Translation from and into the foreign language

Author: David Nott


Beginning with a brief look at some of the issues highlighted by translation studies in recent years, the article covers the following practical matters: the place of translation in the FL course; discussion of some excercises involving translation (parallel texts, retranslation, summary translation); sample demonstration and teaching sequences (on parallel texts and translation from L1 to L2); assessing translation. Finally there are glossary items and a short bibliography.

Table of contents


As patriotism was once 'the last refuge of a scoundrel', translation was once the last refuge of the foreign language (FL) teacher. As a classroom exercise, or when returning students' written translations, it gave ample opportunity for teachers to demonstrate their superiority, and for students to be convinced of their inferiority, as translators. This double deception was made possible by maintaining the illusion that there was 'out there' a single, complete, ideal version, which they had struggled unsuccessfully to achieve. (For a history of FL teaching, including translation, see Kelly 1976, and for a history of translation, see Kelly 1979.)

Translation studies

Today, the FL teacher can neither lay claim to perfection, nor leave students in despair of ever reaching it. Within the last thirty years, translation studies have thrown into sharp relief the inadequacy of common notions about translation. (See Levefere & Bassnett 1998 for a concise survey of changing notions of equivalence, faithfulness, the importance of context and function, the need to adopt appropriate translation strategies for different types of text, and of translation as the locus for cultural interaction and the exchange of cultural capital between and within cultures.) Translation is now seen as a matter of relativities and concrete negotiations, rather than abstract, all-purpose rules.

Many of the above notions have immediate and practical bearing on the place of translation within a course of study in a foreign language and culture. But they are not self-evident, least of all to students who, left to their own devices, will tend to see translation as an end in itself, or a means of sorting sheep from goats. Armed with an understanding of the central issues involved in any translation, the teacher has the task of making each group of students aware of these issues. This can be done by means of classroom translation exercises in which specific difficulties are pointed out as illustrations of certain theoretical issues, such as translation loss, the importance of cultural context, and so on. (Several chapters of Dickens, Hervey & Higgins 2002, Hervey 1995, Hervey & Higgins 2002, Hervey, Higgins, Cragie & Gambarotta 2000, Hervey, Higgins & Longridge 1996, provide examples and suggestions for providing students with a means of identifying what kind of problems the text taken as a whole, and as discrete items, poses for the translator.) Strategic decisions have to be taken about the linguistic features, effect, genre and audience of the source text (ST), and the function and audience of the target text (TT); which of these factors are paramount? Detailed decisions involve: compromise, which should always be the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the translator; compensation for the loss of some feature and its replacement by another; stylistic contrasts between the source language (SL) and the target language (TL).

The place of translation in the FL course

Taking place in the space between two languages and cultures, successful translation calls on a wide range of skills and knowledge on the part of the would-be translator: a high degree of competence in both languages (lexis, syntax, register, and so on) and a wide knowledge of both cultures. In short, translation is at the very top of the linguistic and cultural food chain. What implications does this have for translation in a pedagogic context?

Translation can be an object of study or training in its own right: for example as a theoretically based course in translation studies, or as a professional training course for future translators or interpreters (see Perez article). Translation can also be an element in other courses of study, including cultural and intercultural studies, stylistics, and the FL skills course. The remainder of this article is concerned with translation within an undergraduate FL skills course.

Faced with the FL in situations where we are required to react, we all, whether as learners, workers or tourists, have spontaneous recourse to translation: we ask ourselves 'What does this mean?' and formulate an answer in our own language. In the FL class this automatic, instinctive process has to become deliberate and conscious, not only as regards the linguistic and mental processes involved, but as regards the purpose of the exercise itself: what roles are to be played or simulated by the student as translator? What is the real or imagined target audience? More fundamentally, the teacher should be prepared to discuss, with the class, the question 'why do we translate?' and elicit examples from everyday life and work showing in what circumstances translation is necessary and/or useful. Discussion could then move on to the specific question: 'in a pedagogic context, what are the uses of translation?'

