of the novellist (age, sex, ethnic allegiance, date of writing, place of writing), and about the characteristics of the group of target readers, as far as can be adduced from our cultural knowledge and from the style of the text. If the emitter is a journalist, the intention is likely to be more complex, since conveying information may be of equal, if not greater importance, than entertaining.

This first set of skills and knowledge (Nos. 1 4) is valuable in any walk of life, not just the translators. Students are obliged to look at texts critically, to stand back, to see the text not as a disembodied truncated organ, but as part of a larger whole. The micro-context is the work from which it was taken, the macro-context is the transactional environment of which it is part. To make sure students have such information (a few lines of background information is always provided above each source text to be translated) is to treat them with respect, as intelligent beings who are responsible for what they produce. To give students disembodied texts (and, worse, not to spend time discussing the texts as texts) is to reduce them to automats translating for the sake of translating. Let us teach students to ask questions, teach them to want to know the answers: such reflexes are the mark of university-educated people for whom the cognitive dimension is all-important. For example, every text is a member of a family. Every text is linked to other texts, - they may share the same genre features, they may echo one another in content and style, they may be written for the same purpose, or any combination of these features. If asked to translate a Eurostar magazine article, for instance, students should ask to see previous Eurostar articles. They would thus be in a position to take account of the type and tradition of the magazine and its editorial policy. Would it occur to most students to ask for this? If not, then any training in asking questions would seem very useful, an essential prerequisite for undertaking the task.

Moving on from the source text, let us consider the students' role. The source text, as we have seen, is situated in a communication frame which needs to be articulated. However, as soon as the source text is to be translated, it moves into a different communication frame. The very simple model of "Emitter-text-Receiver" can be developed to take account of the student translator. In figure 1 below, the original line is presented vertically in order to highlight the factors inherent in the new transaction, presented horizontally.

Source text -> student    ->        target text ->           teacher/examiner
Readers                          <-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-<-

Figure 1 Translation in an educational context

The backwards arrows shows the retroactive influence on the student.  This model clarifies the communicational structure, but as it is firmly embedded in the educational context, it encourages the student to think only as far as the teacher/examiner, and thus falls short of encouraging autonomy and the taking of responsibility for one's translation choices.  A more developed model is needed to show how retroactive influences flowing from the nature of the second target readership reach the commissioning body, how the latter might/should formulate a brief for the translator, who in turn angles his/her translation accordingly.

Source text    ->  translator   -> target text    ->    commissioning body    ->     2nd intended readership
                                -                                                        -                         
1st intended              -                                                        -                         
                                -            BRIEF  <-<-<-<-

Figure 2 Translation in a professional context

This model (figure 2) steps outside the confines of the educational context and emphasises the role of the translator in a professional context. Class discussions are thus coloured less by what is "right" and what is "wrong" than by what might be appropriate for particular translation tasks. The questions shift: who wants the text translated? For whom? With what intention? Here we are in the realm of role-play, with the students adopting the role of translator. They have to understand that they are working to a brief, that they have been commissioned to translate, that there is a specific readership in mind, and a specific purpose to the translation. I would not want to overplay this fiction, but it should underlay all activity on the course. To be able to follow a brief, to take full account of it, is a crucial skill for a translator. Is it not also what every employer is looking for in a new recruit, in whatever field?

Feedback on performance is therefore given and taken within the parameters of this second communication model. The student, Alex Flower, is being assessed using some of the criteria a commissioning agent might use. Alex is not being assessed as Alex, but rather as a professional working in a defined field. This should be a great relief as it "objectifies" the whole process, but it also allows Alex to rationalise his/her performance, and put it into a wider perspective. Things hang on the accuracy and clarity of his/her translation: if he/she translates "50 000 euros" as "500 pounds sterling" there will be truly disastrous consequences for the firm he/she is working for.

Alex Flower is thus a pretend professional. As such he/she must take it upon him/herself to produce work of a professional standard. If there is a reference in the text to something unknown, Alex is going to have to research the reference! Take Tom Stoppard's programme notes for his 1997 translation of Chekovs The Seagull:

You can't have too many English Seagulls. At the intersection of all of them, the Russian one eludes capture, endlessly. It will be nobody's trophy. There is no silver bullet.

Why does he talk about a silver bullet? The sense is clear, but the image is strange. That is, until one finds out that in the 1950s there was on television a popular, American, gung-ho cowboys-and-Indians series called The Lone Ranger, the hero of which possessed a magic bullet which never missed its target. Should the translator writing programme notes for a French audience retain the image verbatim, thus introducing what Hervey & Higgins (1992: 30) call an "exoticism" into the target text, or should the image be transposed into something more familiar to the target readership (a "magic wand" for instance), or omitted altogether? All cultural references have to be evaluated and catered for by the translator. The transferable skill here is the ability to act autonomously, to ask questions, not to go through life on automatic pilot, simply translating words at a surface level.

