It’s Translation, Jim, but not as we know it.*

*if you ever taught or were taught using the Grammar-Translation method.

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA-4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), via Wikimedia Commons

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA-4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), via Wikimedia Commons

I have recently completed DELTA module 2 (thank you, yes, I am exhausted) and as part of the course, we had to do an experimental practice, i.e. teach a lesson using an approach, method or technique we had never tried before. I chose translation for various reasons: I studied an MA in translation, my education in Russian at university was in the old school Grammar-Translation style, and I wanted to know if it could be ‘humanised’, or made into a communicative activity that responded to the students’ individual needs. I found this wonderful little book on experimental practice on my new favourite ELT publishing site, The Round. Experimental Practice: A Walk On The Wild Side only cost 5 euros and it was well worth it, as it supplied me with the structure of a process translation lesson which I used for my class, along with many other useful tidbits.

For those of you that are recoiling in horror at the idea of using translation or L1 in class, the idea is that interference can actually be useful. If we translate in our heads somewhere anyway, or hook the new language (L2) onto existing knowledge (L1), then why not exploit the resource? I want to share what I did with my class; the response from my students was so positive that translation activities are definitely worth thinking about doing.

Lesson aim: The idea was that the students (Upper Intermediate) would improve their L2 competence by practising collaborative language translation and developing their  contrastive analysis skills (i.e. have a better idea of how English compares to Spanish, what can be translated directly, etc).

Which way? The first question was whether the task should be translation from L1 > L2 or L2 > L1. Having studied translation, I know that professional translation should only ever be done into your mother tongue. The reason for this is that you have to find the right words or phrases and for this you need to know the target language very well and also the target audience. In this class, the aim was not to produce a professional piece of translation; the aim was not a product at all, but I felt that L1>English would provide more opportunities for discussion (in English) about possible translations.  Starting with a text in the students’ L1 was easy enough to do because it was a monolingual class and it meant little time needed to be devoted to comprehension of the text before translation could begin.

Text:  I chose a short text that most of the students would already knew. It was the first verse of this song. It’s pretty funny in a sexist, old-fashioned way, and I thought it would lead to an interesting discussion after the translation activity (although it turned out there was no time for that in our 55-minute lesson).



  1. I played a bit of the song to the students and asked the if they knew it. Most of them did, so I asked to go tell each other what it was about in English.
  2. Next, I played the first verse again and asked the students for some words or phrases they might find in an English translation. The students discussed these in pairs and then we boarded them, talking about any different possibilities that came up.
  3. Now, I could tell them that an English translation didn’t exist and that they were going to work on one. It was vital at this point to make sure the students understood that the aim was to work collaboratively, discussing options. We talked for a little bit about what the main aim of translation is , i.e. conveying meaning rather than translating word for word (lots of students commented on how useful this was in the feedback).
  4. I gave out the text of the first verse to pairs of students and asked them to underline  parts of the text that they thought would be most difficult to translate and discuss these first. This was difficult for the students to do because they really wanted to get stuck in, so in hindsight it would have helped to give the students a rationale for this (gets them thinking about the differences between the languages and gets them discussing right away). It’s also useful to give students a time limit for this part.
  5.  Next, I asked pairs to join another group to share their ideas on the tricky bits and then work together to write a translation, again with the focus on collaboration and discussion, rather than a finished product. I allowed plenty of time for this and answered questions when asked, although I tried to hold back and let the students work things out together. I let them use the dictionaries on their phones, but they didn’t use them much at all.
  6. When they had finished, I took their translations in and gave them my translation to read. I made sure they knew it was just another version and not a correct one – my Spanish is about the same level as their English.  I photocopied their translations and passed them around too, and we discussed any differences in the translations. If there had been time, I would have liked the students to have spent more time doing this and talking about what they liked in the other translations.

[Here are the Original lyrics and my translation in a word document.]

The students were really motivated in this lesson and each one was able to contribute and learn according to their abilities. They reported developing their knowledge of synonyms, expressions and phrasal verbs, and becoming more aware of how to translate meaning instead of word-for-word. They unanimously said that they would like to do more translation in class and that translating lyrics was enjoyable (even if some of them didn’t like this song!). I’ve not given much away from A Walk On The Wild Side (I definitely recommend reading it!), but I would like to share this one quote about translation that I got from there: that translation is “the fifth skill in second language acquisition”, according to Leonardi. Do you agree?  What do you think? Would you use translation with any of your classes? What text would you choose?