Adequate translation from the language being learnt (L2) to the student's own language (L1) certainly presupposes comprehension, but the converse is not necessarily true: listening and reading comprehension can be checked by various means, not all of which involve translation. Translation can also play an important part in the FL class in enhancing students' awareness of, and sensitivity to, what Hervey & Higgins (2002: 147) call the 'many-layered nature of meaning' and its verbal expression in both L1 and L2. (See for example the chapters on literal meaning (132-146), connotative meaning (147-160) and language variety (161-171). Many of these features, such as hyperonomy/hyponymy, particularising and generalising translation, dialect, sociolect and register, can be analysed and discussed using parallel texts, a topic to which we now turn.

Exercises involving translation

Parallel texts

It is important for students to experience for themselves the fact that all translation involves the same principles, issues and problems. It is all too easy, if the summative examination for the FL skills course includes passages for translation from L2 to L1 and from L1 to L2, for students to keep their knowledge and experience of these two exercises in two separate compartments. Not only that, but the all-too-real subjective difference, for the students of FL, between 'L1' and 'L2' and, in the case of translation, between L1 as TL and L2 as TL, masks the essential autonomy and equal validity of the two languages, as systems of verbal communication. The FL skills course should not ignore the pioneering approach (for French and English) of Vinay & Darbelnet (1958), in which the two languages are considered side-by-side. In the language class, this means that language-learning activities should include study of two texts, one in L1 and the other in L2, each of which describes a different scene, but where there are thematic and lexical elements common to both texts (see also 4.1 on working on two parallel texts).

Texts chosen for this exercise should be short and, over a complete year of study, taken from a variety of sources, including advertisements and other commercial material, as well as biographical, historical, political or literary extracts. In some cases, the ST will be in L1, in others in L2; texts produced by multilingual organisations such as the UN or the EU can also be included. In the first, whole-group stage, salient features of the text (context, audience, register, stylistic features, and so on) can be elicited and discussed. Working in pairs, students can then pick out and discuss how particular words or phrases have been translated, and come up with suggestions as to the linguistic and other reasons for making a particular choice, and whether other alternatives would have been possible and effective. Each pair of students then has the opportunity to present to the group one or two of the examples they have discussed, particularly those on which they have found it difficult to come to an agreed conclusion. The rest of the group can intervene at any time; individual students are thus reassured by hearing of others' problems, but encouraged to think and discuss their way out of the difficulty.

A similar exercise can be done with an original (L2 or L1) text that has been set as a translation exercise in the L2 country, and for which the teacher there has provided a suggested TL version. If the group has had some experience in translation method and practice, the SL text could be set as a timed translation exercise, assessed and given back with the TL version, for class discussion.

Retranslation (or 'double translation')

Double translation, as practised in the sixteenth century, involved three stages: the close study of a (Latin) original, leading to the production by the student of an English version which, an hour or a day later, he translates back into Latin. This is followed by guided study of the student's Latin version and the Latin original. This exercise was used for modern as well as classical languages, and became increasingly centred on stylistic, rather than syntactic, features (Kelly 1976: 177-180). It is thus an exercise involving the study of three parallel texts: the L2 original, and two versions (L1 and then L2) produced by the student. Adapted to today's FL skills course, the exercise provides a framework for ongoing reflection and comparison on the part of the student, and discussion with other students and the teacher. Students can also be asked to consider, from their own experience, to what extent and in what ways memory plays a part in their FL performance.

Retranslation can involve listening as well as reading, as in the following exercise: students are given time to read through a printed L1 text which has been translated from an L2 original, noting its salient features in the usual way. They then hear a recording of the original L2 text, first of all straight through, then in short chunks, repeated, with short pauses during which they write down their L2 version of the chunk, using the printed L1 text as a guide. Pauses should be long enough not to discourage students, but short enough to prevent complete transcription. This exercise could also be done with students having free use of individual replay facilities, but it would then tend to become an 'assisted transcription' exercise: useful in its own right, but not centred on translation issues. The element of 'working against the clock' is a valuable aspect of this exercise: in working life, translations are done to a deadline, measured in time (a publication date) and/or money (payment per 1000 words).

