Interlinear Books: Bring Literature Into Your Language Learning

Have you heard about a language learning method called interlinear translation? I hadn’t, until recently. A few days ago, I got an email from Linas Vaštakas, a guy who runs a project – Interlinear Books for learning languages. In the project, they translate books for language learners in an innovative way, and they have recently released a bilingual Russian book. I found his project quite interesting and decided to ask him a few questions about the method, his project, and the books he and his team are translating.

Eugenia Vlasova: Could you please give a definition for the interlinear translation method in one or two sentences?

Linas Vaštakas: Interlinear is a method of translating where the original text is followed by an English translation below each word or expression. Interlinear Books has been translating popular literature for language learners in the Interlinear format, currently featuring Russian, Swedish, Lithuanian, German books.

EV: What are the major advantages of interlinear reading as a learning tool versus ordinary bilingual books?

LV: Interlinear translation is potentially faster to read and thus allows more efficient learning. In Interlinear, you don’t need to re-read the sentences twice (once in the original language and then in translation), nor analyze which word stands for what. You can quickly see the translations of the exact words you need. This also allows you to be more engaged in the original story in the original language, providing more excitement in reading and saving you time.

EV: Who would benefit most from your method – beginners or advanced students?

LV: Anybody can try the method. We have seen people at different levels benefiting from the interlinear translation. Ideally, however, it is probably best if you are already an intermediate-advanced learner, as it is easier for you to read in the original language and you get the most fun out of reading.

EV: What are the shortcomings of this method that a learner should be aware of?

LV: As always, when using translations for learning, a learner should try not to get too engaged in translation, so as to neglect the original language. Fortunately, Interlinear minimizes the desire to read the translation alone, because the translation does not flow as accurately and as nicely as the original text – after all, the English in the translation, while understandable, is a bit butchered and doesn’t flow as beautifully as the original. Another problem with using translation in language learning is that different languages rarely overlap completely literally, and words can have different meanings in different contexts. The learner should be aware of that and remember that translation is almost always only approximation.

EV: Word-by-word rather than sense-by-sense translation could be misleading and confusing. How should language learners treat the interlinear text in this regard?

LV: Indeed, at Interlinear Books, our translations are made to be as literal as possible. It’s important to note the “as possible” part: when we see that Interlinear translation wouldn’t be understandable if it was completely literal, we go for a more figurative translation. So, you would have sentences like “Very much I want there to go.” However, you wouldn’t have translations like “For you needed him understand” for “Тебе надо его понять” as we would go for something a little bit less literal. The most important thing to understand for learners is that Interlinear translation is supposed to keep encouraging the reader to read the original instead of the translation. The purpose of an Interlinear translation is making the original text understandable, not replacing the original text.

EV: Have you tried this method for learning new languages?

LV: I have tried reading German in Interlinear, and I have improved my German quite a bit. I have, however, also combined it with other ways of learning (additional reading, speaking with natives and other language learners). Interlinear is not a silver bullet, I don’t think such a thing exists: each learner should try to find what works best for them. Interlinear is just a good way to bring literature into your language learning, and, I believe, literature is often neglected, but it may work well for many people.

EV: How do you pick books for translation?

LV: We usually look for popular languages that we have the capacity to translate at the moment and look for fascinating classical texts which are not too long. Novellas are currently our main focus

EV: Who makes interlinear translation of books for your website? Is your website a solo project or do you have a team?

LV: There is only one person mainly responsible for the project, that is me. I am a law graduate, who is also very interested in language learning, literature and building things. There are, however, other people who contribute with translation, editing, making the website usable and other things, so it isn’t a solo project in the full sense. Interlinear Books is also looking to expand the team in the near future.

EV: Can we expect more Russian books on your website?

LV: I can’t answer this question yet. I would love to add more Russian books, but we have to see how this one goes first. If and when we do make other Russian translations, expect us to cover classical writers first (so we would be likely to translate Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and other great Russian writers.)

EV: Do you plan to add more languages to your platform?

LV: Definitely, Interlinear Books is currently focused on making new translations in new languages. We have two missions in this respect: first, we want to cover popular languages – ones like German. Second, we also want to promote language learning for less-popular languages, such as Swedish (which is a very interesting and quite easy language to start learning if you already speak English, by the way). It has been somewhat of a struggle to combine these two things, but we’re doing our best.

EV: Anything else you would like to tell language learners?

LV: Literature is an important and fascinating way to learn languages, and I advise you to look for ways to combine literature with your language learning, even if isn’t with Interlinear books. At the end of the day, each learner will have to decide what works best for them, but trying many things helps!