There are six further skills (Nos. 7-12) Alex must develop as a pretend professional, skills which will stand him/her in good stead, especially if his/her chosen career is to do with presenting reports or publishing. No. 7 is time-management, or pacing, or prioritising they all come down to the same thing. The BA course unit in translation has a clear schedule, with deadlines for drafts and deadlines for the finished product. Students are aware of these from day 1, but they only gradually assume the rhythm of work needed. There are points of peak activity and there are troughs of "reading and reflecting time". It is hoped that students realise the value of long-term planning and the immeasurable advantage of getting things done early, before the deadline. To have documents ready early is to call the bluff of modern technology which has a habit of letting us down at the last minute. Being ready early is also specially advantageous when it comes to translation, because it gives a little time for the brain to rest and, in rest, to come up with a word or expression which escaped it the first time round. There is no better aid to the translating process than time for maturation, although this is a student's luxury, unlikely to be reproduced in a professional situation when work is done under great pressure.

Skill No. 8 concerns document lay-out. Double-spacing and wide margins are a must at all times, but there are more precise instructions when it comes to the Long Translation. The latter is done over a 3-month period, and supported by workshops of various sorts, but it is the lay-out that I wish to focus on here. Some people are seemingly unaware of the impact of lay-out on a reader: the translation course is a chance to highlight its importance, and help students create a reader-friendly lay-out. Such skills get little recognition perhaps, but contribute greatly to professionalism in the work-place.

Moving on to the next transferable skill, we are, I think, training students in the art of self-evaluation. We are asking them to step back from their work and view it critically, as if it were produced by another person. This is particularly difficult when it comes to scrutinising a text we have translated into our First language, which I assume here to be English. Most people love translating: it gives us great satisfaction because we have mediated between a foreign language and people who do not speak that language. And most people fall in love with their own texts. However, this understandable satisfaction seems sometimes to block our ability to stand back from our texts. We have all heard of translationese, but are we capable of recognising when we have lapsed into it? Being self-aware and able to evaluate oneself are skills in their own right, and we have found that they must be created and nurtured over a long period of time. They are perhaps best illustrated by the example of post-editing discussed in the next paragraph. If one is self-aware, one does not necessarily adopt the first translation that comes into one's head. One places oneself in the wider communication transaction, assesses the completing forces in favour of this formulation or that, taking account of author-requirements and reader-requirements, rather than one's own narrow view.

Going hand-in-hand with self-evaluation is the skill of post-editing (No. 10) and this is the fourth skill. The advantage of having students write drafts is that they can then practise the art of editing their own productions. Language awareness and the ability to edit texts are also transferable skills. Take the following extract from a bilingual advertisement published in Britain, seeking an adoptive family for a little girl from a French-speaking background:

C'est une petite fille éveillée, amicale et affectueuse, et s'occuper delle est très gratifiant. Son développement est tout à fait normal y compris son langage.

She is a bright, friendly and affectionate little girl, and caring for her is very rewarding. Her development, including language, is absolutely normal.

The last sentence in English is worrying: it does not sound very idiomatic, although no-one could quarrel with its accuracy. A translator who had jotted down this first version might wish to post-edit the sentence to something like:

Her development, including speech and language, is following a completely normal pattern.

This latter rendering uses familiar English collocations (speech and language, follow a pattern) which are not textually present in the source text, yet are faithful to its meaning. When translating texts such as this, priority is given to finding formulations which are familiar, and therefore reassuring and persuasive to the target reader.

One of the class sessions is spent considering the subject and merits of contrastive stylistics. (For a good discussion of the merits and demerits of contrastive stylistics, see Snell-Hornby 1988/1995.) Students learn something about what makes the two languages tick, they become more tuned in to the representational conventions, that is, the habitual phrasing, of the two linguistic systems in question. They learn the value of keeping the two systems separate in ones head, and they learn to navigate between the two, and that ability is a lifelong skill which can be built upon and developed. Finally, and on a somewhat different point, our classes continually emphasise, also, the sorts of strategies a translator can employ when faced with particular translation problems. A great effort is made to get students to express these strategies in words, thus promoting the skill of reflecting on one's decisions and actions, of bringing them up to the surface, of finding the words with which to articulate them. What can be done for one activity can surely be done for another, thus ensuring the transferability of the skill of verbalising a tacit assumption.


I have tried to give a picture of our BA course unit in translation. The translation would seem to be the tip of the iceberg, hiding a much larger volume of activity than is normally recognised. Indeed, slotting into the skill of translating are a whole host of other desirable attributes, which normally remain hidden, because not articulated. In this, translation is like Modern Languages in general commonly thought just to be studying "languages", their students are in reality acquiring a wide and relevant body of knowledge about peoples and cultures, an imaginative openness of mind, and skills which should be the envy of any profession.


Gibbs, G., Rust, C., Jenkins, A., & Jacques, D. (1994).  Developing Students Transferable Skills, The Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

Hervey, S., and Higgins, I.  (1992). Thinking Translation, Routledge.

Mitchell, F. (1996).  Reading, an Essential Skill for Professional Translators, in Sewell, P., and Higgins, I. (eds.)  Teaching Translation in Universities, AFLS/CILT, London.

Moon, J. (1995).  The Description of Learning Levels in Higher Education, UCoSDA Briefing Paper Twenty-seven.

Sewell, P. (1996).  Translation in the Curriculum, in Sewell, P., and Higgins, I. (Des) Teaching Translation in Universities, AFLS/CILT, London.

Snell-Hornby, R. (1988/1995).  Translation Studies, J. Benjamin.

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008. http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.