Translation and Mediation - objectives for language teaching

Translation and Mediation – objectives for language teaching

The Nordic Network for Intercultural Communication (NIC), The Vigdis Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages, 22. December 2008

Michael Byram, University of Durham, England

I would like to start my talk by emphasising my origins in education, and in foreign language teaching. My career began many years ago as a teacher of French and German in an English comprehensive school. A comprehensive school is by definition one which caters for all learners, and this was an innovation in the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, where previously we had had selective schools. A selective school system meant that in the better schools learners were allowed to learn foreign languages, but not in the lower status schools where pupils seemed to be less "academic". In comprehensive schools, we began to teach foreign languages to all pupils.This was difficult and made us question the reasons for foreign language teaching and learning. They had previously gone unquestioned, but they had implicitly been just part of our general education.

About the same time, the theory of foreign language teaching began to emphasise the importance of communication as a purpose for teaching, and of “communicative competence” as the phrase for describing the aims of teaching and learning. This was all very attractive, especially to learners who need to have practical and short term aims for their language learning. It was also attractive to parents, head teachers, and to all those - including politicians - who began to question the purpose of education in a post-industrial and global economy. It seemed obvious that language teaching should give people communication skills which would help them and their countries to compete in a global economy.

One reaction was to reject anything to do with translation. Communicative competence is important but this new emphasis on communication, and a rejection of teaching methods which had been dependent upon translation and the study of grammar, meant that we abandoned some of the educational purposes of language teaching. At least that is a possible argument and you will hear something of that argument in what I have to say today, although it is not my purpose is to deal with the argument in detail.

My purpose is rather to look at foreign language teaching in the context of the title of this conference, "Cultures in translation", and I will use this opportunity to think about translation, which has a long history in foreign language teaching, and also to reflect upon the notion of mediation, whose history is much briefer.

Let me start with the question of translation.

Lost in translation and ‘Lost in Translation’
The phrase ‘lost in translation’ and the notion that all translation is betrayal were commonplaces for language people before ‘Lost in Translation’ became the title of a book (Hoffman, 1989) and a more well known but completely unconnected film. I am going to concentrate on the book, written by Ewa Hoffmann, who at the age of 12 emigrated with her parents from Poland to Canada.

Before either the book or the film, it was as I said a commonplace for translators that things get lost in translation, and the accusation of ‘Traduttore, traditore!’ is well known but perhaps unfair. The change from commonplace to book nonetheless adds something new, because Hoffmann is not just talking about meanings getting lost but also people. The poignant message of Hoffman’s book is that, despite having an outwardly very successful life in North America, living in and through English, she remains distant from the society in which she lives and has no longer any relationship to that from which she came:

No, there’s no returning to the point of origin, no regaining of childhood unity. Experience creates style, and style, in turn, creates a new woman. Polish is no longer the one, true language against which others live their secondary life. Polish insights cannot be regained in their purity; there’s something I know in English too. (1989:273)
This is difficult experience; it causes pain but that pain and the fissures between languages are, she says, ‘how I know that I’m alive’. In a remarkable analysis of her loss of Polish, Hoffman reveals the impact of acquiring new words. She is describing the early years of her emigration in the following quote:
The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. ‘River’ in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the sense of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. ‘River’ in English is cold – a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke. (ibid: 106).

Yet even in this description of acquiring a new language which does not have the same meaning for her, she demonstrates how well she masters that new language, English, with which she tells of the loss of Polish. Even in this passage, she does not give us the Polish word for ‘river’ (‘rzeka’). English dominates. She is talking about the loss of meaning, the loss of the connotations for the individual. These connotations are shared however with others and the loss is not just personal. The Polish word, as translators know, can never be entirely translated into English.

However, by the end of the book, Hoffman takes a positive view, being able rejoice in her freedom from absoluteness:
Because I have learned the relativity of cultural meanings on my skin, I can never take any one set of meanings as final (…). It’s not the worst place to live; it gives you an Archimedean leverage from which to see the world. (ibid: 275).
Hoffman has found a resolution of her loss by embracing the position she shares with millions of other people in the contemporary world of migration and displacement.

