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3 - Learning a foreign language versus Learning translation

Only after having studied one or more foreign languages can one begin to study translation.

It is in fact necessary to have higher education qualifications or a university degree in order to be admitted to any translation course at university level. In both cases, when one sets out to learn the art of translation, one has already studied languages for some years.

It is therefore necessary for the aspiring translator to have a clear idea of certain fundamental differences between learning a foreign language and learning translation.

When studying a foreign language, one is exposed to the usual techniques used for teaching the language: translation along with dictation, listening comprehension, conversation and grammar exercises. It is not up to us to say what we think of this use of translation nor is it the object of this course. What we want to establish is that translating in order to learn a foreign language is very different from translating in order to produce a text, which is what one is supposed to learn when studying translation at university level.

When teaching a language, the text is often created specifically for that purpose or adapted so that students encounter certain difficulties and not others, and that the difficulties the student encounters are at the same level as his knowledge of the foreign language.

The texts used are often the same and correcting becomes mechanical because the teacher already knows what mistakes to look for. There may be various translating solutions for one same sentence, but they all have to satisfy one requirement: the teacher must be sure that the student has acquired certain notions and has understood the meaning and the syntax of the sentence.

J. Delisle, one of the most eminent scholars in translation studies, has made this particular point, the transition from the study of a language to the study of translation, very clear.

  [...] Scholastic translation has little in common with professional translation. They do not have the same finalities; the former is totally integrated with a method for acquiring a language whilst the latter is a communicative process. Scholastic translation by definition precedes professional translation. Consequently the methodology of the learning process must be conceived with professional translation in mind and not scholastic translation. To link up different concepts, in order to reformulate a message following communication imperatives is not the same thing as assimilating a foreign language or the culture which forms its habitat [...]

¹Delisle, pp. 45-6

The role of translation when teaching a language is that of providing the students with specific entries in the dictionary and the most common syntactical structures, so that they can create models applicable to different sentences.

For example this sentence was taken from an English textbook:

We're tired. We've been studying since 2 o'clock.

It is obvious the authors of the book invented that sentence in order to show how to describe an action, which began in the past and has not finished yet. It is also rather obvious that this sentence is not really plausible except in a language-learning context . It is rather improbable for a native speaker to use this kind of sentence.

When teaching translation, first of all it is important to say that the text is in no way artificial, which is to say that the text has not been invented to cope with a particular language difficulty, it is a "real" text created spontaneously by a speaker or a writer. This has various implications.

First of all, the sentence previously given in English does not present any interpretative difficulties. The various translations can be marked "right" or "wrong", and this is exactly the role of the teacher, who will then decide the language level reached by the learner.


In statements made spontaneously by mother-tongue speakers and removed from their context (the situation in which these sentences are pronounced) and from the co-text (the words immediately before and after the sentence) the interpretation may be difficult or ambiguous. For example, in the sentence


Is he gonna make it?


Isolated from its context and its co-text, it is very difficult to give just one univocal interpretation. The real meaning can be inferred only by taking certain fundamental elements, which are missing in this sentence, into consideration. This kind of sentence would never occur in a textbook for learning English as a foreign language, but it might very well occur in a translation.

For this reason, an important part of this course will be devoted to interpretation, and interpretative possibilities and ambiguities which are intrinsic in a text and the way they are dealt with.

Another difference between a scholastic text and an authentic one, is in the tools that can be used for translating.

In a scholastic text, the main tool used is a bilingual dictionary. In fact, very often the books themselves are complete with a bilingual dictionary in the appendix, with the additional convenience of it already having been decided exactly what vocabulary the student needs to know. These same words are then written at the back of the book with their translation, not the only possible translation but the translation necessary to complete that exercise the way the author of the book had intended.

In other words, in order to teach a language, a system of exercises and texts is created first conforming to certain limits (which rules, which vocabulary) and then a dictionary is created to satisfy the needs of this system.

textbook author textbook dictionary

As you can see from the diagram above, it is a closed system, a self-referential system, inside which everything tallies, and it is always possible to evaluate the level of language learned. But, because it is a closed system it doesn't necessarily have anything in common with a more open and wider linguistic system which is the linguistic universe a translator has to face.

In the fourth part of this course we will face the problem of the translator's tools, and we will examine in particular the limits and the unsuitability of a bilingual dictionary.

A third difference between a scholastic text and an authentic text is the reason for the translation. The students translating for their language teacher must produce a result which shows the language level. The sentence produced with this function is not usually evaluated for its linguistic value but as proof of having learned certain rules and vocabulary. Therefore if the translation of the above sentence into French were


Nous sommes fatigues. Nous étudions depuis deux heures.


I think the teacher could consider himself satisfied with the results of his student. On the other hand, if the sentence is examined closely, certain characteristics are evident.

- It is a sentence no mother tongue speaker would use out

- A translator has to ask himself who the receiver of the sentence is, its reader, and model the sentence in order to make it plausible and natural, as if spoken by a Frenchman (notwithstanding that the original itself was plausible, as if a native speaker has said it).

- A translator has to worry about the register whilst the student deals only with artificial language which has an artificial register, anonymous like a textbook.

In other words, a language student produces a sentence to be evaluated, while a translator produces a text which is then used, either because read or because listened to. And in order to use this text in the most proper way, and in the most suitable way for the reader and for the context, it is necessary to examine the standards that regulate communication, which we will do, in the following parts of the course.

This does not mean that the translator cannot be judged or evaluated by the reader, and even by critics.

Moreover, the translator is sometimes induced to choose to translate in a more flowing style rather than stick to the authentic philological structure. And often, because of this, they can go off route. It would be better if any criticisms made by critics were done so, only after having read the original other than having read the result. Only the translation of a flowing text must be flowing. But we will come back to this.


Delisle, J. L'analyse du discours comme méthode de traduction. Initiation à la traduction française de textes pragmatiques anglais. Ottawa, Éditions de l'Université d'Ottawa, 1984.