Conducting successful translation classes

Author: Séverine Hubscher-Davidson


Translating can be taught with a number of different methods so as to meet all of the students' needs. This article reviews some of these methods, and highlights ways in which they can be applied in the translation classroom.

Table of contents

This article was first published as: Hubscher-Davidson, S. (2007) Meeting Students' Expectations in Undergraduate Translation Programs, Translation Journal 11 (1) (

1. Introduction

It is not original to say that in a translation class, students often seem to differ greatly in their ability to translate. I think that while being flexible, imaginative and creative comes more naturally to some students, it seems that others need to work harder at it. It is my theory that some personalities will thrive in a multi-lingual environment, and/or in a challenging translating situation, and that their linguistic abilities are developed and encouraged as a result of their general attitude and positive behaviour which opens up their minds to new possibilities. For others it seems that the mental flexibility and new abilities and possibilities resulting from contact with two or more languages, is not so easily absorbed, and may clash with deep-seated personality traits. If students are not made aware of and taught how to organise their cognitive skills, and adapt their personalities to them, they will inevitably struggle some more than others. While it can be difficult to keep motivation levels up if all of the students needs are not consistently met, it is the trainers responsibility to ensure that all students gain skills useful to them in class, and hence make use of a number of methods to teach.

In a lecture given at the University of Bath, Dolan (2005) stated that learning is a natural drive and that individuals are naturally curious. When they are in a new situation they will explore it and want to discover and master the environment. But when this is done, they become bored with the familiar situation, especially if it never changes. When it does change, the natural drive to explore is awakened again (Dolan: 2005). This applies to all types of learning activities, including translation classes and training. Students constantly need to be motivated and their curiosity aroused if they are to do well. I believe that putting them in new and different translating situations is the way they can make progress and that they are more likely to enjoy a class if it constantly presents new experiences and new challenges. One must also keep in mind the fact that students learn in different ways; some are more receptive to hearing, others to seeing or to experiencing (Dolan: 2005). So a constant change of learning methods can enrich the students experience and stimulate their minds, as well as teach them a variety of skills which will serve them well in their future careers. In Translation Studies, valuable training and evaluation methods are currently being used and developed which aim to improve translation pedagogy by focusing on the student and on his needs. It is not my intention to advocate an eradication of currently used methods, but rather to view some of them from a different angle, show how they can be used innovatively and encourage their development.

2. Oral activities

My research has revolved around the idea that translators personalities affect the way they translate and that this is perceivable to their target audience. The idea that some personality types are more conducive to the development of certain qualities such as resourcefulness, originality, and creativity is a new facet of Translation Studies which I am currently exploring with experiments involving the use of TAPS, or think aloud protocols.

The TAPS process consists of filming students while they translate aloud, saying everything that goes through their mind as they work. I chose to study mainly creative aspects of translation with the help of TAPS in the context of my research. My aim was to show that each individual dealt with problems differently and used various strategies, some successful and some not, and that their personalities came into play through their behaviours when undertaking a translation and choosing these strategies. This ultimately has an effect on their finished work and on its creativity. With TAPS it is possible to analyze both the written evidence (the target texts) and the students different attitudes and behaviours during the process. I was hoping this would reveal how/which students ended up with translations of higher quality or creativity.

During my observation of think aloud protocols, it became clear that patterns that could be found in the target texts (such as omissions, repeated misunderstandings or creative use of imagery) could often be linked back to a students attitude during the translating process. The way in which a student acted and reacted with information available to him determined the shape of his final text. This is where I believe TAPS would be a useful method in training as certain students behaviours can be noted by the trainer and analysed with the student at a later stage.

Others have also used TAPS to investigate the translating process and found it particularly useful in revealing certain translator behaviours. In his experiments, Kussmaul (1995) for example noticed the fact that imaginative visualisations during a TAPS experiment could trigger off excellent words and phrases in the verbalisations but that strangely they were not always used in the final translation, even if the students seemed to like their versions. In fact, according to Kussmaul, understanding and creative thinking can both be present in the TAPS but something happens which keeps the students from including them in their final versions. It seems as though there is another element coming into the process which has not been taken into account.

In order to explain this phenomenon, Kussmaul comes up with two hypotheses. The first is that the students simply did not dare to make use of what they had come up with: they lacked self-confidence. Kussmaul suggests this is a typical kind of behaviour, and one which in my opinion could be rectified to an extent if the student was made aware of it. The other hypothesis is that scenic visualisations (and therefore creativity) are blocked out when the students write things down, as the microstructures of the text become predominant, that is the individual words rather than the overall concepts. Kussmaul states that this may also be interpreted as a lack of self-confidence which keeps them from seeing that sometimes a sentence they have verbalised in the TL is the best translation. He suggests that students do not always notice that they have just been creative.

But without the support of other experimental procedures, such as questionnaires for example, TAPS research is vulnerable to criticism. Indeed, doubts remain as to the reliability of TAPS research, and its objectivity has been hotly contested. However, I believe it can become a useful training method if applied rigorously and not used on its own. TAPS researchers have acknowledged that other methods can and should be used in conjunction with verbalized protocols in order to understand the translation process more comprehensively.

