How teachers catch you using a translator

13 - caged animal

Como se siente tu profesor cuando cometes plagio (Photo credit: tourist_on_earth)

En mi salón de clases hay un cartel que trata de los buenos y responsables usos de la tecnología. Entre otras cosas, diceno usaré traductores y fingir que es mi propio trabajo (I will not use translators and pretend it is my own work)”.  Los estudiantes preguntan ¿porqué sería malo usar un traductor? Tengo que explicar que cuando recibes una nota en la clase de español por tu trabajo escrito, es deshonesto (¡y plagio!) usar el trabajo de otro y decir que vino de tu cabeza. Recibes la nota por tu conocimiento del idioma, no por tu capacidad de usar Google Translate. Y los profesores siempre saben cuando lo usas. ¿Cómo saben? Aquí hay unos ejemplos. No voy a revelar todos los secretos aquí, pero éstas son las maneras más comunes de pillarles ‘con las manos en la masa’. Ojalá que esta lista les ayude a ser mejores estudiantes.

Today is Spanish Friday so this post is bilingual. Scroll down for the English translation, and click on this picture for other Spanish Friday posts around the web.

Today is Spanish Friday so this post is bilingual. Scroll down for the English translation, and click on this picture for other Spanish Friday posts around the web.

1. Porque saben lo que sabes.  Tu profesor o profesora te conoce bien. Sabe tu nivel del idioma y si lo superas, va a sospechar algo.  Si estás en tu primer año de la lengua, trabajando con los verbos en el presente, y entregas una composición con el presente perfecto y el pluscuamperfecto, tendrás problemas. Lo mejor que puedes esperar es que la profesora te diga, “tu nivel del idioma ha mejorado bastante, te voy a subir a la clase avanzada, y tendrás que usar esta gramática todo el tiempo.” Pero es más probable que reprobarás la tarea. Tu profesor también sabe cuánto tiempo necesitarás para completar una tarea. Si demoras en escribir una composición y le pides permiso de llevarla a casa para terminarla, el profesor pensará que tal vez quieres consultar con un amigo electrónico. Si tu profesor te da permiso escribir algo en casa, ten cuidado, tal vez quiere probar cuánta integridad tienes.

2. Porque los traductores no funcionan bien cuando escribes mal.  Si tienes mala ortografía en tu lengua nativa, confundes palabras comunes como “their” por “there” (o “they’re”), “our” por “are”, el traductor no te ayudará.  Te dará algo muy poco comprensible y sacarás una nota peor de lo que habrías sacado si hubieras usado el cerebro.

3. Porque dices cosas ridículas. Si usas vocabulario avanzado, dichos inusuales, o no puedes explicar que quiere decir lo que “escribiste,” se verá mal.  Los ingenieros que diseñan traductores automáticos trabajan continuamente para mejorarlos. Sin embargo, a veces los traductores te dan resultados inesperados. Por ejemplo, es muy común en la clase de español que te piden usar verbos reflexivos para escribir de tu rutina diaria. Si usas la cabeza para recordar que aprendiste la palabra “levantarse” para decir “get up,” podrás escribir bien. Pero si, en vez de pensarlo, pones una frase como, “my mother says to get my brother up,” en un traductor, recibirás este resultado: “Mi madre dice que mi hermano hasta.” (En inglés, “My mother says that my brother until.”)

Uno de mis ejemplos favoritos fue un estudiante estadounidense que tenía un amigo por correspondencia en México. En su primer correo electrónico al amigo, quería escribir “I want you to be my pen pal.” El traductor produjo la frase en español, “Quiero que sea mi media naranja.” Una media naranja es un dicho en español que significa “soulmate,” “alma gemela,” un término romántico. ¡Definitivamente no fue lo que mi alumno intentaba decir en su primera carta!

Jeeves, currently seen when users go to uk.ask.com

You don’t talk like him, so why would you write that way? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4. Porque de repente empiezas a ser muy formal. En el salón de clases, los alumnos generalmente usan el lenguaje informal (como “tú” en vez de “usted” en español). Pero generalmente los traductores producen lenguaje formal, para que sean útiles para empresas.  Si no puedes hablar formalmente en clase, empezar a escribir formalmente de repente levantará sospechas.

5. Porque algo se ve raro. Los alumnos que son demasiado perezosos como para usar los cerebros al escribir, muchas veces también son demasiado perezosos para hacer más que copiar del traductor y pegar en un documento. Texto pegado de un traductor muchas veces aparece en una fuente diferente, o un poco más grande o pequeño del resto del texto, o con un fondo de un color diferente (Google Translate, por ejemplo, produce texto resaltado en gris ligero). Los números pueden ser diferentes. Hay otras señales también que los profesores buscan como evidencia del uso de un traductor.

