Translation in the Classroom

BAS editor Sander Berg

In the autumn edition of The Bulletin I wrote about the challenges and rewards of translation in general. In this article I want to focus on translation as a tool for teaching & learning.


It never takes long for translation to come up in my lessons. Almost inevitably, the conversation is triggered by my strong suspicion that a pupil has fed an essay to Google Translate and copied and pasted the result. Back in the day, when online translation was reliably rubbish, I would use Babel Fish to show, with some judiciously chosen examples, how nonsensical some computer-generated translations could be. That is no longer possible; Google Translate is simply too good.

You can even use the camera on your phone and point at a text – any text – and get a decent translation. Handy if you want to make beef bulgogi but cannot read the instructions on the jar because they are in Korean, as happened to me not so long ago. (It came out fine, although a little on the salty side, but I shan’t blame Google for that.)

Of course, it is still possible to find instances where Google Translate gets it wrong, usually because it lacks context. If you are translating from English to Spanish and just type in ‘bank’, Google will opt for the statistically most likely translation: banco (financial institution). This will lead to confusion if you actually mean orilla (riverbank). But type in ‘riverbank’ and you will get the right answer. The conversation to have with pupils, then, is not to dismiss Google Translate out of hand, much less pretend that it only produces gibberish, but to show them its limitations and encourage them to use proper (online) dictionaries that have sub-entries and give example sentences. This will help them get a better contextual understanding of words and their uses. And obviously you need to remind them that they are not honing their linguistic skills if they rely unthinkingly on Google Translate. It’s like thinking you could get really good at football by spending a lot of time on your sofa watching Match of the Day or by playing Champions League on your phone.


The conversation about online translation is one I have with pupils of all ages and levels. Right from the start, too, I emphasise the need to produce idiomatic English when they are translating texts from Spanish. And by idiomatic I don’t mean using idioms like ‘when pigs fly’ but saying things the way you would in normal English. In other words, to use an idiom is not the same as using idiomatic English. One of our textbooks contains the phrase ‘el pueblo atrae bastante al turismo’. A stilted, unnatural translation would be ‘the village attracts tourism quite a lot’. In English you would say it attracts quite a lot of tourists.

It works the other way around as well, and using idiomatic Spanish is a key marker for having achieved a high degree of fluency. If what you produce sounds like something a Spanish-speaking person would say instead of stiff, translated English, then you are getting there. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we all know it is one of the hardest things.


In the Sixth Form I take translation to the next level. After the end-of-years exams, I usually run a literary translation competition. The pupils are given a literary text, either a very short story or a chapter from a novel, and get two weeks to translate it. They can use any tools they want: dictionaries, both monolingual and Spanish to English, both online and printed, as well as Google, other websites, or even a friend who is a native speaker – anything. The trick is to find a text of which there is no published translation available. Otherwise, the temptation would be too strong to consult it.

Last year I selected a short story by Mario Benedetti called ‘Bolso de viajes cortos’ (624 words). This worked really well. I didn’t tell them anything about the content or the author because I wanted to see who among them would think about doing some research. (None, as it turned out.) The story is about a man who leaves his country, which is in turmoil. He takes with him a bag stuffed with memorabilia. During his absence, which lasts for many years, he discards one object after the other until he comes across a scarf his lover used to wear around her neck and decides to keep it. It is quite possible to get through the task of translating the story without knowing anything at all about Benedetti, but it becomes a much more meaningful text, and therefore easier to translate, if you realise that he is from Uruguay and spent twelve years of his life in exile when a right-wing military junta ruled his native country.

The results of the competition were very pleasing. All pupils made a considerable effort and were proud of what they had achieved. They happily shared, debated and defended their versions during a class discussion on Zoom. The greatest difficulties they encountered were not lexical in the strict sense, but rather coming across expressions that don’t make sense if you translate them word for word. And the assumption with any text, unless you are dealing with a Dadaist or Surrealist work or something of that ilk, must always be that the original makes perfect sense. Figuring out precisely what it is saying, though, is not always easy.

The first hurdle was the title. The pupils came up with: My Bag of Little Journeys, Bag for Short Journeys, The Small Old Suitcase, My Little Travel Bag, Overnight Bag and a few other translations. Once you have read the story, it becomes clear that the title refers to a small bag, normally used for short trips, that ends up being used on the very long journey of the narrator’s exile. I reckon therefore that ‘Overnight Bag’ is probably the best rendition here.

Other challenges were: ‘árboles cabeceadores’, which probably refers to trees gently swaying rather than nodding off. A shady ‘glorieta’ is unlikely to be a roundabout but in all likelihood refers to a gazebo or arbour, although I might personally be tempted to call it a little park just because the other translations attract too much attention to themselves by being unusual in a way that the word isn’t in the original. A ‘libro que fue de cabecera’ is a book that the narrator used to keep by the headboard of his bed. We would say ‘on his bedside table’. That explains why he later says he had read it twenty times or more.

At some point, there is a mention of friends who are confronted with ‘una muerte con charreteras’. Once you’ve looked up the last word, you realise it translates as ‘death with epaulettes’. But what does that mean? This is where contextual knowledge becomes crucial. We are dealing with people who met their death at the hands of men wearing military uniforms; they were arrested, tortured and murdered by soldiers of the regime. But that would be too descriptive for a translation. A better translation would be to keep the image but add a verb: ‘death wearing epaulettes’.

Even more difficult was the description of ‘atardeceres sin ángelus y con tableteos’. Leaving aside the question of whether many pupils know what the Angelus is (the ringing of church bells in the late afternoon, a Catholic call for prayers), most Spanish to English dictionaries will tell you that ‘tableteo’ means ‘clack, rattling, clickety-clack’, which does not get you very far. The dictionary of the Real Academia defines the word as ‘sonar algún ruido a manera de tableteo, como los truenos’. Since we know the narrator is fleeing a dictatorship in which people are murdered all the time, the most reasonable assumption is that ‘tableteo’ is the rattle of guns, which is contrasted with the quotidian tranquility evoked by Church bells ringing the Angelus.

I could mention other examples, but the point has been made. The aim of the exercise is to raise awareness, make pupils reflect upon the finer points of language in general and hopefully create some enthusiasm for literary translations.

Translation requires a range of skills: perseverance and linguistic sleuthing as well as a good command of English and a sensitivity to register. Some things may be untranslatable, for sure, but that is all the more reason to engage pupils in a conversation that is as rewarding as it is enriching.


The short story ‘Bolso de viajes cortos’ can be found by clicking in the following link: