Using parallel texts to study a foreign language

By | November 4, 2015

In a recent post of mine about suggestions for increasing reading speed in a foreign language, a reader commented about how using parallel texts in two languages (your native language and the one you are studying) is another helpful technique.

Surely, using parallel texts is a valuable tool, and it’s pretty easy to do this by purchasing two versions of a novel, one in each language. I’ve used this technique myself a handful of times, but eventually realized that it was not really helping me in the way that I had expected. There are a few things to keep in mind when studying using this method.

One of the fundamental issues I see is that it’s very likely that one of the works was translated by a different person than the author (although I imagine there may be a handful of authors who do their own translations). From what I’ve seen most translators of well-selling novels are people with pretty solid credentials.  They probably have gotten a degree in a related field and have done a great deal of translation before. However, even if we assume the translator is an experienced professional and doesn’t make mistakes, there will be a certain amount of interpretation going on. The translator could talk with the author to clarify some points to make sure things get conveyed properly, but I am not sure to what extent that is done in practice.

One experiment you can try is searching out two versions of the same novel, translated by two different people into the same language. I haven’t tried this personally but I have a feeling you’d be surprised by some of the differences you see. After all translation, like the writing process itself, is part art, part science.

Ultimately, I think the utility you’ll get from studying parallel texts depends on your goals and ability. If you already have a very good grasp of the language’s fundamentals (say, several years of serious study) and are aiming to become a translator, parallel texts can really show you how a pro translator thinks and give you pointers for your own translations. If you can get a book in the same genre or subject matter, even better. Here, the student is studying at a higher level where subtle nuances are more important than nitty-gritty grammar details.

But if you are still at the level where you are frequently looking up meaning of words, and there are many grammar patterns you haven’t seen before, parallel text study may not be the best thing for you. One reason is that the more complex the sentence, the more you will have to work backwards and see how each word ended up in the translated text. Unravelling these puzzles can be a time-consuming process, and I am not sure if it is always worth it.

Another thing about this practice is that it encourages you to think in your native language which is something you generally want to get away from. If someone tells me “分かった” means “I get it”, then I may very well keep that association in my head for some time. Eventually, experience will fill enrich your knowledge of that expression and the English phrase “I get it” will be gradually forgotten, but regardless there is a crutch that has been created. Beginners often have no choice but to look up words in a dictionary frequently, but the faster you can learn to start honing your skill to figure out a meaning of a word or phrase when there is some unknown element(s) to it, the faster you will be to fluency.

In my opinion, good quality translations are at the sentence, or even paragraph level, so if you try to map word-by-word sometimes you will get misled about a word’s meaning. Recently I came across a phrase written in English and translated to Japanese, and even though the resultant sentence captured the same overall meaning, one of the individual words didn’t match up perfectly with the other. So if a student tries to learn individual words this way it can cause misunderstandings which actually slow down your growth.

To be honest, some of my negative feelings towards studying with parallel translations came from the time time I tried to compare the English and Japanese versions of The Quantum Thief, one of my favorite Sci-Fi books in recent history. Even though I really enjoyed both the story and writing style of the original (English), when I tried to read the first chapter of the Japanese version things just felt really awkward. I understood much of the Japanese, but the tone was so different it just caught me off guard. I know that much of this is probably due to my lack of native-level sensibility regarding nuances of Japanese, but the end result was that I just ended up feeling confused and didn’t really learn much concrete from the experience. (Note: I had read the first chapter of the Japanese version from online somewhere. I don’t have the link at the moment, but if you are interested let me know).

I’m a major proponent of immersion language learning, where one puts themselves in an environment that exposes them to as much of that language possible, even if much of it is incomprehensible at first. Overuse of parallel texts feels like the polar opposite of this – it’s like saying you are immersing yourself in a foreign country where all you hear is that country’s language 24×7, but you have a translator you can use at any time to convert to your native language. In some ways it’s like watching a foreign language TV show with subtitles, another practice I generally try to stay away from.

So when all is said and done, I’m not going to say to anyone to completely avoid using parallel texts to improve their understanding of a foreign language. Just be aware of what you can and cannot learn using this method, and think about whether it’s really the most efficient way to achieve your current linguistic goals. If you do choose to use this study technique, try to choose books whose reading level isn’t too difficult, where there is less change of running into complex grammar. Also try referring to the native language text only when you are really confused about a sentence, as opposed to going line-by-line for the whole thing. That way, it’s more like a hint that gets you on the right track so you can re-read the foreign language text and say “oh, that’s what it means”.  Even so, knowing you have the answer key right in front of you makes it harder to really do your best in trying to comprehend what each sentence means.

As an alternative, I recommend finding books out there that contain translators notes, including descriptions of tricky passages. Here is one I read sometime back which was quite educational. These are pretty rare (at least for Japanese), so I would read any you can get your hands one.




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