To Translate or not to Translate… Should you translate your parent feedback?
On the Hutong or VIPKID Facebook groups, I often see the question, “Should I translate my parent feedback into Chinese and then back into English?” Writing quality parent feedback can take a lot of time (Although, it doesn’t have to! Hello, Feedback Panda!), so of course teachers want parents to actually be able to understand it. Since some Chinese parents don’t speak much English, teachers worry about offending them or having parts of their feedback translated the wrong way. Many teachers think that by translating their feedback into Chinese and then translating it back into English, they fix the possible translation errors and make it as clear as possible for the parents.
An example that comes to mind is the use of the word, “silly.” If you use the word “silly,” it will translate as “stupid” into Chinese. You would never know this unless you translated your feedback. Luckily, now VIPKID will actually flag words that could be potentially troublesome in the translation.
Good In Theory; Bad in Practice
In theory, translating feedback might like a good idea, but it does pose quite a few problems. I am of the opinion, “No, don’t do it.” For what it’s worth, I feel like you are opening a can of proverbial worms and, no matter how much time you spend trying to tweak the translation, it is never going to translate perfectly.
We are cogs in an imperfect system. Part of the joy (and frustration) is that we English speakers are trying to communicate with Chinese speaking parents and VIPKID staff members. I don’t speak Chinese and, I know most teacher don’t, so we rely on online translation programs like Google Translate. They work for the most part, but there is no such thing as being able to translate a sentence perfectly between two languages.
I actually really enjoy seeing how things translate from Chinese into English and English into Chinese. I recently received this feedback from a parent, and I enjoyed it mostly because of how it sounded when it was translated into English:
I loved that I was called “the old Caryn EU teacher’s class.” I am not old, or at least I don’t think so, but it made me smile because I am sure that’s not how it translates in Chinese.
Denotation vs. Connotation
Translation is a really tricky process, especially when you have two languages that are so completely different like English and Chinese. First of all, English uses a Greco-Roman script and Chinese uses a character writing system. Right off the bat, this creates all sorts of translation issues. Even more importantly, words not only have a denotation (dictionary definition) but a connotation as well.
Connotation is the emotional meaning behind a word, and it’s really important to consider when choosing your words. For example, take the word “fat.” This is a really loaded word in our society. There are many words which have the same or similar denotation as “fat” but have vastly different connotations. The words “curvy,” “thick,” and “chubby” all have a fairly positive connotations. On the other hand, words like “obese,” “overweight,” and “bulky” do not have positive connotations. Imagine if you mixed up words with the wrong connotation. It would be a complete disaster!
If my husband tells me he loves how curvy I am, I will most likely be flattered, but if he says, “I love how obese you are,” I would probably punch him in the face. See? Connotation matters.
Learning the connotation of words only comes with exposure and practice with the language. It takes many second language learners years to fully master connotation. Unfortunately, Google Translate does not understand or take connotation into consideration when translating a text. Even if you spend hours tweaking your feedback with translators, you still have no guarantee that the connotation of the words will be correct. And how would you even know if you aren’t fluent in both English and Chinese? You just can’t.
In the end, I think the process of translating back and forth becomes like the game, Telephone. With Telephone, one child starts with a sentence like, “Sally eats ice cream for breakfast” and, by the time it gets whispered to the last child, it has become, “Fally beats ice cream of breakfast.” Personally, when I have played around with translating feedback, I found that when I fixed one translation error, five more pop up. It becomes never ending and can really take a ton of time. This ends up creating more issues than it solves.
How can you make parents understand what you are trying to say?
First of all, VIPKID is aware of the issues with translation. Recently, they have started flagging words in feedback that can cause problems like “silly.” But, I think rather than translating, it’s better to keep your sentence structure simple and to the point. Avoid idiomatic and figurative language. This type of language will definitely not translate well. Furthermore, I try to alway use the same basic format for my templates. This way, the parents already know kind of what to expect, and I think having consistency helps with comprehension. I even wonder if the Learning Partners will explain feedback if it doesn’t clearly translate.
In the end, it comes down to personal choice and how long you are willing to spend on writing feedback. I think if you are really worried about how your feedback might translate, check a word or phrase here and there in Google Translate, but, be aware, even that might not work completely. When in doubt, if you are trying to say something that could be taken the wrong way or be translated incorrectly, send a ticket to the Learning Partner and have them share the information with the parent.
To be completely honestly, I never translate my templates. I try not to worry too much about it. If I stressed over every little part of VIPKID, I would be an emotional wreck. You have to pick and choose your battles and translating feedback into Chinese is not one I choose to fight.
Teacher Caryn EU