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Should You Translate From Your First Language When You Write in English?

Answering a question from a YouTube follower

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I’ve recently received this comment on one of my YouTube videos.

Hi Fabio! I’m Italian and I’ve got a question about improving writing in English. Were I to “think in English”, should I translate sentences or full articles from Italian or not? I love writing, when I write something I’m not capable of using simple grammar patterns though. I do usually think of using tricky structures such as inversion, cleft sentences etc or how to use punctuation in the right way as well. The final result is an unmitigated disaster.

Here’s what I replied.

***

So great to hear you love writing! I love it too. You say you can’t use simple grammar patterns. But you do need good grammar to write well. 

So I have a question for you: what’s one little thing you could start doing today to improve your written grammar? 

Translation

Some say you must avoid it at all costs. I disagree. But I wouldn’t recommend translating everything you put on the page. First, translation doesn’t always work because not everything is translatable. Second, relying heavily on translation will result in an Italian-looking text that will either make little sense or, worse, be incomprehensible in English. 

Imagine translating, “Io ho visto un bel film ieri” (I saw a nice movie yesterday). You’d be tempted to write “I have seen a nice movie yesterday” [I (io) have (ho) seen (visto) a (un) nice (bel) movie (film) yesterday (ieri)]. But you wouldn’t want to write that as your message would be unclear.

Tip: Write using the English you already know. Write using what you already have because you can’t use what you don’t have. But resort to translation when you can’t express a particular idea because you don’t have the right expression or grammar structure. 

Whether you like it or not, your first language is already there in your brain. Why not use it to make your life easier? I still use translation after many years of speaking, teaching and learning English. Shamelessly do that too if you find it useful.

Second tip: Work on expanding “the English you already have”.

“Tricky structures such as inversion, cleft sentences etc”

The simpler you write, the better. Don’t use “advanced grammar” (what’s “advanced grammar” by the way?) only because it’s in an “advanced grammar” book. Use inversion, cleft sentences and complex structures because those are the best possible tools to convey the idea you want to express. Language serves ideas, not the other way around.

“The final result is an unmitigated disaster.”

Welcome to the world of learning to write in your second language 🙂 Please don’t stop doing it if you love it! It’s all much easier than you think.

Thanks for this question. It got me writing! I hope my answer will inspire you to write too.

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