Summary translation (L2 to L1 or vice-versa)

From the students' point of view, the advantage of summary translation as an exercise is that a TL equivalent does not necessarily have to be found for every SL word or phrase. On the other hand, students are required to be aware of the global features, and salient points of the text, and to make decisions as to how to reflect these in the TL version. Using suitable texts, and with students who are accustomed to translation work, writing a summary or gist translation in L1 of an original text in L2 can be set as a timed exercise, perhaps done in pairs. As with all FL learning, the teacher will have spelled out the aims of the exercise, together with the necessity to form a rapid overview of the text, and to make strategic decisions about what to include, condense or exclude, and the over-riding importance of the transmission of content.

Another type of exercise where the absence of any requirement for one-to-one translation obliges students to exercise judgment and make practical decisions, uses as source material two or three texts, from different newspapers or periodicals, on the same topic (feature, news item, opinion, and so on). The exercise could be done with source material from texts in L2, or in L1. The task (pairwork in class, or as an individual or pair assignment) is to produce a TL version of the story in the style of a specified TL newspaper or periodical.

Sample teaching sequences

For the above exercises, and for those described below, introductory explanations and demonstrations by the teacher are of paramount importance. The teacher should take students through each stage of the exercise, asking aloud the questions which students will have to ask themselves (individually or in pairs) when they come to do the exercise. One of the many advantages of building into an exercise a stage where students work in pairs is that this gives them the opportunity to speak aloud and then internalise the teacher's questions and comments. In the same way, a good driving instructor speaks aloud appropriate observations and responses to situations, as a running commentary which the learner driver gradually proceduralises and, one hopes, continues to use after passing the test.

Working on two parallel texts

Through a process of confrontation of two texts, students can be encouraged to practise what Hervey & Higgins (2002: 7), following Jakobson, call inter-semiotic translation: mentally focusing on a non-linguistic message (visual or other images) communicated in one part of each text, then returning to the linguistic forms through which this message is communicated in each language. In the two texts in the present illustration, there are several examples of visual images, spatial co-ordinates, and so on; in other texts, the non-verbal message on which students are asked mentally to focus can involve narrative sequences, states of mind, and so on.

The sequence of study described here uses a short passage from a novel by Cyril Hare (1942) describing the actions and realities of a law student on being confronted with the depressing lodgings which he is to occupy, and longer extracts from a novel by Robbe-Grillet (1955: 65-69) in which the travelling salesman inspects various rooms on premises behind a cafe-bar. Although the eventual outcome of the exercise could be a written L2 version of the text by Hare, the stages by which this is approached involve the students in a process of comparison and reflection on points of language.

Stage 1: students work in pairs through the Hare text, making a list of some of the lexical, syntactic and stylistic problems they would have in writing an L2 version of the text.
Stage 2: they turn to the Robbe-Grillet text, noting similarities in the scene and the reactions being described, with the Hare text.
Stage 3: they use as many items as they can find in the Robbe-Grillet text as possible solutions to their problems with translating the Hare text, and revise the draft of their L2 version accordingly.
Stage 4: either a demonstration lecture by the teacher on strategies and suggested solutions for tackling the L1 to L2 translation exercise (along the lines of the demonstration lecture presented in 4.2 below), or pairs of students submit their finished work for formal assessment.

Demonstrating translation from L1 to L2

The formal exercise involving translation of a text from L1 to L2 is almost guaranteed to make students, even those returning from residence in the L2 country, feel incompetent in the FL. If this exercise is included in the syllabus and examination, it will be necessary for the teacher to go over once again (see sections 1 and 2), with illustrations, the impossibility of achieving objective equivalence in translation, and replacing this aim by 'a relativist ambition to minimize difference' (Hervey & Higgins 2002: 20).

