Translation practice as a language learning tool?

Hi all. I’ve been learning German through DuoLingo and LingQ since December. Prior to that my main language learning experience was Latin classes in high school. In there our main work would be translating Latin texts into English. Would that kind of exercise - for example, translating the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales into English - help with learning a language I am also trying to learn how to speak, or is it better suited for something like Latin or Ancient Greek that isn’t spoken anymore?

Personally I think I would find translating Grimm’s Fairy Tales really boring and tedious. Or it would be an interesting challenge that would involve language learning. However, I’m hoping that I would start translating my own text that I have been writing (blog posts, comments, etc.).

I believe that translating from one language to the other really pushes you to think about how and why you use the language. It can be fun and rewarding but really challenging. In other words it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Personally I love to challenge and push myself to the limit.

Translating is very different from understanding: much more demanding, as Swedishfinn said. It can teach you quite a bit, yes, about your target language and about your native one. If it appeals to you, by all means go for it. Just take into account that it is not the most cost-effective learning method if your interest is mostly conversation. In general the SAID principle from physical exercise (https://www.vertexfit.com/wp-content/uploads/SAID-Principle.jpg) applies to language learning as well: the best training for listening comprehension is to listen, the best practice for speaking is actually speaking. So translate only if you enjoy it. From experience, I can say that it can be a fascinating task.

There’s also the choice of what to translate, if that’s what you want to do. Unlike your experience with Latin, German is not a dead language. I don’t know how much the Grimms’ prose differs from contemporary German, but it might be considerable – it would be interesting to hear about it if someone is qualified to comment. English prose of the same era, depending on the subject and author, can certainly seem a bit unusual in some ways to a native speaker. I enjoy reading the “50, 100, & 150 Years Ago” section of Scientific American magazine. The 150 year-old excerpts are perfectly understandable, but they’re obviously not written in a contemporary manner and could be harder for a language learner. (I wonder whether in your high school Latin you could have advanced enough to notice differences in the Latin of different eras?)

As for translation, I may not be able to tell you anything new if you have experience with it. It does force you to get intimate with each word and phrase, with each bit of wording and phrasing, in a way that you can skim right past when you’re reading and, especially, listening. But as @ftornay and @swedishfinnpolymath said, it is very demanding in terms of effort and time, and there may be better ways to spend your time and effort depending on where you are in the process of acquisition.

I have tried my hand at translating a bit of Russian. Sometimes I’ll write subtitles for an interesting video that I want to share with my wife or others. I once translated an entire movie for her (one that was fortunately tersely scripted with lots of brooding silence: Возвращение/The Return - 2003). All I can say is that it is hard, even if you understand what you read or hear. You don’t translate if you do it correctly, rather you interpret. There are so many choices to make, so many different ways to translate some things, all the while trying to keep true to the tone and feeling of the original. Sometimes a word has two or more meanings, any of which could apply to the context. That works great as a prose technique in the original, but you may have to chose a word with only one meaning (which?!) for the translation. I’m never fully satisfied with my results, even when I understand every word of the original. I have not done it as a learning technique, but I do learn some things whenever I do it.

1 Like

When I got better and started doing translation stuff free lance and at my regular job periodically, I would import the electronic Spanish text into LingQ in order to linq/store the words and phrases, get a more accurate picture of my statistics, etc. However, I’ve never done translation per se as a standalone learning activity. Rather, I did the translating and added it to my learning.

One person who has apparently had some success with this is Luca Lampariello. When he is learning he, or used to, translate the target language into his own language and then back into the target language. Maybe its more along the lines of understanding like Francisco said, but you might want to check out Luca’s YouTubes and maybe he explains it better. He’s a very talented polyglot so maybe he’s on to something.

2 Likes

I haven’t had the time to study these sort of things even if it’s something that i am passionate about but Grimm’s tales were published about 150 years ago. I remember when I started out here on Lingq I used to read Sherlock Holmes in German as a cost effective way.

I did ask a few questions on the forums and the general consensus was that it was a very bad idea as the words that I asked about were really old fashioned. There are of course a few things to consider when analyzing this.

