English-to-English Translation Challenges


On Tuesdays, our middle school rotation students are in the library for study hall. Most of them typically work on their current event assignments, which are due on Wednesdays. The students have to find a news story of national or international impact and summarize it in their own words. This week, I worked with one of our 6th grade students, who had chosen a story about the current Russia-EU/US standoff over the Ukraine. Aside from the fact that she was clearly lacking any background knowledge on the shared history of the Ukraine and Russia, the student also had an extremely difficult time comprehending the text due to a lack of vocabulary knowledge. For example, what are “political, diplomatic, and economic sanctions”? What does it mean when “Putin says he thinks the West is provoking Russia”?

I am currently meeting twice weekly with a small group of 5th grade students who are reading Verne’s classic (original, unabridged version) Around the World in 80 Days. Written in the 1880s, the novel’s old British English presents my seven students with a completely new language and style. We are using Subtext for iPad (there’ll be a post on this app some time in the near future), which allows me to pose queries for the students directly within the text. One challenge I like to pose is: “Please rewrite this sentence in contemporary English”–oftentimes resulting in a number of varied interpretations. Examples include: “A room was engaged for the young woman, and Mr. Fogg, after seeing that she wanted for nothing, set out in search of her cousin Jeejeeh.” Or, “He acquitted his task with characteristic serenity, and invariably replied to the remonstrances of his fair companion, who was confused by his patience and generosity.”

Whether reading for information as in the current event assignment or reading for entertainment as in our classics reading group, students must show comprehension. Both types of assignments are requiring students to read deeply, i.e. forcing students to stop and think about meaning. Deep reading is challenging. It is easy to read one Rick Riordan or Margaret Haddix or JK Rowling book after another, following a highly engaging story. But it is an entirely different proposition to read deeply, interpreting style nuances and translating vocabulary. But it is in facing these challenges that readers gain maturity and depth. Both our social studies teacher’s current event assignments and the reading of a true classic promote just that: enhanced literacy.


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