Translation, Interpretation and Mediation
In addition to translators and interpreters, there is another group of people who are professionally engaged in explaining and transferring meaning: anthropologists. One of the tasks of anthropologists is to analyse and explain the lives of one group of people to another group. Often they write texts in the language of their reading public about people who live in a different language. They write ethnographies about social groups; traditionally they focus on tribes in Africa or the South Pacific in pre-industrial societies, and write for a professional audience in a language other than the language of the group they have studied. More recently, they have also studied social groups in post-industrial societies, and have found an audience in the general public. In this case they may write in the language of the group which is also the language of the readers. Kate Fox (2004) has written in English about the English. Beatrice Le Wita (1988) has written about French bourgeois culture in French, but then it was translated into English (Le Wita, 1994).

Anthropologists have long been aware of the complexities of this process. In an article from 1964, Peter Winch starts from the problem of explaining beliefs about magic, beliefs ‘which we cannot possibly share’ (1964: 307) and takes a Wittgensteinian view that Reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and unreal shows itself in the sense that language has (…). If then we wish to understand the significance of these concepts, we must examine the use they actually do have – in the language’ (ibid: 309).

This then leads to a position in which the engagement with another way of life and language requires a change in our own:

Seriously to study another way of life is necessarily to seek to extend our own, not simply to bring the other way within the already existing boundaries of our own, because the point about the latter in their present form is that they ex hypothesi exclude that other (ibid: 317:18). From this perspective, ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation’ are much more than transfer of meaning, as many language people – teachers and learners – assume. Winch requires people to do what Hoffman has described herself doing, but Hoffman has also shown how painful the experience can be. Some people, including migrants, even refuse the pain and stay within their own life and language, acquiring other languages only for instrumental and transactional purposes, to meet their everyday needs for ‘survival’ in the environment they inhabit.

Language teaching
The notion of ‘survival’ takes us to foreign language teaching. One of the consequences of tourism and migration and in particular the mobility of people in the European Union searching for better jobs, is the plethora of ‘survival’ language courses. These are sophisticated developments from phrase books for travellers and they are intended for adults. In Western Europe, they began to flourish in the 1970s and are related to work at the Council of Europe where the linguistic needs of migrants led to a re-assessment of all language teaching, first in adult education and then in schools. The philosophy was liberating. Instead of attempting to become a perfect speaker – comparable to a native speaker – learners and their teachers could envisage success before perfection, and competences at different levels could be recognised and rewarded. All of this was part of what I briefly described at the beginning, the move to communicative language teaching, and in the context in which I was working, and emphasis on language learning for all pupils for practical purposes.
Eventually, this philosophy was presented in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe: 2001), the CEFR, which will be well-known to those of you who are in language teaching.
The CEFR is most widely known – and most influential – through its descriptions of six levels of competence. The level descriptions cover many kinds of ‘communicative’ language activities and strategies. There are over 30 pages of them (ibid: 57-90). They include the obvious language activities such as oral production/speaking or aural reception/listening but each one is then broken down into its elements and listening includes for example ‘listening as a member of a live audience’, and I thought I would let you look at this whilst you are doing it:

Can follow specialised lectures and presentations employing a high degree of colloquialism, regional
usage or unfamiliar terminology.

C1 Can follow most lectures, discussions and debates with relative ease.

B2 Can follow the essentials of lectures, talks and reports and other forms of academic/professional
presentation which are propositionally and linguistically complex.
Can follow a lecture or talk within his/her own field, provided the subject matter is familiar and the
presentation straightforward and clearly structured.

B1 Can follow in outline straightforward short talks on familiar topics provided these are delivered in
clearly articulated standard speech.

A2 No descriptor available
A1 No descriptor available

The majority of activities are described at different levels, based on descriptors available in examination systems and the fact that there is no descriptor for A1 and A2 levels for this kind of listening suggests that the authors could find none in the materials they analysed.
Neither translation nor interpretation are thoroughly analysed in the CEFR. The term ‘translation’ appears in the index with only one page reference and ‘interpretation’ does not appear at all. The definitions in the text are simplistic:
Translation: the user/ learner receives a text from a speaker or writer who is not present, in one language or code (Lx) and produces a parallel text in a different language or code (Ly) to be received by another person as listener or reader at a distance (…) Notice here the reference to code. It is important that language learners do not think that languages are codes, where meaning can easily be transferred from one code to another. I shall come back to this below.

