Translating: A Discovery of the Language

I’ve been speaking the last few days about approaches to acquiring grammar. I’d rather use the term ‘acquiring’ here, because my approach is not to learn the rules of grammar (at least, not until you’re already pretty much fluent at reading the language), but instead to absorb or acquire it through calculated exposure.

Today I’m going to talk about how to use translation as a means of consolidating the language. It’s kind of a third way to acquire grammar, but that would be narrowing it too much. Plus, I believe this is an useful tool for learning a language anyway, regardless of what method you use to acquire grammar.

Anyways, you might be wondering why I would suggest translation, when it’s pretty clear that I make a big deal about input, about reading and listening to a lot of the language, and learning it that way. This is certainly the backbone of the Decoding approach, and it definitely works very well. However, if translation is introduced at the right time and in the right way, it can have a huge effect on really firming up your understanding of the language. That said, I don’t think it’s 100% necessary (not in Latin, anyway), so always do what works for you! Input is certainly the best means.

But notice that I said in the right way and at the right time. I certainly don’t advocate trying to translate at the beginning. Instead I think it should only be introduced after about three months’ work of reading, by which time you should have a fair bit of reading under your belt. This will make the translation process a whole lot easier and more natural.

Second, the right way. What I’m not fond of is ‘artificial Latin’, Latin designed and written for beginners or students. Not interesting and a waste of time, as far as I’m concerned (with the exception of using it for spoken grammar -- then I allow it). Not only does the student not feel they’re building a relationship with a real author, the sentences themselves can sometimes be pretty excruciatingly awkward and contrived.

So how do I go about it? What I recommend is translating from English, and translating something you already know. and have read in Latin. Why from English? Because there’s no point translating from Latin - if you’re given Latin, the goal should be to read it as Latin, not translate it into English. On the other hand, if you’re given English, well, the ability to turn it into Latin is certainly a useful one!

Now, why translate something you’ve already read? There are two reasons. First, it means you’re already familiar with the translation in Latin. This means that, even if you don‘t remember them, all the words and phrases are somewhere in your head: you’ve been exposed to them, and this will help consolidate them. Even if the vocabulary is rare or the grammar complicated, you’ll always have the safety net of having seen it once before, so it’s never completely new. The second reason is that you’ll already know the narrative and the details of what you’re reading, and being familiar with the details will help to make sure you don’t lose your way and forget that what you’re translating is part of a real piece of Latin.

There are two ways I’d recommend translating it. The first way is more difficult, but you might enjoy it, and the difficulty really depends on where you’re at with reading, anyway. Try both and see what works for you and which you like.

The first way is to take the English version and read the first sentence aloud and then try to say the Latin version out loud. You can then either write down your translation and continue to the end of the paragraph and then compare with the Latin, or you can compare your translation of that sentence (with or without writing it down first) with the same sentence in Latin straight away.

The second way is to read the English out loud and then immediately read the Latin sentence out loud. Continue this way for the first day, and then the second day (r however long the wait is until you next translate) go back and use the first way on what you’ve read, while moving ahead with the second way. This means you’ll always be translating twice, but it’s much easier if you have no clue about what the Latin would be.

I wouldn’t recommend translating (using either method, but especially the first) for more than 20 minutes a day, and I’d only do it 5 days a week. Remember that input is the most important thing, and also be careful of trying too hard to ‘work at it’, to struggle through the language rather than to enjoy it and let your mind absorb it.