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Ask Olga! The Art (and Fun) of Translation

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As the 2017-2018 school year comes to an end, we wish you a happy holiday! Olga Steklova sends you off with a column on translation games.

Our young granddaughter Michelle, like most multilingual children, has a natural ability to switch languages and perform simultaneous translation. We were building a sand castle on the beach once for a ‘man-eating monster’—a character from a fairy tale that I was telling Michelle in Russian. As her French-speaking dad emerged from the sea I was mentally getting ready to describe our sand ‘structure’ to him and trying to come up with an English or French equivalent for the character…but Michelle never even hesitated, and explained to her dad in French that it was a castle for an ‘ogre’.

I see this skill as the first step in the art of translation. Of course, one doesn’t have to be multilingual as a child to become an expert translator. However, a multilingual child has a natural ability—and often a need—to build bridges from one language to another.

At the early stage of development when children mostly operate using concrete categories, it is relatively easy to name objects or talk about everyday activities while switching from one language to another. As we read a story in Russian, I might ask Michelle to ‘translate’ it for her dad into French. Sometimes I might ask her to choose one of her French bedtime stories—from her extensive library in three languages—and retell it to me in Russian. This requires a combined effort, of course; she needs to want to share the stories, and I need to show genuine interest in them.

We sometimes play a version of the telephone game, in which I whisper a word, a phrase or an instruction to her in Russian, and she must deliver it to someone else’s ear in French (or English, depending on the participants of the game).

Such simple and fun activities give children practice in the skill of finding the best substitutes for words and ideas in other languages, making sure the meaning is not ‘lost in translation’.

When learning a language, big strides are usually made at the beginning. These initial achievements eventually level off as learners reach their ‘comfort zone’, the level that allows them to function minimally, enough to fulfil basic needs. Families can be quite content for their children to reach academic heights in one language, usually the language of education, and to become ‘minimally functional’ in others.

However, many parents of multilingual children nowadays, who know the benefits of being multilingual, choose to motivate and support their children to move beyond the basic levels of linguistic proficiency. They know that a high level of mastery in several languages opens a whole new world of options.

There are many ways parents and extended families can help children to maintain home, or heritage, languages at a high level—and translation games should definitely be on that list. Michelle is still at the early stage of development,  but this is a good time to start looking ahead, making enrichment plans for times not too far away…

The stage in which she will begin to operate sophisticated abstract concepts and ideas is just around the corner. Language used to express these concepts involves ambiguity and shades of meaning based on personal, cultural, emotional and educational experiences. As a multilingual she then has potential to blend such experiences into broader and deeper conceptual understandings. Translation practice, I believe, will help her to refine and deepen linguistic expertise, broaden general knowledge and cultural flexibility, and harbor appreciation of languages.

So, envisioning this ‘time not so far away’—but also getting ready for the long summer vacation—I have compiled a list of translation activities. Here it is, so far:

  • retell stories in different languages to family members, classmates and friends;
  • have regular creative sessions or conversations to find equivalents for concepts studied at school;
  • take passages from school books and translate them into one or more home languages;
  • have fun looking at expert translations of favorite books;
  • have a go at translating passages from favorite books and poems;
  • have fun working with dictionaries;
  • write journal entries, letters, stories, and plays, and translate them for family members who speak various languages;
  • find reasons and provide motivation for all the above. Be a model and enjoy translation together!

Our granddaughter Michelle loves songs and sings them in English, French and Russian. Intuitively, finding herself in a different cultural setting, she sometimes simultaneously translates a familiar song and sings it to the same tune but in another language. We can’t wait to see her this summer and have fun creating new songs, storytelling, building bridges between languages, and getting her ready for school, life and more linguistic adventures!

One Comment

  1. Really interesting Olga – can’t wait for the book!

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