The TAPS experiments I conducted have revealed that a great majority of students enjoyed working in this way although some had not been convinced to start with. Most deemed the verbalizations helpful and believed them to have had a positive impact on their work, making comments like: it helped to put my thoughts in order, it helped me to understand more clearly, it helped me think better and qualifying TAPS as a good practice for qualifying my linguistic decisions. I believe this overwhelmingly positive reaction to a training method clearly deserves further attention, as the translators approval and acceptance of a method is of paramount importance to its potential success as a training tool. My research confirmed not only that TAPS are a valuable method of investigation into translation processes, but also that most students (and personalities) worked well with it and would welcome its introduction in the curriculum. Therefore, designing some oral activities for classes by drawing on this method would, I believe, improve students confidence levels and understanding of the foreign language.

Another oral activity that can be developed is the use of translator interviews. This is a typical method used in research and which is still rare in classrooms but which, if used regularly, encourages students to reflect on their work, thereby giving the trainer an idea of progress and eliciting introspective information. This individualistic approach gives students the chance to reflect on the process and generally appeals to introverted types. There is a risk that some students may feel self-conscious, as they know they will be listened to by the teacher, but they also often like the idea that their experience and feelings are taken into account by their trainer. I believe this method should be used more widely in class, and be the object of further research as well. Indeed, personal and individual aspects of the students experience would surely be reflected in various oral activities. These would disclose valuable information on process-investigation and end-product evaluation, thus enabling trainers to monitor the students experience more effectively.

3. Rethinking group-work

A popular working method used in class is splitting students into small groups and asking them to translate something together. It remains, I believe, an effective method of learning, although when I asked my students last year, only four out of fourteen stated that they found group-work useful. However, studies have shown that working in groups during a translation class is perceived as beneficial for students learning experience in terms of reader expectations, and development of responsibilities as a translator. Students are encouraged to discuss and defend their translations, think about decisions, and serve as guide and critic to each other. Indeed, according to Zeng and Lu-Chen, it is argued that students learn the best through social interactions which allow them to work toward a common goal, by sharing information and solving the same problems.

Students have the chance to bounce ideas off each other, debate meanings and contexts, and they are generally more comfortable working with equals rather than with a teacher. They learn from each others strengths, and it is generally accepted that working in this way is a good idea, as long as students learn from working together as a team, drawing on various aspects of their personalities, and one or two do not monopolize the conversation while the others are bored and/or silent. The teacher needs to monitor the situation carefully, and understand reasons for behaviours.

But one efficient way to avoid negativity is to change the groups at every class and for the trainer to move quietly from group to group checking the dynamics and making notes of different attitudes and behaviours. I believe this versatile training method can still be developed and adapted. Regular group work (or pair work) observation is an excellent way to monitor progress in different areas of students work, and learning how to work in a team is an important skill to have, whatever career one aspires to. Moreover, working this way helps develop an understanding and awareness of decision-making processes. However, I do not believe it should be the only method trainers use in class as it does not seem to be overly popular with students.

4. Other methods to take into consideration

In class, I also believe it is particularly important to encourage the students to focus on the different phases of translating a text (for example decoding the source text or en/recoding it into a target text) rather than undertaking exercises where an end-product has to be handed in after an hours time. Different students and personalities work in different ways and some would instinctively wish for a result, while others would focus on the process. Both ways of working have their merits, and in fact, Daniel Gile (2005) for example promotes the use of evaluation exercises which incorporate two phases in the training: a process-orientated one and a product-orientated one. As there are different phases in the act of translating, it seems necessary to have a specific training time for each one. This dichotomy allows for the development of appropriate strategies for each phase, and gives all of the students time to reflect on different aspects of their performance and progress.

Technology is another element of training which is gaining in popularity because of its increased use in the real world. The place of technologies in teaching and practicing translation is increasingly significant and something which students generally relate well to. Although some trainers are reluctant to adopt language technologies as they can completely transform the way teaching is carried out, and shift the dynamics in a classroom, the rapid developments in this field mean that students need to have some knowledge of how online tools for example can help them and benefit their work. There is a risk that technology will alienate one or two students / personality-types, and this field certainly requires further research, but technology has been shown to improve translation evaluation, and generally motivate students in their task. When I asked my 1st year students last year, I noticed that a majority of them are already expecting to learn how to use new technologies and it is up to the trainer to show them how. As Gonzles Davies (2004: 3) aptly puts it:

perhaps the time has come to adapt to the new generations by including texts and activities in our classes not only in the written form, but also in the oral and non-verbal and, whats more, in those that integrate both, in consonance with the culture the students have grown up with and in which they will be working: TV and radio talk shows, e-mail and cell phone messages and so on.

5. Concluding remarks

I understand that it is not always possible to adapt all of ones teaching methods in a short time, but the voices of the students - as well as the ones of the teachers - need to be listened to, and mutual feedback and communication need to be a feature of the training process so as to ensure student satisfaction. A combination of methods can be used in translation classes to give students different skills, and allow each of their personalities to develop and adapt in order to become successful translators, but above all I believe trainers need to be open-minded, as using varied learning methods has been shown to benefit students and to promote their success. By supporting further investigations into active, innovative, cooperative, and inclusive teaching methods, trainers are contributing towards an improvement in the success rate, academic performance, and satisfaction of their students, which is no little feat.

This article was published in the Translation Journal and repurposed for inclusion on the LLAS website


Gile, D. (2005). Training students for quality: ideas and methods. IV Conference on Training and Career Development in Translation and Interpreting, Universidad Europa de Madrid

Gonzlez Davies, M. (2004). Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company

Kussmaul, P. (1995). Training the Translator. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company

Zeng, S. M. & J. Y. Lu-Chen. (2002). Task-based translator training, quality assessment, and the WWW. In E. Hung (ed.), Teaching Translation and Interpreting 4, 59-64. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company

Related links

Pedagogy and Translation

University of Salford School of Languages

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