Sunday, February 18, 2007

Is Translation Harmful?

Steve Kaufmann recently posted some interesting comments about bilingual dictionaries.

When I use a dictionary it is always a bilingual dictionary. I want to see the meaning in English, or a language that I know well. This creates an immediate link to what I already know. It is only a hint at the meaning of this word. I will need to see the new word many times before I know it. But I need the bilingual dictionary.

For some reason, there are language teachers who insist that bilingual dictionaries are bad and should be avoided...

I personally use bilingual dictionaries, but I think there are certain pitfalls to avoid. The main problem is precisely that a translation is, as Steve puts it, "only a hint". The meaning does not have an exact translation. This is especially true when languages are very different, like English and Thai.

An example is the Thai word ออก, pronounced something like the first syllable of "awkward". It is usually translated as "out" or "exit", but in some phrases, it clearly has a different meaning. For example, the phrase "to think out" (คิดออก) means "to be able to think", "to solve", or "to recall". There is a similar usage in the English expression "to figure something out", but I suspect the similarity is more coincidental than significant.

Steve's comment, "I will need to see the new word many times before I know it" seems astute. Translation can be used to increase comprehension, but repeated exposure to the word in a comprehensible context is necessary to acquire it.

Students at AUA acquire vocabulary by direct experience, without use of translation. I think this is a great method that completely avoids the pitfalls of translation. However, it requires a live teacher that can gauge understanding and tailor presentations to that level.


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Paul Davidson said...

Naturally, a low-level learner must have some kind of explanation in his own language. There's not much point in having a word defined by other words you don't.

On the other hand, as you point out, bilingual dictionaries tend to be full of inadequate translations, where a monolingual dictionary would actually explain the word's meaning in more depth. To add a Japanese example to your Thai one, the verb 'nomu' will be translated as 'drink' in any Jp-En dictionary, but its actual meaning — which I've seen in no bilingual dictionary — is to "take in through the mouth without chewing", and thus has a very different range of use from 'drink'. The Japanese word for 'eat' similar means something quite different than the English translation.

มุจรินทร์ (บุ๋ม) said...

I am thai.
I want learning Reading and Writing English.

Scott Imig said...

Interesting Japanese word. I like it. :) So I suppose you could "nomu" soup or applesauce.

>Naturally, a low-level learner must have some kind of explanation in his own language.

Not necessarily. There are methods that don't use L1 explanation, like Total Physical Response, certain natural approaches (e.g. AUA), and Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone itself doesn't take you too far, at least for Thai, but I understand that researchers Winitz and Reeds used a similar technique to build a vocabulary of 3000 words in German students, without ever resorting to L1 translations or explanations.

Scott Imig said...


We can practice on instant messenger if you like. My email is scottimig at hotmail dot com.