Entonces, ¿siempre es malo usar un traductor?  Pues, no siempre.  Si mis alumnos están escribiendo a máquina, y les digo que pueden usar diccionarios, significa que podrían usar un traductor como diccionario: escribir una sola palabra y hacer clic en “translate.” Pero los traductores son malos diccionarios: no dan contexto ni categoría gramatical. Una vez pedí que mis alumnos buscaran “paint brush” en el diccionario. Todos los alumnos que usaron traductores automáticos dijeron “cepillo de pintura,” (literalmente, “brush of paint”.) Los que buscaron la palabra en un diccionario encontraron la palabra correcta: pincel. Si buscas “brush” en un buen diccionario ingles-español, encontrarás varias opciones: brocha, cepillo, pincel, escobilla, aplicar, cepillar, rozar… El diccionario te dirá cuales son sustantivos, cuales son verbos, y cual es para el cabello, cual es para limpiar, y cual es para la pintura.

Está bien usar un traductor para experimentar con traducciones diferentes. Quizás hay una frase gramatical quieres usar y que crees que sabes escribir, pero necesitas revisar. Está bien escribir diferentes variaciones de la misma frase en un traductor y comparar los resultados. No hay problema (y es divertido) trauducir una frase de un idioma a otro y de vuelta, para ver como ha cambiado. Pero si usas un traductor para aprender decir una frase nueva, tienes que escribirla tú mismo, no simplemente copies y pegues. Y, cuando tengas la oportunidad, pregunta a tu profesor para estar seguro que lo aprendido es correcto. (Y, realmente, hay otros sitios que puedes usar para darte una mejor explicación que un simple traductor automático.) El punto es que necesitas usar el cerebro, también.

La tecnología es una cosa maravillosa, y a muchos profesores les encanta usarla para hacer las clases más interesantes y más interactivas. A los alumnos que aprendan a usar la tecnología cuando sea apropiada y a usar sus cerebros cuando es necesario, será de gran ayuda. Pero recuerda tomar las tareas de escritura como oportunidades de practicar y aprender de tus propios errores, y no uses traductores de una manera deshonesta, porque tu profesor(a) sabrá.

Can you spot the reasons why this automatic translation failed? (Hint: it wasn't the translator's fault.)

Can you spot the reasons why this automatic translation failed? (Hint: it wasn’t Google’s fault.) Click to see the image larger.

In my classroom there is a poster about the correct and responsable way to use tecnology. It says, among other things, “no usaré traductores y fingir que es mi propio trabajo (I will not use translators and pretend it is my own work).”  My students ask why it would be bad to use a translator. I have to explain that when you’re being graded on your written work in Spanish class, it’s dishonest (and plaigarism!) to use someone (or something) else’s work and claim that it came from your brain. You are graded on your language ability and knowledge, not for your ability to use Google Translate. And teachers always know when you use it. How do they know?  Here are some examples. I won’t reveal all our secrets here, but these are some of the most common ways to catch students ‘in the act.’  Hopefully this list will help you be a better student.

1. Because they know what you know.  Your teacher knows you well. He or she knows your language level, and if you exceed it, they’ll suspect something is wrong. If you’re in your first year of a language, working with present tense verbs, and you turn in a composition full of present perfect and pluperfect, you’ll be in trouble. The best you can hope for is that your teacher says, “your language level has improved a lot, I’m going to move you up to the honors class, and you’ll have to use this grammar all the time.”  But it’s more likely that you’ll just fail the assignment. Your teacher also knows how much time you would need to complete an assignment. If you delay and procrastinate while writing a composition in class and ask the teacher for permission to take it home to finish it, your teacher will think that maybe you want to consult with an electronic friend. If your teacher gives you permission to write something at home, be careful, maybe they are testing you to see how much integrity you have.

2. Because translators don’t work well when you write poorly. If you have bad spelling in your native language, you confuse common words like “their” with “there” (or “they’re”), “our” with “are,” the translator will not help you. It will give you something incomprehensible and you’ll get a worse grade than you would have gotten if you had just used your brain instead.

where exactly is my flight?

Sometimes the translator gives you a result about this comprehensible. (Photo credit: iLikeSpoons)

3. Because you say ridiculous things.  If you use advanced vocabulary, unusual idioms, or you can’t explain what you have “written,” it’ll look bad.  The engineers who design automatic translators are constantly working to improve them. However, sometimes translators give you very unexpected results. For example, it’s very common in Spanish class to be asked to use reflexive verbs to write about your daily routine.  If you use your brain to remember that you learned the word “levantarse” to say “get up,” you’ll be able to write well. But if, instead of thinking, you go straight to the translator and type in a sentence like “my mother says to get my brother up,” you’ll get this translation: “Mi madre dice que mi hermano hasta.” (Literally, “My mother says that my brother until.”)

One of my favorite example was a U.S. student who had a Mexican pen pal. In his first email to his pen pal, he tried to write, “I want you to be my pen pal.” The translator gave the Spanish sentence, “Quiero que sea mi media naranja.” A media naranja (half orange, in Spanish) is an idiom that means “soulmate.”  Definitely not what he meant to write in his first letter!

