Thursday, March 13, 2014

How To Translate a Community Partner's Document in the Classroom

by Ann Abbott

Translating gives me a headache.

It's too hard. I never feel sure of myself. And even though I know that according to the rules you're supposed to translate from your second language (Spanish or Italian, for me) into your first language (English, for me), I also know that what our community needs desperately are translations from English to Spanish.

My colleague Prof. Anna María Escobar received a request from a community organization for a translation. She asked if my students might be able to do it. Normally I would have said no, but instead I planned the lesson below.

Note: One of my students (Cassie Grimm) is involved with a student start-up called StudyCloud. I love to support student entrepreneurs, so this semester I am using StudyCloud as my course management system. As you'll see from the screen shots below, it works like Facebook in many ways and provides a much more visually-engaging learning experience than Blackboard.

#1. First I had students explore the community partner's website to learn about who they are and what they do.

#2. Secondly, I had them apply some of the main concepts from our course, which is about social entrepreneurship, to the community partner organization. They looked to see how closely aligned the organization's programs were to its mission. They analyzed the elements of branding included on the website. They looked for income-generating opportunities. (Thinking in terms of income-generating activities--actually selling a service or product--is the most challenging thing to teach in a foreign-language course on social entrepreneurship.) I also wanted you to see in this screenshot one of the neat ways to use StudyCloud. A student wrote her group's answers as replies to my instructions. You could also assign a student to take notes during class and post them as replies. Maybe I'll do that in next week's classes....

#3. One student in the class has done her community service learning (CSL) work at the dental clinic within the Promise/Frances Nelson Clinic. She told us all about her experiences working there. I then showed this short video of a student, Val Contri, who this course two years ago and worked at the same clinic. This was a way for us to connect the CSL component of our course with our classroom activities.

#4. Then we got down to the business of translation.
  • First, I made sure they understood all the words and phrases in English. They did. 
  • Then we went back to the clinic's webpage and opened up some documents they already had posted in Spanish. I told students that when they do a translation, instead of just sitting down with a pencil and a dictionary, they should try to find some authentic documents about the same topic and pull vocabulary and phrases from there. Some of them were able to find entire sentences that they could lift for our translation project. 
  • Next, two of my students who are studying in the Center for Translation Studies came to the front of the class and explained some of the basic concepts and approaches to doing translations. 

#5. Finally, I let them begin to actually translate.
  • Each student was assigned two sentences to translate individually, using the tips and concepts we had just presented.
  • Then they got together with the other students who had translated those same sentences. They compared their translations and came up with a final version.
  • They posted their final version.
  • I copied and pasted their translations, cleaned them up, and sent the document to the community partner.
  • Now the community partner will need to tweak the translation. 

We can't provide professional-level translations, but we can provide:
  1. a lesson on translation that is grounded in a real-world project that fills a community-identified need, and
  2. a true partnership experience in which our students do volunteer work for the partner who is capable of providing a supervisory (and editor) role.
Do you teach translation in your Spanish CSL course? Do you feel overwhelmed by the community's need for translation and interpreting? Tell me about your successes and challenges in the comment!


  1. Kudos to you for taking this on! It is always such a Catch-22: what the community partners want the most is translation and what "we" are least qualified to do is translations. Plus, it's just so much work!

  2. I also received a request for a translation from a community partner and plan to incorporate your ideas! Muchas gracias!

  3. Thanks, Darcy and Katie. I think it was a really good learning experience for the students, and the community partner was grateful. I think we have to do all of that scaffolding so that students don´t just jump into a translation project that they´re not prepared for. Good luck, Katie!