The teacher can identify specific anxiety-calming measures, under the heading of 'safety first', beginning with the acceptance that there will inevitably be some 'translation loss'. Students can be directed to produce a first draft of their translation in which there are no blanks, but which at several points may include generalisations or approximations. These can then be worked on in two ways. For problems of lexis or idiom, students should learn to trawl through their knowledge of L1 for synonyms and near-equivalents; this process can locate in students' memory L2 words and expressions that the original L1 word failed to activate. It is the very act of being set to translate from L1 to L2 which inhibits performance: each L1 word or phrase on the printed page acts as a barrier to students' ability to recall relevant L2 items from their memory. It is as if each L1 word is screaming 'translate me, just me, now!'

Taking specific examples from the passage currently being discussed, the teacher can provide advice on effective time management. First principle: not getting stuck for ages on one word; illustration: one or two specific lexical items, for which basic (perhaps over-generalised), passable (perhaps a near-synonym) and convincing L2 equivalents are possible. Second principle: aim for survival (an adequate L2 version), not perfection (not on offer!); like professional translators, students in an examination have to prioritise, making speedy decisions in order to meet a deadline.

These issues can be met head-on in a small number of demonstration lectures, using a ST (in L1 or in L2) on which students have had the opportunity to work in pairs. Each lecture should as far as possible exemplify step-by-step the processes of analysis and reflection to be followed by students when working on a passage for translation. During the lecture, the text is displayed on a transparency, using overlays to highlight specific features, or using PowerPoint. The lecture could follow this sequence:

Step 1: the text as a whole: topic, effect, register (is it consistent?), stylistic features (are there any oddities?).
Step 2: text-level features: cohesion (organisation and syntactic features). Tense and aspect: identify (show overlay highlighting them) the verbs that move the narrative forward in time; unless the Present tense is to be used as the narrative tense, these will, for a French text, be Past Historic or Passé composé. This means that other tenses (such as the Imperfect or the Pluperfect) will be needed for any other finite verbs (show overlay highlighting these).
Step 3: lexis, including idioms (show overlay highlighting selected themes). Students tempted to ask themselves 'What's the German for...?', 'I can't remember the German for...' can be reminded that there is no 'German for...'!
Step 4: sentence-linking: co-ordination and subordination (show overlay); possible use of present and past participles instead of conjunction + finite verb.
Step 5: order of words and phrases: when and within what limits might one want to change word order? (See Hervey & Higgins 2002: 7-14 for practical examples of intralingual and gist translation.)

When making lexical and stylistic improvements to the draft L2 version, students should be advised to write down any L2 words, phrases and constructions that might possibly 'fit'; this provides a way for students to activate their L2 stock-in-trade, helping to make them aware that, after a period of residence abroad, the stock is far more extensive than they fear. Although one cannot expect this technique of rephrasing to be as productive in L2 as in L1, the process is essentially the same.

Assessing translation

This article has attempted to show how diverse are the factors involved in translation, both in terms of the text to be translated, and the knowledge and skills required from the would-be translator. For pedagogic purposes, the value of translation has been found to be as a means to a diverse range of ends, rather than as an end in itself.

What of translation as a test? How can the different types of knowledge and skills involved in translation be identified and assessed? As Caroline Clapham (article on Principles of Assessment) points out: 'Such tasks are often difficult to mark reliably'.

The central criterion for assessment of translation should be that of fitness for purpose, with positive marks being awarded for achieving specific objectives which have been announced to the students. The traditional practice of negative marking (with or without the occasional award of bonus points) is discouraging and disorienting for students, and is made no more meaningful, for teacher or student, by varying the penalties (half a mark off for accents, two marks off for gross morphosyntactic errors, and so on). While such an assessment method has some practical benefits in summative assessment (facilitating inter-rater reliability, for example), it can also have unhelpful washback effects on teaching. Consequently one can usefully dispense altogether with translation as a summative examination, and set, over the course of a year, a number of translation exercises done in class. In marking these, the teacher can indicate errors and inappropriate translations on students' copies, without giving the correct or suggested version, and students can be set to revise their text (L1 or L2) and resubmit it. Alternatively, after receiving feedback on their work, students can be asked to rework their text using a fresh un-annotated copy. There is no need when assessing such work for the tutor to attempt systematic quantification of every error.