It is in the definition of interpretation that there is a reference to being a intermediary; here it simply means transferring meaning. Later I will suggest it is more than this: Interpretation: The user/ learner acts as an intermediary in a face-to-face interaction between two interlocutors who do not share the same language or code, receiving a text in one language (Lx) and producing a corresponding text in the other (Ly).

Ibid: 99 – my emphasis
We know from Hoffman and Winch that a ‘parallel’ or ‘corresponding’ text is a terminology which hides many complexities. Other references throughout the CEFR reveal that translation is understood in ways familiar to language teachers, referring to ‘translation of example sentences’ or ‘translation equivalence’, for example. Translators would probably find these references simplistic even without taking into consideration what Winch and Hoffmann have described. ‘Interpretation’ as an activity is not discussed in any detail in the CEFR.
I do not want to imply that the authors of the CEFR were naïve about translation or interpretation. I am simply saying that these activities are under-emphasised. This may be because they wished to avoid any suggestion that a ‘grammar/ translation’ method of teaching languages is acceptable. A ‘communicative’ approach is dominant and is an implicit rejection of the grammar translation method which was and is widely castigated as an unsuccessful and undesirable method in language teaching.

Before simply accepting the usual criticism of the ‘grammar-translation method’, let us stop and consider its purposes and whether it was and is ‘fit for purpose’. The criticisms of grammar-translation usually hinge on the fact that it gives little or no attention to communication and in particular to speaking and listening. This criticism assumes that the purpose of language teaching is to enable learners to communicate either with native speakers or with other users of a language. This seems obvious, but in fact it was not the purpose of grammar-translation. The purpose of this method was to train the faculties of the mind – when such terminology was appropriate – and to expose learners to education through the study of canonical texts. Learners became literary scholars and literary critics.

In my experience both as a learners and a teacher in schools from the 1950s to the 1980s in England, grammar translation was combined with communicative methods. Communicative methods were used with beginners and intermediate students and grammar translation was used with advanced students. Communicative methods trained learners in skills of communication, and grammar translation challenged their thinking and educated them through study of language and canonical literature. In one lesson I would be using communicative approaches with 13 year olds, and in the next lesson I would be reading Goethe or Molière with 18 year olds. I think both were ‘fit for purpose’. Each had a different purpose and each needs to be judged on its purpose. It would be wrong to criticise communicative methods for not challenging learners’ thinking about the social and personal issues they found in Molière or the intellectual demands of linguistic analysis. It would also be wrong to criticize grammar-translation for not developing communicative skills. In practice when we taught grammar translation we tried to introduce communicative skills too and as time passed the compromise became stronger and the intellectual challenge perhaps became weaker whist the communicative skills became stronger.

This is not the moment to pursue this in detail but my point is that there has been some confused thinking about grammar translation which has also affected out thinking about teaching translation itself.

Teaching translation
It is unfortunately true that translation was used in the grammar translation method as means of teaching and testing understanding of grammatical rules. The rule is given and then a sentence exemplifying the rule has to be translated into the target language. It was also used to test understanding of a written text, with a literal translation being required to demonstrate understanding. This leads to understanding in a cultural and situational vacuum, whereas rich translation pre-supposes an understanding of the values, beliefs and behaviours – the culture – behind a text and the translator may have to explain all this as part of the translation process. To produce an annotated translation is a more challenging task than to produce a literal translation.
There is a hint of the focus on form and on literal translation in the description of translation I quoted earlier from the CEFR, in the references to translation being a matter of finding a ‘corresponding’ or ‘parallel’ text. This is not sufficiently refined and would not serve as a basis for teaching translation.
If translation is to be taught then it should be when learners are at a relatively advanced level linguistically and in terms of maturity. The purpose would not be to make them professional translators but the challenge of translating is an educational experience.

I am an amateur here but I can give one example. When teaching translation to my students in an upper secondary school, I used a simple descriptive text which was translated from English into French, from French into German, from German into Spanish and then from Spanish into English. (other combinations could be used; these were simply the languages we had in my school). The students compared the original English text and the one which appeared at the end of the process. They discovered that even in a simple description the final text was not the same as the original. It demonstrated to them that there is no one-to-one relationship between languages, that one language is not simply a code of the other, as many of them believed. This simple exercise was not enough to change their understanding of language and translation but it was a start.

