A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Translating and Learning to Write

Abhishek Bhaskar and Anchala Paliwal

The adequate development of writing skills is crucial not only for a student or an individual but also for the greater interest of society. While reading skills are largely understood as an integral aspect of an individual’s personality, the cultivation of writing skills remains neglected. The reasons for this may vary, from assuming all writing to be creative writing and therefore a natural talent, to the immensely prevalent methods of rote learning which have reduced the act of writing to merely copying. Also there is a wrong widespread conviction that writing skills are simply spoken communication “written down”. Such misunderstandings about writing have further distanced learners from even acknowledging the need to learn to write.

It is imperative to consider writing as a necessary skill which requires thinking, planning and editing. Among other aspects, vocabulary, punctuation, correct grammar usage, knowledge of syntax, spellings and composition of sentences into paragraphs are inseparable components of writing. Let us look at the pedagogy of writing skills. As Coe et al(1983) have identified in their book Writing Skills Teacher’s Book  that “learning by doing” (p. 2) is their preferred method of teaching writing. They add:

First, learners find that doing something (i.e. being relatively active) is more interesting than being told about it (i.e. being relatively passive). Second, if learners come to understand through using their own resources to solve problems, then their understanding will probably be more thorough, and they are more likely to retain what they have learnt. Third, it is only when learners put something into practise that any incorrect or imperfect learning is revealed, and it is revealed both to the learners themselves and to the teacher. (Coe et al, 1983, p. 2-3).

They successfully argue that writing can only be learned through repeated practice of writing exercises. However teachers routinely face resistance to writing exercises in the classroom on the part of the students. When asked to do a written exercise, students usually respond by stating that writing exercises should be given as home work; or that they are experiencing a “writer’s block” and do not wish to write. There is a psychological barrier associated with writing, which hinders them. This resistance declines once the process of writing, as broadly outlined in multiple writing manuals, is explained, which includes pre-writing exercises of thinking on the given topic, jotting down points, arranging these points in a sequence and then writing and if possible, editing. Students are pleased to find that their written work has a coherent structure and consistent meaning.

Teacher trainers frequently suggest two methods of inculcating and enhancing writing skills - free writing and collaborative writing. Free writing encourages learners to write whatever comes to their mind. It must be mentioned here that there should be no judgemental criticism of their writing in the first few instances. This is a useful first activity to make learners start writing. As mentioned earlier, learners generally suffer from low confidence; in order to overcome it a collaborative writing exercise can be conducted in the classroom. In this, learners exchange ideas in a group activity before selecting the appropriate words to articulate them. This enables peer learning and familiarizes them with the process of writing. In both these methods, the teacher can act as a facilitator.    

Learner resistance to writing is greatly magnified when it comes to second language acquisition and writing skills. Under confidence due to lack of exposure to the second language dominates the mind of the learner. Dana R. Ferris points out with regard to learners:

First, they are simultaneously acquiring both second language skills and writing/composition expertise. Further, compared with L1 writers, L2 students (in most instances) have not had equivalent amounts of exposure to spoken and written input in the L2. As a result, they are typically more limited in their knowledge and control of lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical tools to express their ideas effectively. Finally, L2 writers often have had little experience with producing (or even reading) extended pieces of L2 text, and thus lack fluency and confidence in their ability to write longer papers in academic or professional settings. (Ferris, 2012, p. 227)

L2 writing therefore becomes a more complex task and requires attention at multiple levels. As an area of expanding academic interest, Manchon and Matsuda (2016) point out that “L2 writing has evolved into a well-established interdisciplinary field of inquiry” (p. 1). Teaching English writing skills in Indian classrooms can be analysed in this broad framework. There is simultaneous learning of the second language as well as honing of writing skills. Neither can be limited to being a means to an end, in fact, both are intrinsically woven together.  