  1. Congratulations on completing module 2! This is a fascinating lesson. Thanks for sharing it. Manolo Escobar was one of the greats of Spanish folklore. 😉

  2. It doesn’t surprise me that during the DELTA you came across something which was labelled as “evil” during CELTA but now you have the opportunity to reconsider it on its merits. That’s what I really loved about the DELTA in general but, more specifically, the experimental practice part.

    This sounds like it was a great lesson because it took the principles of grammar-translation and applied them in a communicative classroom e.g. the learners discussed things together. I think this is one of the most important things we can get out of the DELTA: a principled approach to teaching.

    When I go back into teaching I would like to experiment with other approaches, such as grammar-translation, and will consider following your lesson plan with another text (as I probably won’t be teaching in Spain).

    How did you gauge the learners’ reactions: did you just ask them or did you use some kind of survey?

    1. I gave them a questionnaire to fill in. Glad you like it, Anthony!

  3. Thanks for sharing such a successful experience with us. I used translation in the past to clarify some grammar points (present perfect vs past simple, future tenses, modal verbs, modal for deduction…), especially with beginners/elementary students. I’ve never used translation with higher levels and I’ve never thought it could be beneficial.

  4. Thanks so much for buying and liking our book “Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side” – it was designed exactly for teachers like you and I’m glad you got so much out of it.

    I wanted to let everyone know that you can get the lesson plans from the book – translation 2.0, CLIL, corpora, lexical chunking and dogme for FREE here:

    All the best with your experiments!
    Jennie Wright

  5. Never come across the used of “boarded” as a word before – great shorthand for the right mouthful “put it up on the board”!

    It sounds like a great lesson, but I’d be interested to see if it leads to too much L1 use in future classes, which is always my chief fear with translation.

    1. I never even noticed that noun becoming a verb! Sneaky!
      You’re right, Alex, that would be something to be aware of. In this class, because they were translating into English, the focus was all on English and they were communicating about the translation in English. I was lucky, I admit, that these students were really motivated, and I didn’t have to remind them to do it in English. I’d say it’s definitely worth anticipating too much L1 as a problem and planning ways around it.

  6. Hi Emma, and first of all congrats on surviving your module 2. It can be gruelling, but you really do come out of it a changed teacher! Like Jennie, I just wanted to say thanks for buying the book and for trusting us to help you in your EP assignment. That’s great to hear that it turned out so well and that the students enjoyed the translation activities. I’ve often found that students do enjoy when the teacher acknowledges and accepts that their own language can be a useful tool in learning English. Ever since translation and L1 use was just kind of accepted as taboo, I think advanced students have wrongly felt that if they (need to) use their own language to learn English, it’s a bad reflection of their ability in English. Of course we know that’s not the case and I’m glad that you’ve shown them this with your lesson.

    And if you’re interested in translation and using students’ L1, you may also like a book by Philip Kerr that’s just come out called “Translation and Own-language Activities.” Check it out–it’s a great, well-needed addition to the resources available on using L1 in more modern ways.

    1. Thanks, Christina! That book is on my list!

  7. This is a fantastic blog!

    As someone who is not a native English speaker, I find this perspective on translation in a teaching context very informative.

  8. Awesome ideas! Thank you, Christina.

  9. Hi, Emma. This looks like a great lesson that I’d like to try. A couple of questions: is English your L1 or Russian? If it’s Russian, how did you feel about translating into another ‘foreign’ language – did the students ask you ‘What’s the English word for…’?
    In step 4, I’d probably go in armed with 2 or 3 known differences between the languages – something like ‘Can you find one false friend, one case of non-equivalence, and one idiom in the first paragraph? How would you deal with them?’ (depending on text,obviously)
    I’ve done this song translation from Jamie Keddie in the past, and it went really well:
    Your choice of text/song was great. Do you know of an equivalent one in Russian?

    1. Hi Andrew, and thanks for your comments. My L1 is English (and my Russian’s pretty shabby these days!). I prepared for the class by doing a contrastive analysis of Spanish and English with regards to the Language in the text (thank you, Learner English). You might have to ask someone who’s in Russia about a good Russian song – last time I was there zemfira was big and apart from that I only know some old folk songs. Let us know if you find one and how it goes!

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