Perhaps there are people in the audience who are translators and others who are teachers and perhaps there is an opportunity for cooperation here.

Mediation and the intercultural speaker
Let me now turn to the second key word in my title: mediation.
Returning to the CEFR and the question of levels and dscriptors, ‘Mediating’ activities are considered to be communicative activities but there are no descriptors at all, presumably because no examinations pay attention to mediating. Mediation is nonetheless an activity which is given much prominence throughout the CEFR and is linked throughout with translation and interpretation: In mediating activities, the language user is not concerned to express his/her own meanings, but simply to act as an intermediary between interlocutors (…). Examples of mediating activities include spoken interpretation and written translation as well as summarising and paraphrasing texts in the same language, when the language of the original text is not understandable to the intended recipient. (Council of Europe, 2001: 87).

This implies that mediation is synonymous with translation and interpretation, and that mediation is simply a matter of transferring meanings. Interestingly, at this point in the text, the definition is extended to mediation within the same language, whereas elsewhere in the text there is only reference to translation and interpretation between two different languages.

Whether between languages or within a language, I think mediation is something different from translation and interpretation, and the key phrase I would like to introduce here is that of "the intercultural speaker".
The phrase ‘intercultural speaker’ was coined by Geneviève Zarate and myself in a working paper written for a group preparing the CEFR (1994 and 1997). In that paper, we attempted to refine what in CoE papers (e.g. van Ek, 1986) was called ‘sociocultural competence’. We did so by defining four dimensions of knowledge, skills and attitudes (four savoirs).
In 1997, I published a monograph, Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, which built on but modified substantially the earlier Council of Europe paper. During this whole process, the phrase ‘intercultural speaker’ was coined to emphasise that language teaching does not have to take the native speaker as a model, and indeed should not do so when teaching intercultural skills and knowledge.

The original four ‘savoirs’ included the notion of bringing cultures into a relationship of comparison. This is taken up in the CEFR in a description of ‘intercultural skills’, and again the CEFR refers to the role of intermediary as it does when speaking of translation. Intercultural skills involve: the ability to bring the culture of origin and the foreign culture into relation with each other (…) the capacity (…) to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations CEFR p104-5
This is reminiscent of what Winch and Hoffmann describe. What Winch and Hoffmann emphasise is that comparison is an aid to understanding but the CEFR adds to this the idea of conflict resolution. However, this idea is not pursued in the CEFR. If it were I think we would find ourselves moving from descriptions of skills to descriptions of intellectual challenge, the challenge that was at the heart of grammar translation methodology. This is in my view a weakness of the CEFR, that it does not locate language teaching and learning in a sufficiently explicit way in a broader educational perspective, and this is why I proposed in 1997 an emphasis on the pedagogical purposes of foreign language teaching in obligatory education.
I introduced a ‘fifth savoir’, referred to in English as ‘critical cultural awareness’, and in French as ‘savoir s’engager’. It is compared to the purposes of ‘politische Bildung’ in the (West) German educational tradition with its aim of encouraging learners to reflect critically on the values, beliefs and behaviours of their own society. In foreign language education, this is done through a comparative study of other societies.

The definition of savoir s’engager is: an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries.

This definition involves a number of assumptions but its main focus on ‘ability’ to realise some activity is part of defining intercultural competence as abilities, knowledge and dispositions. The choice of the phrase ‘savoir s’engager’, with connotations of political engagement, was deliberate, and I have expanded this more recently but won’t have time to talk about it today (Byram, 2008).

The original coining of the phrase ‘intercultural speaker’ was a deliberate attempt to distance the notion of intercultural competence from the cultural competences of a native speaker. Zarate’s work has taken it forward in her vision of the language learner as someone ‘between’ / ‘entre deux’, emblematic of the conditions of many people in post modernity, whose identities and identifications are far less simple than those promoted by identification with nation-states (Zarate, 2003), the sort of person described by Ewa Hoffmann. This has sometimes led to the substitution of ‘intercultural mediator’ for ‘intercultural speaker’.

