Translation exercises used to be widely used in language teaching up through the 1800s, but in the last century or so they have fallen out of fashion. Today’s language teachers try to get students thinking in the new language as much and as soon as possible. Thinking in one’s native language while trying to communicate in the other causes painful delays in both directions and leads to errors and misunderstandings, as the patterns of one language leak into the other. Classroom translation is also frowned on as an inefficient use of classroom time — an outdated, unnatural, and old-fashioned holdover from the so-called Grammar-Translation method that dates back to the 1700s, and from still older styles of language teaching associated with teaching Latin and Greek.
A more subtle objection is that translation is inherently confusing to students, because, as Jeremy Harmer put it in The Practice of English Language Teaching, “Not all languages have words for exactly the same concepts, and it is often the case that in a given language there is not really a word which means the same as a word in another language.” Deliberate or unintentional ambiguity, puns, and so on can be literally impossible to translate. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is that which is lost in translation.” If a student is learning French with the goal of using French, why not have the student simply use French and not confuse matters by bringing in a different language?
These objections are for the most part reasonable, but there are also arguments that run the other way. Well over a decade ago, I heard John Wells make the excellent pragmatic point that in the real world, people who know two languages often need to translate from one to the other, making translation a useful skill in itself. It comes up in all manner of contexts, from helping a foreign visitor to simply answering a question on the order of “How would you say __ in Esperanto?”
More recently other authorities on language instruction have said similar things, notably including Guy Cook, a professor at King’s College London, whose much-discussed book Translation in Language Teaching won the Ben Warren International House Trust Prize for the most outstanding work of 2010 in the field of language teacher education. The language teaching community is coming around to the idea that there’s a place for translation in language teaching after all. (And in fact, it never entirely went away.)
So how might you want to use translation in teaching or learning Esperanto?
For a start, it’s worth reiterating that the objections mentioned earlier still have merit. Students really should learn to converse, read, and write directly in Esperanto. It’s probably not a good idea to make translation a major focus of instruction — unless, of course, translation is the subject of the particular class in question!
At the same time, translation is going to come up naturally in teaching. One of the first questions students should learn to ask is “Kiel oni diras ___?” This is a legitimate question even in a direct-method course, and I suspect it likely to encourage students to speak more, not less.
Translation can go both ways, and as a practical matter, students need to be able to handle both directions. A nice conversational exercise would be to have three students take turns playing an English speaker (or whatever the native language might be), an Esperanto speaker, and a translator helping them communicate. The conversation could involve something mundane such as ordering in a restaurant or asking directions or talking about oneself, or for greater amusement the situation could be something more exotic, anything from interrogating a spy to a pick-up attempt in a singles bar. And as with many exercises, it can be useful not just in a formal classroom setting but at a club meeting or during an interkonatiĝa vespero at a kongreso.
When William Auld was editing La Brita Esperantisto, one of the most popular regular features was a translation challenge called Traduku!. Readers were invited to send in their best effort at producing an Esperanto version of a short passage chosen from a recent English-language newspaper or magazines article. They were often full of highly idiomatic English, and coming up with Esperanto equivalents required creativity. In the next issue Auld would take particularly difficult expressions in turn and discuss various proposed translations. An overall winning entry would be named, and Auld would offer what he deemed the best translation, usually combining the best of multiple reader submissions.
Something similar could be a nice group exercise for a class or club meeting or an email discussion list. The subject can also come up naturally in discussions, of course. I recall a discussion many years ago in an Esperanto Usenet group (something a lot of you may be too young to remember – far too many things lately remind me of my age) of the best way to translate “World Wide Web.” A number of ideas were proposed, many of them based on “araneaĵo”, but the consensus winner was “Tut-Tera Teksaĵo”, which later became established usage. It’s not often that I’ve been present at the successful coining of a new expression. (I wish I could claim some credit for the idea, but I was purely a spectator.)
In La bona lingvo, Claude Piron mentions translating a work of fiction into easy Esperanto for beginners, and how impressed he was that a small set of root words, prefixes, and suffixes really can be used to express a remarkable amount, just as Zamenhof intended. This suggests that translating from English into Esperanto, or for that matter writing a short story or article in Esperanto, doesn’t necessarily require a large vocabulary.
Incidentally, this brings up a subject that isn’t unique to Esperanto but is particularly relevant to it — that of word-building, something independent from the two traditional subjects of language study, mastering the grammar and memorizing vocabulary. In Esperanto, if you can’t remember a word you can often invent it. (“Kiu besto bojas?” “Ah–[paŭzo por provi memori la vorton] Malkato!”) Using that productive feature of Esperanto takes practice, and translation is one way to develop it.
At the same time, looking up words in an English-Esperanto dictionary isn’t a bad thing either, especially when the translation needs to be precise. (Arbo is fine for some purposes, but sometimes it’s best to use kverko.) One of the most obvious uses of translation is developing one’s vocabulary.
For more experienced speakers of Esperanto, another useful exercise, on the high end of the difficulty scale, is simultaneous translation. You can listen to a television program or a radio newscast or whatever you like and translate it into Esperanto while you listen. It’s hard to do this for more than a few minutes (or sometimes seconds) at a time, and even UN interpreters have to take frequent breaks. But on the other hand it’s not quite as completely impossible as you might think.
There’s another skill that often relates to translation, even though it isn’t translation as such. When you’re carrying on a conversation in Esperanto, even if you’re thinking directly in Esperanto, you’ll occasionally draw a blank on how to say something, even though you can say it easily enough in English. You can fall back on “Kiel oni diras ____ en Esperanto?” but that only works if the person you’re talking with also happens to know English. Hence it’s helpful to be able to describe reasonably succinctly what you’re trying to say, even if you can’t say it as directly as you’d like. If you can’t think of the word for tire in Esperanto, you might say something like, “la kaŭĉuka jako ĉirkaŭ la rado de aŭto”. This is something similar to word-building skill but not quite the same thing.
In summary, as another writer said a while back, translation enriches vocabulary, increases the number of figures of speech we can use, and develops the ability of interpretation. In translating the writings of the best authors we improve our own powers of expression, because translation forces us to notice details that would otherwise escape our attention. That was the opinion of a Roman named Pliny, nearly 2,000 years ago.