Guest post: Translation in teaching

Welcome back to our guest post series! Today, please welcome Tammy Bjelland!

Welcome, Tammy!


Translation as a Teaching Tool

Translation can be a controversial topic in language teaching, but as a language teacher, some of the best and most memorable pedagogical moments have come from using translation in teaching.

Using translation in language classes at early and intermediate levels can be counterproductive because it perpetuates the idea that for every word or idea in one language, there is an exact equivalent in the target language, which every translator (and language teacher!) knows is far from true. It can be difficult, however, to completely avoid translation in early levels, especially for adults, who are accustomed to being able to express complex ideas using sophisticated language. Demonstrating the problems presented by “literal” translations can be a useful teaching tool at early and intermediate levels to indicate not only the intricacies of both the L1 and L2, but also the importance of understanding context and culture in addition to the grammar and lexicon of both languages.

The pedagogical benefits of translation are even more substantial in advanced levels of language study, as a tool to explore the complexities of language and culture from texts that vary in type, perspective, and purpose. Many of my favorite memories from teaching at the university level are from teaching translation classes in the United States and in Spain. After language learners have reached a certain level of proficiency, a class dedicated to translation serves to educate not only on the process of translation itself, but also to guide students to delve deeper into what words and ideas mean, and the diversity of textual interpretation at multiple levels and stages of comprehension and translation.

One type of text that worked extremely well to demonstrate diversity of textual interpretation were short literary texts; poems and short stories were ideal, especially if we had access to multiple translations of the same source text. By studying various professional translations of the same source text, students could pinpoint which ideas had been interpreted in different ways, and work backwards from those differences to arrive at a better understanding of the context and meaning of the source text itself. Just this exercise itself worked wonders in proving to language learners that the common instinct to ask “what does this word mean in ____ language” can be an incredibly problematic question, and should not be the focus of any language class. Focusing on a direct comparison between two languages leads to oversimplification and skipping over gaps in meaning, two common errors which can be mitigated by thoughtfully using translation in a pedagogical approach.

Besides the valuable lesson in learning about diversity of textual interpretation, and the complexities of language, using translation as a pedagogical tool also has the added benefit of introducing language learners to the skill and profession of translation itself. When translation activities like the one I mention above is used in a classroom, it is often the first time language learners will see and consider professionally translated texts side by side with the source text; this provides a unique opportunity for the teacher to introduce the professional behind the translation itself, and to discuss the requirements and challenges that are part of the translation industry.

So while some language teachers shy away from using translation in their classrooms, in my experience there are significant benefits to incorporating translation into advanced classes for adult language learners. A well-planned activity using translation can deepen understanding, promote appreciation for diverse opinions and interpretations, and can educate learners about the profession of translation.

Thank you so much for accepting my invitation and kindly writing such an informative post to our blog, Tammy! 🙂


About the author
TammyBjelland052-corporate-headshots-winchester-vaTammy Bjelland owns Shenandoah Valley Language Services, a global education company located in Winchester, Virginia, USA. She is passionate about languages, communication, teaching, and entrepreneurship, and she blogs about the intersections of these at

One thought on “Guest post: Translation in teaching

  1. Pingback: Tradução como ferramenta de ensino | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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