08 June 2023

Transferring Translation Skills Into the Classroom

Ever since I finished the post-graduate degree in Translation Studies at UCL, I have been fortunate enough to combine translating with translation teaching and gradually also with teaching Dutch language and culture. I happily use the skills I have refined over the years, to teach one day and translate the next, without giving their application a second thought. Below, I outline how I use my skills to benefit both disciplines.

Most obviously, you need to have a wide vocabulary, which is not only receptive, but also productive. This vocabulary is widening continuously, which means that the number of words you know is increasing, but also that there is a degree of deepening of words, i.e., a growing awareness of their function and their different meanings. In particular the latter is vital.

The oldest norm for translation, as introduced by St. Jerome, emphasizes the importance of sense-for-sense translation over word-for-word translation. These two strategies are also referred to as a communicative versus a semantic translation, a free versus a literal translation, or a source language-oriented translation versus one that is target language oriented. Either way, translating meaning is critical.

Stressing the importance of the function and meaning of words, is not only crucial in translation, but in teaching as well. For the purpose of this article only, the translator and language or translation tutor are referred to as language users, unless specified differently. Language users must be able to recognize the different functions and differences in meaning of a word in its context. Ultimately, understanding how words, groups of words and sentences relate in a text, will distinguish the more experienced language users. In order of increasing degree of difficulty, language users should be able to recognize:

  • question-answer structures;
  • chronological order (and then);
  • examples;
  • comparisons (but, however);
  • relation between means and purpose (because);
  • conditional structures (if).

Intricately connected to this understanding of the relations in a text between the words, groups of words and sentences are the analytical skills for both disciplines. Language users should be able to recognize the characteristics of a text: content (what is the text about), form (structure, register, use of language) and purpose (linked to the target of a text). They should also be able to parse a sentence, in other words, they should have knowledge of the syntax.

Text characteristics determine the level of difficulty of a text. They are vital when reading, understanding, and writing. It is not hard to imagine that a translator will be

more familiar and thus more comfortable with a text about their specialist subject than with a text they have no affinity with. At the same time, awareness of the form facilitates reading and writing, this includes translating. Form, however, is only effective with the correct use of language. Many difficult or unknown words will make a text illegible. The same can be said about long-winded, complex sentences. For a text to be effective, language use should match its recipient.

Linked to content and form is the purpose of a text. For instance, should a text inform, persuade, call to action or amuse?

Language users should have knowledge of reading strategies and writing strategies to, respectively, understand a complex text and (re)produce one, and, as far as the teacher is concerned, explain the different components to their students. Examples of reading strategies are:

  • establish main theme or keynote;
  • ask questions about the text;
  • determine the contextual links between words, sentences and paragraphs;
  • determine how the text is structured.

Examples of writing strategies are:

  • assess who your target audience is, what is purpose and form of the text;
  • research, collect and structure information for content;
  • create a draft;
  • revise;
  • check/finalize lay-out and proofread.

Experienced language users have internalized these skills and will perform these actions subconsciously and not necessarily always in the same order. The level of experience will most likely also determine the writing process. E.g. how familiar are they with the subject matter? With the syntax and lexis?

The skills described thus far, in combination with the understanding of a complex text and the competence in reading and writing, will only have maximum impact when the language user also knows how to communicate effectively. This can be seen as the overarching skill which harnesses the aforementioned skills. Effective communication manifests itself in four different competences:

  • a grammatical competence, meaning phonological and syntactic skills and wide vocabulary;
  • a textual competence, i.e., the structure of a text. Can the language user replicate or explain the structure?;
  • a strategic competence, in other words the language user knows which strategies to use in order to reach communicative goals such as persuade, inform and stimulate to take action;
  • a functional competence, signifying that the language user is aware of the register to be used in a specific context.

To conclude the transferable skills, I would like to mention the ability for self-reflection. Even though this is part of the writing strategy which includes proofreading and revising your own work. Self-reflection entails more than this alone. It is a way of assessing yourself, your ways of working and your performance. Are you still performing at your best? Does your skills-set still match the work you do? Could you improve your routine, your time management, the outcome of your writing process? Could you improve on effectiveness? As a teacher I use evaluation forms, which I hand out to my students, to help me assess my performance and identify which skills I need to strengthen and adapt. Simultaneously they help me to identify my strengths. And over time I use them to measure my achievements.

Combining translating and teaching has given me the unique opportunity to apply and learn a broad range of skills and competences in different settings. The complimentary ways of exploring and using language have strengthened my appreciation for both disciplines. In addition, it gave me the flexibility to inject variety into my daily work routine.


Meritha is a native Dutch speaker who has been living in the UK since 2001. She has a Masters in both Art and Culture Sciences, and Translation in Theory and Practice. Previously, Meritha lectured part-time at London Metropolitan University and at the Language Centre of the University of Basel. For the past twelve years she combines her teaching and translation skills in the classroom and tailors her approach to the requirements and level of each individual, whether this is the distance learning student, the private tutee, or the student in a classroom setting.

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