Developing critical thinking in literary translation course

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

Gersonskaya Valentina, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan
Tretyakov Roman , Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

Developing highly qualified, competitive human capital is one of the priorities in the Kazakhstan national development strategy [1]. Indeed, knowledgeable people with critical thinking are indispensable in the development of sustainable society as working diligently to develop the intellectual virtues, trying to improve their reasoning abilities they strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can, contributing to a more civilized society [2].

Critical thinking, generally defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought which are implicit in all reasoning (i.e. purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference[2].It is not an inborn ability and not all people can be equally good at it but a number of scientists (Linda Elder, Richard Paul, Edward M. Glaser) state that if a person is properly trained to do critical thinking, he is able to gather and assess relevant information, to deduce consequences from it, to think open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, to formulate vital questions precisely, to communicate effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems [2, 3].

Critical thinking as a most essential intellectual ability has never been underestimated by Kazakhstan educators and intellectual skills, based on it, are always mentioned in Kazakhstan State Educational Standards of Secondary and Higher education as requirements for graduates. However, teachers of secondary and higher educational institutions note that in the recent years students’ intellectual abilities, including critical thinking have worsened. Entering a university, many students prefer relying on “gut feelings” than thinking the problem over and over again, do not review their mistakes and avoid challenging tasks which require problem solving skills. To improve the quality of higher education university courses are to be designed in such a way that they may gradually develop critical thinking in students. In the article we are considering development of critical thinking in the Literary Translation course which is designed for students of Translation Studies major.

Translation is a challenging activity as it requires excellent comprehension abilities, an ability to recognize problems and to find workable means for meeting them, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations. The work is always closely connected to the thinking in a special, intricate way. Here we are talking about situations which are to be dealt in an instant way while interpreting – especially interpreting. A skilled interpreter is a person who catches the word flow, submerges in it, understands and transmits it in an appropriate way, converting it to another language, which is clear for the second party and then – the same process in the opposite direction. A good interpreter should be able to study by himself and for this purpose seek relevant sources of information. All the above-mentioned skills are, in fact, manifestation of well-developed critical thinking.

Developed critical thinking is presupposed in the requirements of the State Obligatory Educational Standard (SOES) of the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK) dd. 2006 for the undergraduate program in Translation Studies [4]. The program graduates should be able not only to translate texts of a certain subject area but are to understand the basic concepts of cross-cultural communication, social, natural sciences, and special linguistic disciplines; are to know the ways of state development, main points of economic laws, historical variety of cultures, history, culture, language, and religion of the country studied. They are to speak foreign languages fluently, to be able to work with given information, to translate written or oral texts; to work in different spheres such as: administrative and managerial, educational and scientific, cultural and cross-cultural communication, international relationships, publishing, mass media, information-analytical, industrial [4]. These duties surmise an ability of performing the translation of different genres of texts and documents, interpretation of negotiations, international meetings and conferences, editing, translation, compilation of various written texts, etc.

The Translation Studies curriculums supposed to give those skills. However, the analysis of the content of the Standard Program for 050207 – Translation Studies specialty [5] makes us note that, unfortunately, most of the courses of the curriculum are focused on language and translation theory which is, indeed, important for a university graduate but is not enough for a future interpreter who should have well-developed problem solving skills and critical thinking, in general. Even translation courses are mainly focused on training how to deal with certain groups of words or grammatical structures. It is, obviously, helpful for making students remember some translation rules, but it does not teach them to think in an “unaccustomed” way which may be helpful for them in their future professional activity.

Nevertheless, there is one course that actually meets the case. Whereas other translation courses are focused on informative texts where words are mainly used in their primary meaning and the essence of translation is to render information of the original text with minimal changes, Literary Translation teaches students how to work with literary prose, drama and poetry, that is, texts where “form” dominates over “content”. Literary translation has strongly marked specification of texts, which obliges one to think critically, while translation of informative texts requires having a general idea of a particular theme. One can obtain great knowledge in different spheres of life, but when dealing with texts for literary translation, words are not as important as they seem. Word is just a symbol, a “tool” for creating associations. That is why, without proper training, many students misunderstand literary texts and translating them apply approaches used in informative and technical translation.

The ability of a translator to read and convert literary text into another language, to understand its deeper meaning depends primarily on emotional intelligence. The projection of the original text, which is the result of translation, in psychology is treated as comprehension and generation of values, which consists in the subject’s conscious and unconscious transference to its properties, conditions to external objects. This is a creative process which is under the influence of dominant powers, purposes and values of the subject.

Thus, the Literary Translation course has appeared to be perfect for developing critical thinking which is predetermined by the nature of literary texts. As they are form-oriented, not the exact words and their arrangement used to express a certain idea is essential but the image these words create and the function these elements in the text [6]. Consequently, in literary translation there are not many rules and limitations so, translation of a sentence or a text when a translator has to see “between the lines”, to restore the situation, the exposition, the author’s idea is always challenging and requires critical thinking. Realizing that students taking the course are not, as a rule, well-developed critical thinkers we base our course on the following principles:

- The course should be consistent and logical;

- Students should be aware of what they do;

- Theory should be always connected with practice;

- Any literary text can be translated;

- Students should be able to visualize a translated text;

- There should be constant feedback;

- There are always several correct variants;

- Analysis should be done during any work with a literary text.

