Here’s another of those posts where I try to slap a label on an ELT phenomenon I’ve noticed (Schmidt, 1994).

Translationism is the prioritizing of translation as a means of seeing and learning other languages.  It is built on the assumption that different languages are sets of arbitrarily-differing tokens which refer to identical basic phenomena in the real world, and therefore that learning another language is a matter of matching the tokens from the L2 to the tokens from the L1 (tokens being lexis or grammar forms).  It is more a result of slips in thinking or adherence to other ideologies than an ideology itself, but is common enough to warrant naming.  Some of the ideologies that it results from are native-speakerism (NSism) and nationalism, which displace translationism when convenient for that ideology.

Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is sort of a holdover from my time in Japan, where I saw this ideology reflected in the approaches taken by both Japanese ELT and Japanese culture in general toward other languages.  I don’t see as much of it in California and thankfully not in ESL.  (To the contrary, I see ESL teachers, unhelpfully in my view, warning students against using bilingual dictionaries.)  I have a feeling translationism is much more prevalent in EFL contexts, particularly ones in thrall to a national narrative that links the dominant ethnic group’s supposedly innate characteristics to its current culture and modes of expression.  Maybe my blogging self misses living in a place like that and always having things to be outraged by.

What follows is a breakdown of types and effects of translationism. ご覧ください。

Translationism and native-speakerism

Translationism is ultimately two assumptions about the relationship of language to reality and about the relationship of speakers to “their” languages.  First, it is the assumption that languages (and not people) describe a shared objective reality.  Its fundamental principle is that all languages describe the same things, so a different label is all that is needed to refer to any given object or concept in another language, in some cases with all its associations and collocations intact.  Second, translationism is the assumption that such labels are equally available to all NSs of a language – i.e. that NSs of a language understand all messages in that language uniformily, and further that native-like understanding is impossible for non-NSs.  There is no role for learning of new concepts, for concepts or their referents to be different among native speakers, and certainly not for explanation being more powerful than translation as a means of getting ideas into a listener’s head.

NSism provides a large source of motivation to depend on translation rather than contextualized or automatic processing for understanding foreign languages – if this kind of understanding of the foreign language is the sole domain of its NSs, then translation becomes not one technique of many but the only technique for gaining “true” access to the contents of NS speech.  The issue becomes not “How can I gain some of the skill in producing and understanding content in the particular mode that NSs use?”, but “What other skill can I learn that will give me a window into NS speech content?”.  Translation is the only process available for rendering incomprehensible foreign speech into comprehensible native (for you) speech.

For example, under translationism, the gloss stewed greens must be more understandable to me than ghormeh sabzi or traditional Persian stew of mixed greens, beans, and meat.  This need is set at birth and follows me throughout my life; there is no possible point at which ghormeh sabzi becomes easier for me than stewed greens. This is simply because I am a native speaker of English, not of Farsi, and as such I understand tokens in English, not in Farsi.  Translation of ghormeh sabzi into stewed greens is the only way I can see what the Farsi speaker is referring to when he mentions what he ate for dinner.

(Ironically, this belief seems to presume that English speakers have the idea of the supposedly unique national dish ghormeh sabzi in their heads already that is identical to the Persian version, and simply need the correct label to understand references to it.  I’ve discussed this contradiction before with reference to Japanese ELT’s tendency to present Japanese cultural artefacts as English glosses, as if that alone should make them comprehensible.)

Stewed greens.  The rice has no gloss, and is therefore forever a mystery.

Translationism as human capital

In societies where translationism has a long tenure, skill in translation can emerge as a valued form of human capital, and the act of translating itself as a symbol of desirable personal traits.  Translation has semiotic value in displaying high attainment in education, worldliness, and belief in essential national traits (which overlap with NSism).  In this sense translationism is not just a belief in the power of translation, but the value of translation as a stand-in for other things we value.

For instance, it is quite common in the world of eikaiwa (private English language schools) in Japan to see parents translating for kids in their kids’ classes – essentially serving as a real-time interpreter of classroom speech like “Sit in a circle” or “What color is this one?”.  Now, this is definitely annoying to the teacher, who is usually specifically trained to work without translation, and most places prohibit this after the trial lesson.  However, seen as a form of communication not only with the child but with everyone else in the classroom, this parental translation is not an empty gesture.  Parents who translate for their children send the messages that:

  1. That they care enough about their children’s educations to squat next to them for 40 minutes and work to make sure that they derive maximum benefit from the lessons (from their perspective), i.e. that they are good, attentive parents.
  2. That they have skill in translating English to Japanese, i.e.:
    1. That they are educated (to the other parents in the room).
    2. That they are further along the path of mastery than the children, and also that translation is the result of mastery (to the children).
  3. That their children are “pure” Japanese who are incapable of understanding NS English without attendant Japanese.

I don’t mean to linger on eikaiwa too long, just to establish that translation can have meaning itself beyond the meaning that it takes in/produces.  In societies in which interaction with foreign cultures is a marked and meaningful activity, translation can stand for much more than the ability to turn one language into another.

