Didactic Suggestions for Teaching General Translation (English-Spanish, Spanish-English) | January 2015 | Translation Journal

January 2015 Issue

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Didactic Suggestions for Teaching General Translation (English-Spanish, Spanish-English)

Translation Journal Teaching General Translation


This paper aims to explain the meaning of “general translation” in order to prove its importance in translation and interpreting studies. To achieve this goal we will analyse some of the most common definitions of this type of translation and we will propose ours. We will continue with the objectives we will set in the classroom and the skills that we would like our students to develop. Next, we will try to establish the possible content of general translation as a subject. And finally, we will offer some didactic suggestions and methodologies that we could apply in our classroom.

Keywords: Teaching, General, Translation, Subject, Skills, Suggestions

1. Introduction

General translation is a basic subject in translation and interpreting studies. In fact, it is a complusory subject in every Spanish university. In addition, it is supposed to be the first time that students will face translation activity. In Spain, English-Spanish is the most requested language pair. This is due to several reasons: their influence and their large number of speakers in the world. However, this language pair is not only popular in Spain, but in other countries and regions where Spanish and English are present, like the United States of America, Latin America, the European Union and many other places in the world.

With respect to general translation didactics, we find that conceiving and planning a course with these characteristics may be difficult for teachers, because multiple aspects must be taken into account: the usually large number of students, their different levels of language skill, and their lack (or even shortage) of previous knowledge of translation. Nevertheless, the hardest difficulty that teachers will have to deal with is how to define the content of the subject. The denomination of General Translation is quite broad and this makes it difficult to define what is going to be the content of the course: topics and textual typologies, among others. This is the reason why we will try to give some ideas about general translation teaching in order to help other colleagues with their lessons. They are just some suggestions that could be a good start to reflect about. They can be modified, applied to other language pairs or adapted for every classroom.

2. General translation

General translation is a subject that is taught in every Spanish university. In the University of Málaga it is a compulsory subject. Most of the current definitions of General Translation are those that contrast it with specialised translation, i.e. general translation is non-specialised translation.

Marina Orozco dedicates a paper precisely to the problem of the denomination and the concept of general translation. This author analysed some of the most characteristic definitions of general translation. We will summarize them and classify them into three main categories:

  1. Lower level of difficulty: “General translation is an introductory translation course in which students practice it with easy understanding texts. These texts can be easily understood by anyone who has a medium-high level of popular knowledge.” (Vega Expósito, 1999).
  2. Lack of professional training opportunities: Some authors believe that the subject of general translation has no connection with the real labour market and therefore it is a fictitious translation. “The fact of talking about specialised translation presupposes the existence of a ‘General Translation’ that is nevertheless out of professional training, even if it is frequently used with didactic purposes.” (Gamero Pérez, 2001).
  3. Underestimation of general translation in the labour market: Some translation enterprises make the most of the characteristics of general translation. They used to attribute the category of “general translation” to specialised texts in order to pay less for the translations that their own translators do.

As we can see, general translation used to bring about conflicting ideas. Some of these definitions include negative connotations – even if they do not intend to – if we compare them with those of specialised translation.

Hurtado Albir (2006) aptly states that:
“‘General Translation’ should be conceived like the start to real translation, which used to be naturally ‘specialised’ in one or another field. It is consequently a didactic program where students should understand translation basic concepts. They will have to assume a work method that will let them face specialised fields.”

In short, we could define general translation” like the translation type that copes with texts that do not exclusively devote either their content or their vocabulary to one single regulated field, like mathematics, astronomy, geography, among others (UNESCO, 2013). General translation is characterised by its multidisciplinarity, flexibility and variety. It is the sort of translation that helps students to get started and to specialise in translation activity and process, not in other fields or disciplines.

In spite of everything, general translation is still undervalued, because it is commonly believed that it is the “easy” texts translation. However, a translator who passes this subject should be prepared to face whatever sort of specialised translation; it does not matter their field of specialisation. It also means that students have understood and learnt basic translation concepts: stages, strategies, etc.

3. Skills and objectives

The primary skill that students need to develop is the translation skill, which is defined by Hurtado Albir (2011) as: “The skill that enables translators to effect the required cognitive operations in order to develop the translation process”. The author adds: “It is the skill that identifies the translator and distinguishes them from non-translators”.