4. Because you suddenly start to be very formal. Students in the classroom tend to use informal language (like “tú” instead of “usted” in Spanish). But translators usually produce formal language so that they will be useful for businesses.  If you can’t speak formally in class, suddenly starting to write formally will look suspicious.

5. Because something looks weird. Students who are too lazy to use their brains when they’re writing are usually also too lazy to do anything beyond copying text from a translator and pasting it in a document. Text pasted from a translator many times appears in a different font, or a little larger or smaller than the rest of the text, or with a different color background (Google Translate, for example, produces text highlighted in light gray). Numbers can be different, too. There are other signs, as well, that teachers look for as evidence of translator-produced text.

So, is it always bad to use a translator? Well, not always. If my students are typing on computers, and I tell them that they are allowed to use dictionaries, that means that they could use a translator like a dictionary: write just one word and then click “translate.”  But translators are poor dictionaries: they don’t give context or parts of speech. Once I asked my students to look for the term “paint brush” in the dictionary. All the ones who used online translators said “cepillo de pintura,” (literally, “brush of paint”). The ones who looked it up in a dictionary found the correct word: pincel. If you look up “brush” in a good English-Spanish dictionary, you’l find various options: brocha, cepillo, pincel, escobilla, aplicar, cepillar, rozar… The dictionary will tell you which ones are nouns, which ones are verbs, which is a brush for your hair, which is for cleaning, and which is for painting.

It’s okay to use a translator to experiment with different translations. Maybe there’s a certain construction you want to use that you think you know how to write, but you want to check. It’s okay to type different variations on the same phrase into a translator and compare the results. It’s okay (and fun) to translate a phrase from one language to another and back, to see how it’s changed. But if you use a translator to learn how to say a new phrase, make sure you type or write it yourself, don’t just copy and paste. And, when you have the opportunity, check with your teacher to make sure what you learned is correct. (And, really, there are other websites you can use that will give you a more nuanced explanation than a simple automatic translator.) The point is that you need to be using your brain, too.

Technology is a wonderful thing, and many teachers love to use it to make class more interesting and more interactive. For students who learn to use technology when it’s appropriate and to use their brains when it’s necessary, it will be very helpful. But remember to take writing assignments as opportunities to practice and learn from your own mistakes, and don’t use translators dishonestly, because your teacher will know.

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About fjkingsbury
F.J. Kingsbury teaches ESOL and Spanish, blogs about languages and language learning, and wishes it were possible to be in the U.S. and Mexico simultaneously.

7 Responses to How teachers catch you using a translator

  1. Profe Herrera says:

    So much truth here. My favorite tip-off is when there’s one word in English in the middle of a sentence, misspelled. If Google Translate doesn’t recognize the word, it leaves it in the original language. But it doesn’t happen too often because I never give them writing homework. All compositions are done in class.

  2. Pingback: Forests of hemlock and pine: weird spam comments, plagiarism, and the internet | Bilinguish

  3. Currently using a system where submitting a draft in class–which must be submitted along with the rubric & final draft–is a requirement to earn a passing grade. My current magic number is 40%: impossible to pass without including a signed draft from me, but not giving away too many ‘freebie’ points. All of this is an effort to balance academic integrity, provide feedback to students, recognize effort, AND to produce a polished artifact while not taking up too much class time. Perfect? Surely not, but it is one method worth considering (and modifying as needed!).

    • fjkingsbury says:

      Interesting, Sra Diamond. So you have them write the draft in class, you check it, and then they rewrite it at home? And if they don’t write the draft they can’t get higher than a 60?

  4. Don says:

    Depending on my objectives for the writing, students may have an assignment to write at home. If I am assessing proficiency in writing in one of the modes of communication (presentational, interpersonal, for example), then I don’t even announce that there will be a test. When they arrive, they receive the prompt and that is it. There are no issues with translation tools in this scenario. However, I also want students to practice writing and thinking skills, so I do give them composition prompts to do at home. As your article explains so well, I can tell if they use a translator. If I catch them doing so, the first time they must re-write the composition with a late penalty of one letter grade. The second time, they must come write while I supervise them after school, and again there is a penalty of one letter grade, but in addition, they must write a letter to their parents explaining why they received detention. If it happens again, there is no credit, and they get a referral for cheating. I have never yet had to go to steps two or three. My approach is not for everyone, admittedly, but it works! I should mention that this policy goes into effect only after I have explained why no translation tools may be used, with some examples so that they can see how I know. We have a good laugh, and most students get it and never use the translators.

    • fjkingsbury says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Don. Have you ever had a student deny that they’ve used a translator?

  5. Steve Smith says:

    I recommend writing at home to enable you to maximise class time for listening and speaking. Usually easy to spot cheating, so use sanctions to combat it. This was never a great issue with my studentsnover the years.

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