During second language acquisition, the first attempts at speaking and writing mainly comprise of unconscious translation from the learner’s first language into the second language. To comprehend this aspect of unconscious translation, an understanding of the process of translation is required. Bassnett notes in Translation Studies:

Translation Studies, therefore, is exploring new ground, bridging as it does the gap between the vast area of stylistics, literary history, linguistics, semiotics and aesthetics. But at the same time it must not be forgotten that this is a discipline firmly rooted in practical application. (Bassnett, 1980, p. 16)

Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi (1999) in Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice observe that “Translations are always embedded in cultural and political systems, and in history” (p. 6). Isadore Pinchuk (2007) in the essay “What is Translation?” emphasizes that “Translation is the transfer of meanings” (p. 6).

The process of translation is highly complex; it is much more than just looking for a substitute for a source language word in the target language. As Basnett and Trivedi have rightly pointed out, translations are highly embedded in cultural and political systems; a translator has to understand the implicit politics of SL and express it in the TL. Generally, a student of L2 unconsciously looks for a substitute of L1 to express himself. However, this hampers his eloquence in L2 because he merely looks for the substitute of L1’s signifier whereas what translation actually requires is the reflection of L1 in L2’s signifier. Let us consider the example of the word “water” and its equivalent in Hindi language i.e. “jal”, “neer” and “paani”. “Jal” is generally used for holy water, “neer” is used in poetry and “paani” denotes drinking water; the three are thus not synonymous but have a specific usage because the signified concepts attached to them are different. A translator has to therefore understand the dynamics of language which is intricately woven with cultural and political aspects to correctly present it in L2. When a speaker expresses L1 in L2, he has to first understand the layers of ideologies (political, cultural, etc.) and only then is true articulation in the new language possible.

As explained above, translation is a complicated process. It is not merely rendering substitute words from one language into another language as language is deeply embedded in its cultural, political and social context. For adult learners of L2, even a basic understanding of the process of translation can help them to appreciate the multiple aspects of language and not view it as just a means of communication. It also aids their manner of assimilating any language. However, this is not to suggest that an advanced level of perfection in translation is the goal of English language teaching in the Indian classroom. It is however proposed that an awareness of the process of translation may help L2 learners in grasping language and its articulation, thereby supporting their writing skills.    

So instead of considering translation as a hindrance to learning L2, it can be used as a learning experience about nature of language. It can broaden the learners’ understanding of language and its functioning. Language acquisition will be successful if it is accompanied by an understanding of various nuances of language, which in turn will affect both competence and fluency.

Teachers need to therefore look at the instinctive act of translation by the learner during the first few attempts at writing in L2 with a more evolved understanding of translating and writing. These attempts must not be arbitrarily rejected, but counted as a step towards language acquisition. Introducing the basic tenets of translation can be an enriching enterprise in an English language classroom. To be able to “think” in L2 can be an aim, and it can be useful if the method to achieve it incorporates translation.  In a country as diverse as India, learning to write in English will enhance the classroom experience if there is an array of words from indigenous languages that are included in the learning process. For the teacher also, the prospect of learning words from so many different languages could be an exciting one.    


Bassnett, S. (1980). Translation studies. London: Routledge.

Bassnett, S. & Trivedi, H. (Eds.). (1999). Post-colonial translation: Theory and practise. London: Routledge.

Coe, N., Rycroft, R. & Earnest, P. (1983). Writing skills: A problem-solving approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ferris, D. R. (2012). Writing instruction. In A. Burns & J. C. Richards (Eds.). The Cambridge guide to pedagogy and practise in second language teaching (p. 226-235). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Manchon, R. M. & Matsuda, P.K. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of second and foreign language writing. Boston: Walter de Gruyter Inc.

Pinchuk, I. (2007). What is translation? In R. Gargesh  & K. K. Goswami (Eds.). Translation and interpreting: Reader and workbook. (p.3-25). New Delhi: Orient Black Swan.


Anchala Paliwal and Abhishek Bhaskar are Assistant Professors in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. Their research interests include translation studies and English language teaching.