The value and validity of translation for learning classical languages

« previous post | next post »

Two years ago, during the middle of lockdown when we had to teach all of our courses via zoom, one student was conspicuously superior to all the other dozen or so students in my first-year Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC) class.  She was clearly an innately smart student, but in addition she seemed to possess a special knack for grasping the grammar, structure, and meaning of the texts we read day after day.  When it came to parsing a particularly difficult passage, she was consistently the one who could figure it out fastest and most accurately.  I had no idea to what particular talent or prior training her excellence could be attributed.

I should mention that this student was from China, as were two-thirds of the others.  Only one-third of the class were from other countries.  I should note, parenthetically, that by and large the more languages a student knows well when he or she takes LS/CC, the better she or he tends to perform in my class.  For example, one of the best students in recent years was a Mexican whose native tongue is Spanish and who is advanced in Korean.  I let him pronounce the texts in Korean.

Back to the top student who is the focus of this post.  Having taught so many students online during the lockdowns, it is always an uncanny experience later to meet them in reality.  A few days ago, after she managed to succeed in returning to America (she had been here for her freshman and sophomore years before her parents called her to return to China during the pandemic), she came to see me.

So I don't have to refer to her only as a pronoun, during the remainder of this post I will call the student in question Binghan.

Binghan knocked on my door. When I saw her standing outside in the hallway, I was surprised to find that she was a foot taller than I thought she was from seeing her only on zoom the previous year.  I invited Binghan to come in and sit down, whereupon we began an enjoyable chat.

It wasn't long before I told her that I thought her LS/CC was exceptionally good and wondered how it had gotten that way.  Without any hesitation and with a big smile, she told me that her high school teacher of LS/CC had taught her a secret method.  The teacher told Binghan that, if you really want to excel in LS/CC, conscientiously translate everything into Mandarin.  That way, you'll be able to know if you really understand a passage or not, whether it makes sense to you or not.

Binghan said that she was the only student in her high school class who followed the teacher's advice because it required additional effort, viz., writing out an accurate, genuine Mandarin translation, without letting yourself slip back into LS/CC.

Having reached this point in preparing the present post, I recalled that I had touched on this matter a year and a half ago:  "The importance of translation for learning Literary Sinitic" (6/27/21).  There you can learn more about the virtue of what Neil Kubler has  called "the Zihan Guo and William Hung and Victor Mair school of using translation as an effective device for teaching and learning Classical Chinese".  Let this post be a confirmation and verification of that previous post.

VVV — Value, Validity, Virtue (much easier to say than WWW, which I henceforth suggest should be referred to as "dubdubdub", modeling this way of reducing trisyllabic "w" to a monosyllable, like all the other letters of the alphabet, on the informal moniker for the University of Washington, "U-Dub"* [naturally, lots of other people have thought of that too; I wonder why it never stuck; it takes so much more effort to say "double-U double-U double-U" than "dubdubdub"; I almost gag and gasp when rattling off "double-U double-U double-U"; in fact, I feel a bit silly saying "double-U double-U double-U")

*From a limited survey, it seems that people at the University of Wisconsin pronounce their "UW" as "U double-U", three syllables either way for the second half of their name, but "U double-U" has a neat symmetry that makes it sound playful, and it looks like a hybrid emoticon.


Selected readings


  1. tim1724 said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 7:56 pm

    Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) has long been known as "dubdub" by attendees. Apple's Siri pronounces it "dub dub dee see".

    As for "double-u double-u double-u" some people tried to make "sextuple-u" a thing back in the 90s but that never caught on.

  2. Steve Morrison said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 9:22 pm

    I sometimes wish we had retained the archaic letter wynn because it would make URLs so much easier to pronounce.

  3. Tom Duff said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 9:46 pm

    The Golden State Warriors (the local professional basketball team) are known to their fans as the Dubs.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 10:12 pm


    BTW, I didn't realize he was an artist. Among his many works are portraits of Junichiro Koizumi, George H. W. Bush, and none other than Jiang Zemin.

  5. IR Research said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 12:15 am

    In the IR (Information Retrieval) community, "www" had been pronounced "dub dub dub" for about two decades now. In fact, this has a dictionary entry in Google's online dictionary:

  6. Frans said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 3:10 am

    Switch to wee wee wee (as in bee, cee, dee, etc.).

