Honing your language skills: Learning through translation

The majority of people nowadays speak a second language. After all, it is quite a useful talent in our globalised world where you are more and more likely to meet speakers of a foreign language. You may be required to become bilingual either because of your job or because you are moving to another country. Or you might choose to learn a language to broaden your horizons: maybe you want to read a famous book in the language it was originally written. Or, on your next trip to the Black Forest, you want to order your “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte” in German without getting a bemused look in reply. Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, if you want to improve your language skills, you will have to get a lot of language practice done. If you are looking for an alternative to the usual methods of language practice, you might want to try translation. Why? The magic word is “research”.

The translation task – should you choose to accept it – requires you to know your vocab and helps you achieve this aim. When translating a text, translators (and all you language learners out there) have one very important aim: to understand what the author is trying to say. But it is not enough to merely understand the gist of a sentence. Before you can get to work, you have to make sure that you understand the meaning of every word in the text – both the dictionary definition and the contextual meaning.

When you are faced with unknown words, contexts and subject matters, you’ll need to put on your researcher’s hat and do some digging. You’d be surprised where that research can lead you. I’ll give you an example:

I once had to translate a short French text about cheese. Somewhere towards the end, the author declared in a seemingly jokey way that there are more than 246 varieties of cheese in France after all. This didn’t make any sense to me at all. Did somebody claim that this was the case? And even if they had, why was this reference funny? After some lengthy research into the subject of French cheese, French national identity, the history of France (Général de Gaulle and the 1960s) and the writing style of this particular author, I finally found the answer! It was a reference to a famous quote by the former president of France. He had asked in 1962 how one could possibly govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. Apparently, this was his way of saying that there are lots of different people living in France and that, as a politician, it’s really difficult to make everyone happy. So when the author used de Gaulle’s cheese metaphor to talk about actual cheese, it was a French “insider joke” that readers would only be able to understand if they are familiar with French culture and history.

The original quote, including context and explanation, was easy enough to find, but the extra bit of reading I did around the topic gave me some additional insight into French culture and history – all of which also strengthened my French language skills.

Translation, and the research it entails, compels and helps you to go the extra mile in order to understand what the source text is saying. Your translation needs to accurately reflect the original text – you can’t skip words just because you don’t understand them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it can actually be very rewarding: if you don’t understand a word, you can’t go on with your translation, so you have to keep digging for those important nuggets of information. You read your way around and into a subject until you become somewhat of an expert on the matter.

Translating texts, researching information and reading articles in a foreign language is so much more fun than learning long vocab lists by heart or working your way through dry grammar exercises – it’s a fun way to discover new words, improve your language skills and learn about new things (even if it’s just about cheese). And with all this concerted effort for just one text, you’d be hard pressed to forget the words you researched! So why not give it a go?