To analyse in depth all the objectives and skills that are required for general translation, we will follow the information established in the report of the new translation and interpreting studies, Memoria del título de Graduado/a en Traducción e Interpretación (UMA, 2011), of the University of Málaga. It is a document where the full program of translation and interpreting studies is described in great detail. There we can also find the main objectives to reach and the skills to develop. And now, we will sum them up:

  1. Basic skills: Students must have shown that they have acquired basic knowledge of the field they study at university. They must show that they are mature enough to undertake self-study and that they can understand, summarize, reason, solve problems and communicate ideas to both general and specialised public in a professional way.
  2. Specific skills: To acquire basic communication (speaking and writing) skills in the A language (mother tongue - in the case of Spain, it would be Spanish), B (first foreign language) and C (second foreign language). To acquire the required skills to realize tasks like: documentation, localisation, revision, editing, translation and interpreting both general and specialised, from and to languages B and C. Knowledge of applied linguistics to translation studies and about the labour market in the field of translation and interpreting.
  3. Transversal skills: To be able to express oneself in Spanish and in some foreign languages (at least two) correctly in their field of specialisation. To know how to manage information and knowledge of their field with the help of information and communication technologies (TIC). To respect and promote ethics and intellectual integrity. To be able to show the required knowledge, abilities and skills to promote a society based on the values of freedom, justice, equality and pluralism. To acquire the skill to work in a group and to relate to people who belong to both the same and different fields. And finally, to develop research skills.

Now, we will suggest the “possible” content of the general translation subject. With this purpose, we will take into account the above-mentioned skills and objectives.

4. The “possible” content of the general translation subject

Throughout this paper, we focus on the so-called subject general translation in the (American and British) English and (Spain) Spanish language pair, because, according to UNESCO, these two languages occupy respectively the second and third place of the world’s most spoken languages. However, all our suggestions for teaching general translation can be applied to any other language pair.

As we have previously seen in the first section, the general translation subject should be the one in which students learn the basic concepts of translation: stages, strategies, among others. From that moment on, they would be able to practice the acquired knowledge and to improve it during their studies. Then they will be able to apply it to specialised translation.
Theory is also important in general translation, and when we try to plan our theory lessons, we all have several authors and books in mind, but when we think about practice, the situation is different. What to teach in general translation? Along the same lines, some authors like Hurtado Albir (2011) declare that:

“There is a big heterogeneity between the translatable texts that do not belong to specialised languages; in addition to literary texts, we find others that do not belong to that category: advertising, journalistic texts, etc”.

Even if literary texts used to be considered general translation, we believe that it is a sort of translation that has a strong multidisciplinary nature. In literary translation, its formal aspects (aesthetic) have more importance than its function (to inform, to have fun, to thrill, etc.). This is one of the reasons why we will focus on the press and the journalistic texts.
Other benefits of using the press as a source for the content of the general translation subject are the following:

  1. Constantly updated information: Every year the content will be different and this may keep teachers busy all the time. However, it is a good way for both teachers and students to be updated. Students will find it very positive, because every lesson will be different, new and real. They will not be fake texts; they will have a connection with real life.
  2. Approaching the target culture: Online media will let us know what happens in every single country whose language(s) we learn, speak, translate and interpret. It is a good way to approach other cultures over distance.
  3. Higher level of popular knowledge: Working with journalistic texts (press) can foment the reading habits of our students. The media can help us to improve our level of popular knowledge due to its multidisciplinarity. In the news we can find topics like: health, politics, education, art, among others. This means, at the same time, that we can get a richer level of vocabulary, terminology and structure.

For all these reasons, we will focus on the press as the main source for general translation. Now we will offer a list with the main topics that we can address in the classroom. It is a list that we have made analysing topics in three of the most well known newspapers for the English and Spanish language: The New York Times (American English), The Guardian (British English) and Diario Sur (Spanish). In our opinion, these could be the main categories of the texts we can translate in a general translation course. They are ordered according to their level of difficulty or specialisation:

  1. Leisure: TV, cinema, concerts, among others
  2. Society (gossip)
  3. Lifestyle: health and beauty
  4. Accident and crime reports
  5. Opinion pages: editorials, columns, letters, blogs, among others
  6. Education
  7. Sports: football (mainly in Spain)
  8. Development
  9. Travel and gastronomy
  10. Culture
  11. Media
  12. Politics
  13. Law
  14. Business and money (economy).

This list is illustrative. On several occasions there will be news that could be more difficult than we thought because of its length, terminological difficulty, etc. For instance, news about the economic crisis could have different levels of difficulty depending on the person who talks about it: a politician, an economist, a doctor, a teacher, a student, among others.

5. Methodologies and didactic suggestions

After having defined the main topics that could be part of our content in the subject so-called "general translation", we will explain the teaching methodologies that we would like to apply in our lessons to achieve most of our goals:

  1. Collaborative learning: This is a teaching style where the students play a key role. They have to work with every other learner in the class. It is essential for a translator to know how to work with other translators and collaborate with colleagues. It is the way one works in a translation company.
  2. Learning by teaching (in German: Lernen durch Lehren, LdL): This is a teaching method where the students play an active role again. In LdL, the students put themselves in the shoes of their teacher. What does it really mean? The students will have to act like they were real teachers, i.e. they will have to explain to their classmates what their teacher will ask them. It is said that someone can explain something if it is completely understood.
  3. Learning objectives: In this case, the teaching process depends on the objective we would like to achieve. The result is what defines the strategy of teaching.
  4. Coaching: The teacher has to encourage his/her students at every single step of their learning process. S/he will have to show her/his students that when you do your best, you can achieve your goals. A strong sense of empathy is required.