  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 4:45 am

    I confess that I have never felt a problem with "www", for two reasons — (1) I pronounce it as "World-wide web" (i.e., three syllables)) in all contexts other than URIs; and (2) in URIs, it is (nowadays) rarely if ever required. Certainly all of the web sites that I run are configured not to require the "www" prefix.

  8. Arnold Baldwin said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    I will experiment with “dubdubdub” but, as it seems that the need to type a “www.” prefix into a search engine is becoming optional, perhaps the spoken equivalent, however pronounced, may also eventually become optional — although a spoken prefix clearly identifies a particular string as a web address.

    FWIW, the Esperanto equivalent of worldwide web (www) is “tut-tera teksaĵo (ttt)” pronounced “to to to.”

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 8:10 am

    "triple dub"

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 8:57 am

    Tangentially, in Swedish we pronounce "www" as if it were "vvv". Perhaps related to the fact that "v" and "w" were until recently considered variants of the same letter in Swedish, but anyway it saves 2/3 of the syllables. And it's not like there are any webpages with an actual vvv prefix to be confused with.

    I've always though it a marker of truly understanding a language when don't have to translate it to understand it. I guess the takeaway here is that you shouldn't hurry too much towards that goal.

  11. bks said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    Haven't we done "WWW" before? I suggest "hex u".

  12. Frans said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 10:22 am

    @Andreas I'll point out that you can translate (paraphrase) into the language itself, and that strikes me as perfectly consistent with both what you said and the OP.

    E.g., in English, if you don't know a phrase like "the veracity is disputed" you can look up some words in an English dictionary and translate it to "the truth is disputed," or even "argued about". If that doesn't work out you can see what it means in a language you speak better, rather than going straight there. But perhaps that's easier to do for living languages than for classical ones.

  13. Keith Gaughan said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 11:23 am

    My preference for "www" has long been "wuhwuhwuh", and most people get it after a second.

  14. Rodger C said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    Ambrose Bierce suggested, tongue in cheek I think, that the letter w be called "wow."

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    @Andres Frans
    yeah extant languages live in communities and interface with reality, meaning that one can really (given the opportunity) learn and understand without recourse to translation. Whereas "Classical Chinese" lives in the clouds and interfaces with xiān 仙 'angels' (?) i.e. it is a collection of (presumed) propositions without referents. So employing translation is not an "approach", merely an acknowledgement that one really has to reify it and see what sticks.

  16. Terpomo said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 1:45 am

    @Arnold Baldwin
    Samideano, I'm disappointed you didn't give a gloss of tut-tera teksaĵo; it's literally something like "thing woven across the entire Earth". Or "global fabric/textile".
    @Jonathan Smith
    I'm not sure if that's really true. There are people who can read Latin without translating into their native language; there are even textbooks specifically geared for such an approach, like Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata. LS hasn't been *spoken* in many centuries, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been used in a community, even if only in written form.

  17. Allan L. said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 11:38 am

    "Worldwide web" is good enough.

  18. Michael Carasik said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 2:27 pm

    – W + WWW: Not that anyone needs to say the latter or even type i any more. But I note that people out at the U. of Washington say "U-Dub."

    – On the more important matter of the post, I have often quoted Judah Goldin (whose remark I learned from David Stern) on the importance of translation for understanding, most recently here:

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 7:58 pm

    From Michael Carr:


    3-Dub, or "Three-Dub"

    Verbal short hand for WWW, the term was coined from the phrase Vee-Dub, being the popular name for the VolksWagon Bug."Vee-Dub bug"

    So when verbalizing (Saying) a web address it is faster and flows better saying "Three-Dub Dot whatever dot com" Vs saying "double-you double-you double-you dot whatever dot com."

    (On the phone) "Hey Mac, that site is at three-dub dot urbandictionary dot com."

    (standing in person) "The site address is three-dub dot psyberwolf dot com"

    Saying "double-you double-you double-you" is now shortened to saying "Three-Dub"

    by Psyber Wolf December 24, 2007

  20. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 12, 2022 @ 5:23 am

    I fully accept that there may be circles within which "three-dub" (and similar) is widely used and widely understood. But I am certain that, relative to the WWW-using public as a whole, those circles form a tiny minority, and the time wasted asking "three what ?!" and interpreting the reply will far exceed the time that would have been spent saying /ˈdʌbəljuː ˈdʌbəljuː ˈdʌbəljuː/ in the first place.

RSS feed for comments on this post