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Education Is Translation: A Metaphor for Change in Learning and Teaching

reviewed by Samantha Caughlan - August 07, 2006

coverTitle: Education Is Translation: A Metaphor for Change in Learning and Teaching
Author(s): Alison Cook-Sather
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 0812238893, Pages: 208, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Metaphor’s importance as an aid to thought and expression in a culture can hardly be overemphasized; in fact, it is inconceivable that humans could make sense of their world, especially the world of ideas, without these tools for creating meaning by connecting the known to the unknown, the physical to the ineffable, the everyday to the sublime (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff & Turner, 1989; Ortony, 1979).  Analyzed critically, the metaphors a society uses reveal its underlying assumptions and values.  In her recent book, Education is Translation: A Metaphor for Change in Learning and Teaching, Alison Cook-Sather explains how our dominant metaphors for education have limited the ways we think about learning and teaching; however, her main endeavor is to promote an alternative metaphor, that of education as translation.  Through her exploration of the possibilities of juxtaposing education with the complex and slippery activity of translation, she provides a variety of examples of her own pedagogy to illustrate how this way of conceptualizing teaching and learning can be enacted in educational contexts.  

Cook-Sather claims that the metaphor of translation is more productive than the other metaphors currently dominating American educational discourse—e.g., education is production and education is a cure—because translation is a process of meaning-making that, like education, involves change and transformation.  Properly considered, translation is less a search for a fixed, unalterable meaning than a series of generative attempts to establish connection. It involves collaboration among and across unlike minds and a careful consideration of identities. “Striving always to connect the known with the new, a student cannot simply seek one-to-one correspondences between the familiar and the strange.  Rather, in the texts, the situations, the people she reads, and the interpretations of those texts, situations and people that she produces, a student must find new ways of naming that both preserve something of what is already there and create something new” (p. 38).  

Her discussion of translation is anchored in her own experiences learning German as an adult at the Goethe Institute in Germany.  Her opening chapter weaves together her narrative of this experience with a detailed description of the complexities of translation.  Addressing a general audience, she moves the reader to an understanding of the tradeoffs between literal translation and translations towards cultural meanings, which cannot be rendered literally.  Our perception of the world is built into the syntactic and semantic structure of our language; learning another language involves both adopting another worldview—another self—and gaining a deeper and more explicit appreciation for the world-view and self that existed before: “Thus, ‘the ideal model for translation becomes that which creates the simultaneous experience of both proximity and separateness, intimacy and alterity’” (p. 39). Translation provides us with a metaphor for education via its ability to continually restructure and build upon our past understanding of what is “new” regarding our language, knowledge, and change in self.  

Chapter 2 is sophisticated and multi-layered.  Cook-Sather draws on both cognitive theorists (Lakoff, Scheffler, Ortony) and literary theorists (Greene, Victor Turner, Black) in her discussion of metaphor.  Not only does she discuss translation as a metaphor for education and contrast it with historically familiar ones such as production, banking, and growth, but metaphor itself becomes a very productive metaphor for education.  While metaphor, the juxtaposition of two unlike entities, is usually considered to clarify the meaning or the character of the more abstract or less familiar of the two, on reflection, the juxtaposition illuminates both sides.  In this book, concepts, languages, disciplines, and identities are juxtaposed in a variety of different pedagogical contexts to form a greater understanding and transformation of each.  

These contexts are described in Chapters 3 through 5.  Chapter 3 describes a college class focused on exploring bias that involves translating between personal and academic discourses; Chapter 4 describes a workshop designed to promote collaboration among university colleagues in designing technology into existing courses; Chapter 5 describes a course for pre-service teachers, which enabled them to explore the transition between being students and becoming teachers through a correspondence with high school students.  In each of these chapters several different themes accompany the theme of translation: the juxtaposition of old and new languages and ways of thinking; collaboration (between professors and support staff, among students, between student teachers and high school students, between education professors and high school teachers); and lastly, the shift between personal and academic voices.  In each chapter, the juxtaposition and reflection on the “translation” resulted in learners gaining a sense of self in a new context that they could consciously access.  

While the metaphor of translation certainly opens up the idea of education as one involving transformation and collaboration, Cook-Sather sometimes takes her metaphor too far.  She repeats Steiner’s claim that “all communication is translation” (p. 93). But what does this imply other than an “original” meaning must be translated into the “right” words for a particular audience?  Since any utterance is both a response to previous utterances and an attempt to provoke an action or utterance in reply, what “original” is implied here?  Similarly, she implies that the personal voice is more authentic than the academic, but is it in an academic context?  The value in her approach is that her students have the opportunity to explore this question for themselves, as she makes the issue explicit.

I would also take issue with Cook-Sather’s claim that she confronts issues of power in the academy on more than a personal level.  After all, Basil Bernstein (2000) dealt with “translation” as well, in considering how knowledge is recontextualized in the pedagogic relationship, but his “translation” considered how the discourse of education reflected the power dynamics of the larger society that students come from, and to which they must return.  Cook-Sather discusses the dynamic between professors and students within the confines of the classroom, and the interactions between professors and support staff within the institution, but the institution and the people within it both reflect and are subject to external forces that do not seem to impinge on Cook-Sather’s academic world. At the end of her book, Cook-Sather describes the experience of reading others’ responses to her manuscript as yet another in a series of educative translations of her thoughts and experiences.  I suppose this review is one in the same.  I offer it in that spirit, with the respectful consideration that different readers will gain different insights from this complex and thought-provoking book.


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor.  

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ortony, A. (Ed.). (1979). Metaphor and thought. London: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 07, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12644, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:10:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Samantha Caughlan
    California State University, Fresno
    E-mail Author
    SAMANTHA CAUGHLIN is an assistant professor of English Education at California State University, Fresno. Her scholarly interests include teachers’ cultural models of teaching English, classroom discourse processes, critical discourse analysis, and current reform efforts in literacy teaching. Her publications include articles on classroom discussion and teachers’ relationships with their differently tracked students. She is currently researching using critical language analysis with preservice teachers as a means of increasing their awareness and use of more dialogic discourse practices.
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