  1. Every book that is of a certain age no matter what language will have outdated speech, I sure.
  2. I used the original copyright free ones that you can download from the likes of Gutenburg/Librivox. I am sure that the modern editions use a modernised language.

Still one thing that I do know about German spelling then vs now is that whereas some words have a t today they used to have th. These popped up a lot in the Sherlock Holmes book that I read.

1 Like

I’ve read quite a few of Grimm’s tales in the original and I can confirm that their language differs quite a bit from the modern variety. Not only were they written in the XIX century but they used outdated expressions even for their time.
However, if you really want to tackle something challenging, go for the libretto of Wagner’s operas. That can really get obscure!
Anyway, reading classic literature is still a useful exercise that can teach you a lot about your target language.

I wonder if it might be a useful task to read a paragraph (or some increment) in native text and not translate word for word, but try to “speak” it (either aloud or in your head) in the target language in whatever way one can. i.e. Read a paragraph, or a couple of paragraphs of native text, and try to “explain” in the target language to someone else as if they were telling them about that text. It’s translation, but not the belaboring kind where you are trying to precisely define it in the target language.

2 Likes

That was a concern of mine, that the language would be outdated. Yesterday I translated the shortest fairy tale of theirs (I got it from https://germanstories.vcu.edu/grimm/grimm_menu.html) and I could tell from looking at definitions that some of the words and expressions were outdated or at least chiefly literary. I’m mainly interested in using translation to learning about sentence structure and grammar, hopefully to get it more deeply ingrained so it comes more naturally for me.

I am also still very new to learning the language, so I am assuming I don’t have the comprehension yet to read more complicated texts. However, I did sing classically in high school primarily in German, and I know where to find the original German texts and translations (lieder.net), so I’ve thought about looking at a few of the songs I remember and seeing if I could translate those.

The language in these fairy tales isn’t modern German an even German children will not understand each word. Why don’t you try https://www.nachrichtenleicht.de/.

3 Likes

Translation is an interesting topic, even when consuming rather than producing.

I read Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” in Russian with Lingq’s help and really enjoyed it. I wanted to share it with my wife but certainly wasn’t going to translate that large of a work. So I went to the bookstore and found two different English translations that were quite different. I pulled up the Russian text on the Lingq app, compared a few paragraphs, and chose the translation that seemed to best fit my impression of the original.

I read a chapter of Turgenyev’s "Fathers and Sons’ and compared it to the English version found on Wikisource or Gutenberg. At times it seemed the translator used the original simply as inspiration for his own text. Even the common English translation of the title differs from the Russian which is more strictly “Fathers and Children”. That work, by the way, is from 1862. In addition to some uncommon vocabulary the author employs the classical Russian style of paragraph-sized sentences and novella-sized paragraphs. No Hemingway, he, though perhaps not as extreme as Dostoevsky.

This all, of course, is rather divergent from the topic of translating simple sentences as a learning tool.

This is very interesting and IMO it is in fact related to the original question. I was thinking along the same lines: an alternative to translating complex texts is to research existing translations of a work that interests you and try to come up with the best translation and even try to improve aspects of those, since it is not difficult to find parts which are rendered rather mediocrely by most translators.
If you do so, it may pay to go the other way, that is to check translations into your target language of texts originally written in your mother tongue. You are essentially editing existing translations, rather than making up your own from scratch.
I remember that a friend of mine from Germany compared a few translations into Spanish of the prologue to Goethe’s “Faust”. He discovered that most contained mistakes.
This idea of editing/studying existing translations vs. translating yourself connects to an idea that I’ve talked about in other threads: we often approach language learning as a constant exam. We think that we have to find the meaning of such and such word, understand the text before we check the translation, solve drills and exercises, translate ourselves, … Whereas such little tests have a place in language learning, I would argue that they are more the exception than the rule. Most of the time you just want to pay attention to the target language while understanding the message and you understand the message in part by cues outside the text itself.
This is sharp contrast to learning content by heart. In that case, psychological research shows that testing yourself is the best way to go, but language learning is not about simple rote memorization, which is another reason why flash carding is of limited value.