Thinking about Reading, II

As I mentioned last week, one positive effect (and cause?) of my lengthy silence here was that I’d discovered other ways to share and develop thoughts online. Even the best, most interactive blog is primarily a megaphone that amplifies the writer’s voice, but things like Twitter and Google+ are much more like a two-way conversation. It was through them that I discovered the term “PLN,” which can stand for Personal Learning Network or Professional Learning Network … and it was through my PLN that I’ve been refining and developing this series of blog posts about reading. Yesterday I asked for definitions or ideas about the distinctions between reading and translating texts in another language, and a lively conversation developed on this Google+ thread. I want to highlight and respond to a few of the comments there, and then (maybe tomorrow, maybe next week) I’d like to move on to the roles that vocabulary and grammar play in both reading and translating second-language texts.

As Roger Travis says early on, and as Laura Gibbs refines it, both reading and translating have to do with “gathering the meanings of a text.” Translating necessarily involves representing those meanings (or as many of them as possible) in the words and syntax of another language, while reading does not. Translating can be a measure of reading comprehension, and for a long time it’s been the default measure for us Classicists.  We’ve even developed a special language, somewhere between our own native language and Latin itself, that we call “literal translation,”  and some Classicists spend a great deal of time teaching that language, as well as Latin or Greek, to their beginning and intermediate students.  More on that phenomenon later.

I think we should also distinguish between the work of an expert translator and that of a novice translator. Having attained a deep understanding of the meanings of a text, the expert attempts to represent them for a real-world audience. But expert translators are constantly aware that, in the end, a full representation is impossible; every choice of words or structures will illuminate some aspect of the original text while obscuring others. The novice, on the other hand, attempts to reconstruct meaning in order to understand the text. Novices frequently believe that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words and structures of Language 1 and those of Language 2, and they become frustrated and confused when “things get hard” or “the word isn’t there in the dictionary” or “there are too many definitions” or “I know all the words, but this doesn’t make sense.”

Far too often, I think, we Classicists confuse reading and translation, and far, far too often, we fail to make the distinctions between novice and expert forms of translation.  We tend to assume that reading and translation are more or less synonymous, and we also tend to think that the novice translator works from the same paradigm as the expert.

What do you think of these definitions of reading and translation? And what about the distinctions between the expert and novice translator?  Do you suppose that a failure to make these distinctions has contributed to some of the uglier controversies about pedagogy in our field?

quid respondētis, amīcī?  Randy, I really will get to your question about teaching reading, but I think this is necessary groundwork.

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Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Justin, just like I made a plea for the plural (meanings, instead of meaning), your point about novice and expert – and all the levels inbetween of course – gets at the same idea: the VARIETY of experiences people are always going to have in working with something as complex as human communication. That gets at why I am so bothered by the use of testing of any kind – not only does it invariably reduce that experience, it also conveys the very very very wrong idea to the student that there is no place for plurality and variety. In my classes, where the students do the storytelling starting right from the very first week of class, it comes as a revelation to them how each person tells the story differently. Now, that should not be a relevation! But in the world of school, where learning is still about “the” right answer (at least most of the time), they truly have forgotten the variety of experience, the personal dimension of learning, that is totally obvious to every child who heads off to kindergarten.
    I’m taking that Coursera MOOC on fantasy and science fiction right now and the one thing that I like the very best about the class is NO QUIZZES and NO EXAMS. People have been characterizing the Coursera courses as being drill-and-kill quiz-driven experiences but at least in this case, that is not it at all. The work we do for class is going to be highly individualized, writing that all the thousands of students will be doing… and, of course, it is guaranteed that no two essays will be the same. How cool is that? Over this weekend, there will be thousands (tens of thousands?) little essays about the Brothers Grimm. Now, it bugs me that all those essays are going into the virtual trashcan when we are done… if I were organizing the class, that would not be the case at all! But at least it is a start: I would not have any motivation to stay in the class if it were about tests and exams. But with writing: I am inspired!
    So, to get back to your topic… I think reading should lead, sooner or later, to writing. I don’t see them as separate but as linked in a very deep way. And, of course, we both know how little writing students ever do in Latin in traditional courses. 🙂

  2. Laura, I agree with you completely about
    1) the plurality of experience with any form of communication;
    2) the tendency for test-focused instruction to focus on “the” right answer; and
    3) the necessity of what we might call “writing to read” – that is, using writing (real writing) as an essential part of the reading process. As you know, that’s the core of the Tres Columnae system. As soon as a learner feels comfortable with a given structure, lexical item, cultural concept, etc., we encourage him/her to USE that “new thing” to create a story, a dialogue, or some other form of expression … and of course we also encourage our learners to create illustrations, skits, video clips, and other non-verbal (or extra-verbal) “stuff” as part of their learning. As you said on G+ the other day, surround the Latin with pictures, not with English words! 🙂

    It pains me to think of the virtual trash can AND of the physical one. Students in today’s schools are perfectly aware that they write for an audience of two: the teacher and the trash can. And I think that’s a big reason for the low quality of writing that we tend to see.

    • AGREED! At the MOOC we are supposed to get four comments back form students on our writing each week… although I am curious how robust that algorithm will be within a system that is surely going to have an astronomical dropout rate! Our first essays are due next Tuesday I think so I’ll have lots more to say about the peer feedback experience next week! 🙂

  3. […] like Google+. Thanks again, Roger, Laura, Rachel, and Dorothy, for helping me refine my ideas from yesterday’s post. I’m especially grateful to Dorothy, who brings a much-needed perspective on the development […]


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