Translating Isn’t The Problem

When the updated Standards for Classical Languages were shared, one key difference was the near-omission of the word “translating” as an active task, mentioned just once under a description of advanced learners at the postsecondary level (i.e, “Learners conduct research in the target language or assist in the translation of resources for the benefit of others.”), and then appeared in one example learning scenario submitted by a university professor. Granted, these standards have been in draft form—somehow—since 2017, but Latin teachers have been lauding that lack of “translation,” preferring nowadays that students focus more on reading Latin than doing translation exercises. However, it turns out that translating, per se, isn’t the problem…

Text Level
There are two main problems associated with translating. The first is the reading level of a text students would be asked to translate. A below- or at-level text is a good thing. Translating what is already understood occurs when a text is below- or at-level. This activity is a display of learning that can be used by the teacher to check understanding, and for students to collaborate in groups. Above-level texts, however, are a bad thing. Translating in order to understand occurs when a text is above-level. THIS is the problem. CAVE! Do NOT confuse an above-level text with the concept of “zone of proximal development,” or the acquisition development theory “i+1.” The former has not been shown to apply to second language learning, and the latter is of no practical import for the teacher.

When students understand a Latin text, they can read via all sorts of activities and learning experiences with translation being just one of them. Yet when students do not understand the text, there are only so many learning experiences one can have. In those cases, translation is like a chore to arrive at understanding—maybe. This “reading” experience is frustrating for all but the fastest language processors. All that effort to arrive at something that still might not make sense is what only the pedagogically immune seem to endure.

Grading is the other problem. Anyone who’s sat down with a translation can tell you what a pain it is to attempt to grade on anything except done/not done, but even then you’ve got to deal with the “do this, get that” (Kohn, 1993) mindset. Using grades as rewards for work done, especially translations, encourages the use of Google Translate and other shortcuts as students focus on product, not process. If all we ask for is a translation, students will do what they can to get that to us. Whether or not understanding that Latin is involved becomes an after thought. Put bluntly, grading translation is a waste of everyone’s time. Students become obsessed and stressed over points, and teachers devise all sorts of systems to justify the rewarding or removing of them. I’ve seen teachers take off 1/2 points on the silliest things, and these points add up! Or, translations are completion-based and averaged into the course grade, leading to the same aforementioned problems. As with basically everything in education, we’d be better off with JDGI: Just Don’t Grade It.

In sum, the learning experience of translating what is already understood without any expectation of a score directly affecting the course grade is liberating for both teacher and student. Also consider what is gained by having students collaborate in groups to translate. As long as you monitor, you can go ahead and skip that quiz you had in mind, getting all the data you’d get anyway just from observing. Give it a try!

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