Next, we will introduce some examples of initial activities that can be useful for our students:

  • Loud and silent reading:
    1. Loud and silent reading (both source and target language: mother tongue): The teacher will offer his/her students one text in the source (mother tongue) language. First, they will read it aloud. After that, the teacher will ask them what the text was about, so they will have to write on a sheet of paper all the information they remember. Second, the teacher will give them time to read again the same text silently. They will have to repeat the process below, i.e. they will write on the same sheet of paper all the information they remember. At the end, they will see how important concentration is. They usually remember more important information after reading silently. The students can compare their results with their classmates.
    2. Loud and silent reading (both source and target language: foreign language): It is the same exercise that we have described above, but this time our students will work with their target (foreign) language. This way the level of difficulty increases. When the students read in a foreign language, they pay more attention to pronunciation than meaning.
  • Paraphrasing: In this activity someone explains with his/her own words what others have said. It is a very effective exercise for students, because it will help them to enrich their vocabulary. We suggest practising it as frequently as possible and mainly in the foreign language.
  • Summarising: After reading a text (aloud or silently), the students will have to be able to write the main ideas that that text consists of. It is a way to improve our reading and understanding skills that are so important for both translation and interpreting.

Suggestions for general translation lessons:

  • Let students play an active role: When the teacher becomes the centre of attention, his/her students are more relaxed and sometimes they get bored or miss information. If they feel that they are useful, they will be more motivated and will work more effectively. Hence, they will learn more.
  • You are not only a teacher; you are also a host/hostess: Try to be just a guide for your students. A teacher is a person who has deep knowledge of one field and who is usually older than his/her students, i.e. who has a richer experience. Advice and experience can be very helpful for our students, even if nowadays they seem to be undervalued.
  • Bring reality to classroom: If we use the press as a source of our texts, we will have completed half of our task. When we talk about reality, we mean that it must be applied to all the fields of translation and interpreting: working in groups like a small translation company, where every member of the group will have a different role: terminologist, documentalist, translator, editor, among others.
  • Unity makes strength: Working in groups can sometimes be a nightmare, because it is not easy to work with other people. It is a good opportunity for students to experience real situations. We recommend letting students create their own groups, if you do not want to listen to any complaints. Nevertheless, it would be interesting for our students to switch from one group to another in order to develop the following skills: communication, information technology, problem solving, empathy and working with others. We also suggest you choose a leader in every group who will be responsible for the relationship between all the members of the group and for the final version of the translation.
  • Playing seriously: Try to plan all the above mentioned activities like a challenge. Do not forget that it is a way to make our students participate and learn the teaching process.
  • Sources and target languages: We recommend switching the order of the languages that we will use as source and target (language) texts. For instance, if our first text is written in English, the translation would be in Spanish, but the second text should be in Spanish to be translated into English, and so on. If we do so, students will feel more confident and will lose their fear of indirect translation.
  • Calm the waters: In Spain, people who would like to study translation and interpreting have to have good marks. This means that translation and interpreting students are used to being very competitive and perfectionist. Working in groups can awaken differences between students, but this is one of the responsibilities of the leaders of the groups. So let them find a solution for these problems, and if they do not, they need their teacher to act. Students must know that they are classmates and in the future they will be colleagues and they are supposed to help each other. If they have a good relationship, they can let their colleagues know about new job opportunities. A good work ambiance is essential. The teacher should show their students how important respect is.

All these ideas are intended to be useful for general translation teachers, but every classroom is different and it is up to these professionals to adapt them in order to get the best results.


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i The author of this paper is also the translator of all the quotations. See the original versions in the references in the bibliography.

About Dra. Concepción Mira Rueda

Concepción Mira Rueda

Dra. Concepción Mira Rueda earned her first B.A. in Translation and Interpreting (Spanish-English, German, Italian) in 2005 and her second B.A. in Translation and Interpreting (Spanish-French) in 2011 from Málaga University (Spain). She graduated from the Regional Ministry of Tourism and Trade of the Andalusian Regional Government, (please read the Official bulletin from the Regional Government of Andalusia: BOJA núm. 175, de 8 de septiembre de 2006). She received her Ph.D. in Translation and Interpreting (with high honors) from the University of Málaga in December 2008. Her thesis is entitled 

El discurso turístico en inglés y en español: su tratamiento lexicográfico (Study of the Language of Tourism in English and Spanish: their Lexicographic Treatment) 

In 2009, she graduated from Euroeditions (European Foundation for Information Society and e-Government). She has published many articles, reviews and glossaries, in the five different languages that she speaks, translates and interpretes: Spanish (A Language), English and French (B Languages), German and Italian (C Languages), in renowned national and international journals. She combines her work as a foreign languages teacher in Higher Education with translating and researching 

She can be contacted at: mirarc@uma.es or concepcion.mira@gmail.com.

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