When translation is used for assessment, it is more appropriate to set two or three short texts of different registers, rather than a single text, which, whether literary or journalistic, can cover only a limited range.


A clear lesson to be learnt from translation studies is that the teaching and assessment of translation need to be based on a far wider range of criteria than those involved in simply labelling individual lexical and grammatical items as right or wrong. This only confirms misconceptions among students that there can be a single definitive translation of any text. Translation exercises for formative assessment can be devised in such a way as to point students towards awareness of what is actually involved in translation; if translation exercises are used for summative assessment, there are alternatives, such as summary translation, to the traditional exercise.

Given its place at the top of the 'food chain' of language learning, it is not surprising that L1 to L2 translation, used as a summative test and marked in the traditional way, tends to discriminate sharply at the upper end of the mark range, but far less well at the lower end. In the 1970s, for example, it tended not to be an appropriate test for A level candidates whose overall grade was below B. Thirty years later, in very different conditions, a similar pattern can be observed at final degree level, where the bunching of marks at the lower end of the scale suggests that it is an inappropriate exercise for upwards of half the candidates, if the cohort's average A level grade was B.

In short, it could be asserted that the traditional approach to translation in the FL course, especially from L1 to L2, has not only done much to discourage generations of students as to their own proficiency and potential as FL learners, but has also offered them a wholly unrealistic set of notions about translation. If the exercise of translation is to be (re)admitted to the language-learning fold, it has to be on the basis of clearly-defined criteria, objectives and practices; the purpose of this article has been to suggest some of the conditions under which translation can be rehabilitated.


Suggested version: an L2 translation of the L1 text (or vice-versa), generally given out to students when their work has been marked. The teacher should constantly remind the students that this translated text represents only one of a number of possible approaches to translating the original text, and that the teacher has had far longer to work on it than the students have had. For these reasons, calling the teacher's translation a suggested version is preferable to calling it a fair copy.

Summary translation: an exercise in which students are set to produce an L2 version of a longer L1 text (or vice-versa). The word limit for the students' versions should be low enough to oblige the students to make content-based (as well as linguistic and cultural) choices, but high enough to allow for a coherent summary of the original text.


Dickens, J., S.Hervey & I.Higgins (2002). Thinking Arabic Translation. A course in Translation Method: Arabic to English. London: Routledge.

Hare, C (1942, Tragedy at Law. London: Faber.

Hervey, S. (1995). Thinking Spanish Translation. A Course in Translation Method: Spanish to English. London: Routledge.

Hervey, S. & I. Higgins (2002). Thinking French Translation. A Course in Translation Method: French to English. London: Routledge.

Hervey, S., I. Higgins, S. Cragie & P. Gambarotta (2000). Thinking Italian Translation. A Course in Translation Method: Italian to English. London: Routledge.

Hervey, S., I. Higgins & M. Longridge (1996). Thinking German Translation. A Course in Translation Method: German to English. London: Routledge.

Kelly, L. G. (1976). 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley: Newbury House.

Kelly, L. G. (1979). The True Interpreter. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lefevere, A. & S. Bassnett (1998). Where are we in Translation Studies? In Bassnett, S. & A. Lefevere: Constructing Cultures. Essays on Literary Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Robbe-Grillet, A. (1955). Le Voyeur. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

Sewell, P. & S. Higgins (eds) (1996). Teaching Translation in Universities: Present and Future Perspectives. London: AFLS/CILT.

Vinay, J.-P. & J. Darbelnet (1958). Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais. Paris: Didier.

Related links

A. Schjoldager. Is translation into the foreign language dangerous for learners?
A comparative analysis of translation and picture verbalization.

Criteria for marking translations into English.

R. Poporic. The place of translation in language teaching.

Guide to Good Practice: Interpreting by Isabelle Perez

Guide to Good Practice: Principles of assessment by Caroline Clapham

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.
  • 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