Translationism in the classroom

Translationism is a stance toward other languages which connotes an approach to learning them.  It lends itself to grammar-translation, naturally, but learners can take other approaches and still believe that they are essentially learning a new code for an identical reality.  It does not preclude many of the bits of language that defy easy translation, but it does presume that translation (as opposed to explanation) is possible and that one translation is more correct than another.  Perhaps most importantly, it is very compatible with multiple-choice testing and other economized ways of treating language (or “language items”), as well as with teacher-fronted classes due to automaticity through student practice being a low priority.  These traits make translationism a default in many foreign language classrooms around the world.

Most of the Japan-produced English textbooks that I have seen evince hegemonic belief in translationism.  This is evident first in the words they use to describe the language learning process: “translate” is treated as a synonym for “understand”, and “translation” is for “meaning”.  Students are invited to view accurate translation as the goal of foreign language learning, with comprehensible Japanese sentences as evidence of success in application of learned techniques.  I reviewed a fairly unusual example of a Japanese ELT textbook here, but for more (and more consequential) examples, visit any bookstore in Japan and see the kinds of books high schoolers use for review.

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 23.17.34
From Space ALC – always a good source for bad ELT, right down to the name, which is meant to be read in katakana as aruku (“walk”).  This selection is a treatise on the differences between “how come” and “why” – both have the same “meaning”, but differ in grammar.

Of course, many English teachers have encountered exceptions to translationism – particularly when the need to translate runs up against a more deeply felt need to maintain the borders around one’s culture and what is supposedly unique to it.  Indeed, many people who believe in translation as a learning tool or a means of understanding other languages make exceptions for exotica such as a uniquely Korean emotion or a conception of space based on a particular aspect of Mayan geography. This is why I describe translationism as a result of other ideas, which tend to shove translationism to the side when it gets in their way.

Superiority Translationism

I often had the experience of presenting English/American idioms, sayings and maxims to learners in Japan, whereupon they would set off establishing among themselves which idiom in Japanese each one “meant”.  I would sometimes ask for an idiom in return that they liked from Japanese and offer to give a gloss in English, but here we ran into trouble.  Typically, my students would either 1) assert that this was impossible, because Japanese idioms couldn’t be translated into other languages, or 2) play along until I gave my gloss, at which point they would make unsatisfied noises that my English version was missing something intangibly Japanese in the original.  Adherents to an ideology of cultural superiority may believe that all your tokens can be translated and become theirs, but their tokens are too elevated or enigmatic to ever become yours.  This dynamic can play out in reverse as well, for example when Americans exoticize French and compare their deep, mysterious language with our coarse and obvious brogue.  Simply put, the inferior language is a subset of the superior language, and translation can sometimes only go one way.

What to do

As with many other problems bedeviling ELT, I often find myself just laying my cards on the table and describing what I think of the phenomenon to my students – that translation might open the door to the meaning of a word, translation is not the meaning itself.  Since I’m in ESL now, most of my students are fully prepared to accept both English and their first languages as mostly overlapping in that they describe a physical world that we share but with frustrating conceptual differences in their treatment of even everyday objects and concepts, and wide gaps in the way they treat social reality (which is my view).  Back when I was in Japan, I didn’t have much success with this approach except with students who were already skilled enough to see that what I was saying was true.  That is, you need a bit of an inside view of another language to really see how different or similar it is to yours.  I have a feeling that, like playing the gaijin, you may need to accept a bit of unpalatable parochialism on the way to the worldliness you want.

8 thoughts on “Translationism

  1. You say: „I don’t see as much of it in California and thankfully not in ESL.“
    What you describe in your post remotely reminded me of a phenomenon I observe in the film industry: American producers often feel the need to do remakes of successful foreign TV shows. For example, I was surprised to discover than my favorite Danish television series Forbrydelsen has an Americal counterpart called The Killing, or that there is an adaptation of the British series Broadchurch called Gracepoint. In the former case, I could understand that the U.S producers wanted to make this piece available to their customers (because reading subtitles or is too exhausting, right?). But I was really astonished in the latter case, mainly because it’s in English. As I see it, Broadchurch is a lovely show (though it’s a murder mystery) whose aim (I think) is to depict a specific type of people living in a specific place. But maybe the fact that the main character speaks with a strong Scottish accent would be unpalatable for Americans. Or it would be too uninteresting for the viewers. Or did the U.S producers want to claim something that can’t be claimed, the same way you can’t always match the tokens from the L2 to the tokens from the L1?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, translating (in the sense of adapting) an entire piece of art is a different question, with its own issues, I think. Americans often seem to think that things produced in the US are general and objective, while things produced in other countries (or by minorities in the US) are particular and subjective. I think the urge to remake art from other countries comes largely from this view. Of course, something particular to the context where the art was originally produced is often part of its appeal and meaning, and so “generalizing” it by making it American has the effect of removing a lot of the reasons it was successful in the first place. I suppose this is analogous to translation without regard to lost collocations and associations.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly. Also, it seems to me that the belief that things produced in the US are general and objective stems from some kind of superiority – linguistic as well as cultural.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is an interesting variable to think about in societies around the world – to what extent they see themselves as the “normal” ones. My experience in Japan tells me that people can consider themselves the default in some areas but not in others.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What you say is mostly true for Italians as well. Many school teachers still believe in the equation translation = understanding/meaning, and compile whole tests based on this assumption. What’s more, Most of my adult students can’t understand that the two languages most of the time see reality differently, and so describe it differently — perfect equivalents are quite rare between Italian and English.
    I wish I could get them to read your blog post… 🙂


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