When Is it Ok to Traduct—Err, Translate?

By Peter Martin

One exercise I do with my students is a worksheet called “Spanglish.” Another English teacher passed a version on to me about a year ago, and I’ve added to it as I’ve gained teaching experience. It’s very straightforward, and my students usually love it. It’s just a list of about 70 sentences featuring common mistakes Spanish speakers make in English as a result of translating directly from Spanish.

Some of the errors are issues of vocabulary and incorrect word choice (“I’m sorry, teacher; I can’t assist to the next class”), some are idioms (“Put attention!”), and others are grammatical mistakes (“She said me about her marital problems”). Depending on the level of the students, they recognize anywhere from a few to many of the errors. But even the most advanced students I’ve taught have drawn blanks on some of the sentences, showing that, as well as you speak any second language, it’s hard to avoid the instinct to translate from your native language.

That’s one of the two reasons I almost always use “Spanglish” early on when I start a new class with new students. The first reason is that it’s a great way to get to know them and make them comfortable with me, since most find the exercise fun. Some of the sentences are funny in themselves (“This class isn’t interesting. I’m boring!”), and with almost all the sentences, when the students or I reveal the error and the correct version, there’s a wave of recognition of the silliness of the Spanglish version, the silliness that results from direct translation.

But that silliness, as a serious matter, is the more important point: to get them to realize that they can’t learn English just by translating from Spanish.

Of course, that’s true with every language. Any teacher who tries to explain a new language largely in terms of her students’ native language(s) will end up with a bunch of students who speak Spanglish, and Chinglish, and all sorts of languages mixes—that aren’t English.

But can it ever be helpful to encourage students to translate directly? I think so, at least in limited cases.

For example, many of my students struggle with auxiliary verbs, especially when more than one is needed. The conditional perfect progressive, with its three auxiliary verbs, is a nightmare. So how can I make it easier for them? I use Spanish.

I point out to them that though that tense looks hard, it exists with the same logic in Spanish. “I would have been [X]ing” is just habría (or hubiera) estado [X]ando. Always. No matter what. And the other perfect tenses, which are also difficult for many, are the same: “I have done” is he hecho, “He had seen” is él había visto, and “They will have gone” is habrán ido (or habraís ido in Spain and certain parts of Latin America). In these cases, I tell them, just translate from Spanish. You won’t go wrong.

But am I doing them wrong? Are there hidden risks I haven’t thought about—either in specific cases like these, or in the practice of ever saying “just translate from your native language”?

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