‘Intercultural speaker’ can thus be used in a minimalist way simply to refer to someone who has some or all of the five savoirs of intercultural competence to some degree. Learners can use these competences in many contexts; for example, in periods of residence in another country, in interactions with people of other social groups in their own country, in their daily experience of hybridity of cultures, which are not simply a product of post-modernity. This usage emphasises the differences from the cultural competences of a native speaker. It reminds teachers and learners of the educational aims and objectives of foreign language teaching.

‘Intercultural competence’ can also be interpreted in a more complex way, where people can draw on their competences to act as intermediaries and in the resolution of conflicting understandings.
I think it is time for an example. In a series of lessons in an upper secondary school, learners had studied education in France and compared it with education in England, particularly education for their own age group, using one school as a case study and avoiding over-generalisation and stereotyping. The focus was not only on the foreign country but also on their own and how people from France might see England and perhaps find it difficult to understand. The values beliefs and behaviours in upper secondary education in England and France are both different and similar. They had studied for example the differences in the social networks students in a French lycée have and their own networks - today this would include things like ‘Facebook’. They had also studied the structure of authority in the two kinds of school, finding differences in the hierarchies. All this had been done with data collected in the field using ethnographic methods. We then needed to find ways of assessing how well students had understood all this and in particular whether they could act as mediators between the two.

The task we gave students was a role play:
- imagine you are hosting a young French female student of your own age in an exchange
- as part of the exchange every year French students accompany their hosts to school
- your mother has received a letter from the headteacher of the school saying that due to the fact that last year some of the French students wore inappropriate clothes when they attended the school, he wants them this year to wear the school uniform
- you have to explain this to your French guest, in French; your French guest refuses to wear a uniform and wants to wear their jeans and fashionable clothes
- your mother insists that the headteacher’s letter must be followed and she has found suitable clothes for your guest
- it is your task to interpret…..
The mother and guest are played by teachers or language assistants and they can make the task more or less difficult by the degree of compromise they are willing to accept. Each student who is carrying out the task is videoed and then asked to comment on what they said and did whilst watching the playback.
The assessment is based on both their actual performance and their explanation of their decisions and what they said in the commentary afterwards.
This is what I mean by mediation and this is something which requires both language skills and the other dimensions of intercultural competence. It is also intellectually demanding, requiring the deeper understanding not only of another culture but also of one’s own. For example, it may be the first time that the English student has thought about the reason for school uniform and how this can be explained to someone who has no concept of school uniform. Whatever the situation, there will be a challenge to the assumed and unquestioned values of one’s own society.
In other words, the learners could be successful only if they had two kinds of competence, a communicative competence in the foreign language, and intercultural competence, that is an ability to analyse and reflect upon the relationships between two ways of doing things in two different countries. This is a matter both of skills and of values.


I said at the beginning that you would hear something of my argument that language teaching should pay attention to educational values as well as to communicative skills.

My conclusion is related to this, and is quite simple. There is no contradiction between teaching learners skills and educating them about values in their own and others' lives. But I have emphasised in my talk the importance of translation and mediation as ways of looking at the relationship between communicative skills and the challenge of understanding. Perhaps I can add to the title of the conference another word, and say that cultures can and should be translated but also mediated.


Alred, G., Byram, M. and Fleming, M. 2006, Education for intercultural citizenship. Concepts and comparisons. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Byram, M. 2008, From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Byram, M. and Zarate, G. 1994, Definitions, objectives and assessment of socio-cultural competence. (CC-LANG (94) 1) Council of Europe: Strasbourg
Byram, M. and Zarate, G. 1997, “Defining and assessing intercultural competence: some principles and proposals for the European context” Language Teaching 29, 14-18
Council of Europe 2001, Common European framework of reference for languages: learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Fox, K. 2004. Watching the English London: Hodder.
Hoffman, E. 1989, Lost in Translation. A life in a new language. New York: Penguin Books.
Winch, P. 1964, Understanding a primitive society. American Philosophical Quarterly 1, 4, 307-24.
Le Wita, B. 1988, Ni vue ni connue: approche ethnographique de la culture bourgeoise. Paris: Fomndation de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme
Le Wita, B. 1994, French Bourgeois Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Van Ek, J. 1986, Objectives for foreign language learning, Vol 1: Scope. Strasbourg: Council of Europe
Zarate, G. 2003, Identities and plurilingualism: preconditions for the recognition of intercultural competences. In M. Byram (ed.) Intercultural Competence Strasbourg: Council of Europe

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