Consistency and logicality of the course is achieved by its structure when the themes and texts are interconnected and arranged in such a way that more complicated material goes after a simpler one [7]. It concerns critical thinking development as well. At the beginning of the course students analyze sentences and are given exact directions what they should seek for (e.g. Studying graphical expressive means they are told to find graphons in sentences and define their functions). Then they have to analyze sentences to find all stylistically colored elements and, finally, they do analysis of literary texts, making conclusions about expressive elements of the text at all levels, their interconnections and functions, images created, the message of the text and its style.

Critical thinking development can be demonstrated by the example of work at rendering the idiolect of a literary character. This issue is one of the most challenging ones in the course as students who have some idea of expressive means and stylistic devices from the school Russian literature course, do not know what “idiolect” is, often treat idiolect binary as tautology which is inadmissible in Russian classical literature and, as a result, do not render speech characteristics properly [8]. Giving some basics of idiolect components, we start with the analysis of sentences on the phonetic, grammatical, lexical levels, asking students to define emotions and style. Analyzing literary texts, we start with an extract from the chapter “A Knife in the Dark” (J.R.R. Tolkien “The Lord of the Rings”), where the characters do not speak much, with the task just to define and render the style of each character in general, then take texts with a narrator (J.D. Salinger “The Catcher in the Rye”, Evelyn Waugh “Cruise”) and students have not to define the style but prove their conclusion with the results of the text analysis. Finally, students have to deal with challenging texts where personages are characterized through speech (e.g. Ch. I, Volume I, Jane Austin “Pride and Prejudice”, dialogue of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet). They are not just to define the style and general speech characteristics but make a well-grounded conclusion about the character of a personage and his emotions.

The principles of “awareness” and “connection of theory and practice” are interconnected as, although the course presupposes creativity, still there are some general rules to follow and translation practice of rendering some language elements. After some theory and training usual ways of rendering a language element, some sentences with elements which cannot be translated according to the rules are given, i.e. after training to render individual peculiarities of speech, foreign accent, dialect, manner of speech (translation variants are discussed), students are given the task to translate the sentence:

He began to render the famous tune "I lost my heart in an English garden, Just where the roses of England grow" with much feeling:

"Ah-ee last mah-ee hawrt een ahn Angleesh gawrden, Jost whahr thah rawzaz ahv Angland graw" [9].

which shows the individual manner of singing a song (translation of songs has not been shown), and comment on their variant of translation.

Developing critical thinking is hard but necessary so students should be motivated to translate a literary text no matter how difficult and untranslatable it may seem. We normally illustrate the idea with the dialogue of two Scottish farmers at the market (speaking English):

- ‘oo’?

- ‘oo’.

- a’’ ‘oo’?

- ‘e’, a’’ ‘’oo’.

At first students state that the dialogue cannot be translated but when we start asking questions about the situation, the participants of the communication, the possible peculiarities of Scottish accent, writing down ideas on the whiteboard, they gradually understand the essence of the dialogue and cope with the translation. Visualization is, indeed, a good tool in teaching critical thinking. In literary translation it helps better comprehend the text and avoid mistakes and illogicalities.

Students should get constant feedback no matter what they are doing not only from the teacher but from other students. Debates and discussions motivate critical thinking. And here Literary Translation has a great advantage over other courses because most students are intimidated when they are asked to express their opinion or translate something as they are afraid that they will make a mistake and be criticized. Unlike in other courses, in Literary Translation all variants that render the main idea, style and function of a text can be considered adequate. Though if during translation a text has been transformed greatly the student-translator has to explain why he has changed the text and prove that he is right. In general, all translation variants that render the sense are analyzed, discussed and improved by the group.

In fact, analysis which is not only the main “tool” for developing critical thinking but also for adequate text comprehension , is used in all Literary Translation activities: pre-translation analysis of texts and sentences, comparative analysis of original and translated texts, etc.

On the completion of the course students, as a rule, better comprehend texts as they are trained enough to see interconnections in the text and can single out language elements which should be most accurately translated, have a better feeling of style and language, are more flexible in choosing variants of translation, know how to work with different dictionaries and reference books and more motivated to do challenging tasks. We are coming to the conclusion that critical thinking is not just important as an intellectual ability, but it is a means of making any academic course more interesting and effective.


1. Official site of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, from

2. Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2008) The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

3. Glaser, E. M. (1941) An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University. //

4. Ìinistry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (2006). State Obligatory Educational Standard (SOES) of the Republic of Kazakhstan dd. 2006 for profession 050207 – Translation Studies. Astana: Ìinistry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

5. Ìinistry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (2007). Standard Program for profession 050207 – Translation Studies. Almaty: Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

6. Popovich, A. (1980) Literary Translation Problems. Moscow: Vysshaya Shkola.

7. Author, V.V. Modification of the state standard in the development of the literary translation course// Vestnik Kazakhstansko-Amerikanskogo Svobodnogo Universiteta, ¹2, General problems of philology (2010, p. 64-69)

8. Author, V.V. Pre-translation text analysis of the text. (thesis)//The Innovation in education: international partnerships and perspective technologies international scientific conference. Ust-Kamenogorsk, KAFU (2009, p. 151-154)

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

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