Chinese translation in an hour – but you have to be a kid to do it…

By Nicky Harman, published

While I was Translator-in-Residence at the Free Word Centre at the end of 2011, I was asked to incorporate some translation activities for children. Easier said than done. I’d never taught children and I had none of those indispensible contacts in local schools. To cut a very long story short (and six months must surely be the world’s longest lesson preparation time), I ended up in a secondary school on the southern outskirts of London at some ungodly hour of a January morning this year, clutching a DVD of a version of Monkey aka Journey to the West and (at the teacher’s request) the whole text of my chosen 7-minute clip written out in pinyin.

It happened to be a school where Chinese is taught up to GCSE exam level – also, they knew all about Monkey and had seen it performed in London. With each class, I introduced the historical background of the real Tripitaka/Xuan Zang and then played a short episode. We practiced some easy characters and spoken phrases and I ended by re-playing it with the English subtitles so they could read the bits they’d missed. Piece of cake really… Lovely kids who all loved my favourite cartoon film. Sadly, there was no time for creative re-writes.

And then, this morning, it was in at the deep end: I did two classes using the same clip at a comprehensive school near my home in Weymouth, Dorset, far, far away from the multi-cultural city lights of London. The kids, 14-year-olds, knew no Chinese though one lot were studying German and the other lot Spanish. None of them had even heard of the Monkey story either. Ooops…

I did my historical introduction to the story, with Powerpoint, and was pleased when they spotted the characters for ‘two’ and ‘three’ from the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra as soon as I told them ‘’. Then, before I played the clip, I fed them the line that some translation is inspired guesswork and that, by the end of an hour, they’d be able to understand it with a bit of help from me, and be able to ‘translate’ too.

I was certainly impressed at how accurate their guessing was. But getting them to describe Monkey, Sandy, Pigsy and Xuan Zang with a choice adjective or two was a little sticky. I expected wily/cheeky/greedy/naïve etcetera. I got, from one kid in the first class (the only one prepared to venture an opinion) ‘weird’ – and he meant the whole cartoon. Hmmm, …. Monkey hadn’t made a hit there then. On the other hand, the very same class, at the end of an hour, had learned and could repeat without prompting nearly a dozen words and phrases culled from the film, with the right tones, dammit. The second class took to Chinese with enthusiasm, making connections with the film Karate Kid, the martial arts lessons they’d done, the menus they’d seen at their local Chinese restaurant. Too bad the school is not about to teach mandarin. They might have had some takers.

Note to self: for xxx’s sake, make sure the technology works! How embarrassing not be able to start the session because the Windows Media Player slider wouldn’t work and I couldn’t get to the right point in the DVD. The kids were very forgiving, however, and it’s a nice feeling when one of them gets up and comes and sorts it for you in an instant…


# 1.   

Sounds like a great attempt. The problem with lessons that try to unleash kids' creativity is that you have to be a really skilled teacher to actually tease creativity out of them (sometimes - sometimes it goes like a dream, but when it doesn't you're left standing there with half an hour they were supposed to fill up with their imagination).

Phil Hand, May 8, 2012, 8:36a.m.


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