Word for Word

There are language courses that warn their readers never to translate word for word. The reasoning is that since languages don’t always translate word for word, you would not be learning your new language properly. So, when an English-speaking student sees the Japanese sentence, “Watashi wa amerikajin desu,” he or she should translate it as, “I am an American.” After all, that is what it means.

Unfortunately, there are three reasons that make it absolutely necessary to learn a language word for word. First, we learn vocabulary within the contexts of phrases and sentences. That means we must know what each word or lexical unit in a sentence means if we are to use those same units in other contexts. If I don’t translate “Watashi wa amerikajin desu” word for word, I will assume that “Watashi” means “I,” “wa” means “am,” “amerikajin” means “an,” and “desu” means “American.” In fact, “Watashi” does mean “I,” but that’s the only one I got right. I need to know much more than the mere meaning of the sentence in my native language.

I need to know that “wa” is a topic marker that is not translated into English, but means something like “As for.” “Watashi wa” means “As for me” (literally: I/ as for). It’s pretty clear that “amerikajin” is the word here that refers to the English word “American,” but it actually refers to an American person, i.e. “an American.” “Amerika” means “America” and “jin” adds the meaning of person. “Desu” is the Japanese equivalent of “is,” “am,” or “are.” So our literal translation is: I / as for / an American / am. It would be translated: “As for me, I am an American.” The final, idiomatic translation would be: “I am an American,” “I am American,” or “I’m American.”

The second reason that we always need word for word translations is that they provide us with insight into how the native speakers of a language think about the world we share and how they express their ideas about it. When I speak any language other than my native English, I don’t first think of the English sentence, then translate. I think of the words in the order that a native speaker would use to construct the sentence. It’s even helpful to think of the words you would use in your native language in the word order of the language you’re learning. This will help you develop a feel for putting sentences together naturally and easily in your new language. Ultimately, I say what I have to say without recourse to my native language. In other words, I think in the other language. In fact, I develop a different speaking “personality” for each language so I can commit to speaking that language like a native speaker.

The third reason that word for word translation is essential is that it is simply impossible to actually acquire a language without it. Remember, when we say we “acquire” a language, we mean we gain the ability to speak it like a native. The native speaker of any language can tell you what virtually every word in his or her sentences means. This is not a coincidence. Word for word translation, i.e. knowing what every single word means, is an indispensable feature of the language acquisition process whether we are studying a second language, or learning our mother tongue.

by John DePonte

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