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Learning a new language

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Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:39
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Professional expert, amateur dilettante May 2, 2014

If translation is how you earn your living, then it makes sense to specialise in your strongest language combination and treat any other languages as a hobby.

Look at it from a customer's point of view. It is slightly insulting, even unprofessional, for a translator to offer a 2nd-best language combination, not the best. All the more so for the 3rd-best, 4th-best combinations.

I sometimes think translators are so enamoured of languages that they lose touch with the business side of the job and happily boast about their linguistic proficiency, even though there is no real advantage to the customer, if anything a disadvantage.

When I started translating 10 years ago I offered 3 languages. But it became clear that specialising in one language made me much more productive. Hence the title above - by all means indulge in languages as a hobby, as long as it is not at the expense of your profession. As in the old saying: better to be a Master of one language than a jack (apprentice) of several.


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 06:39
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I agree with Peter May 2, 2014

I have two languages at native level. I spend most of my time keeping my native language and my language of habitual usage up to scratch - my target and my source.

I have studied French, Latin and German, and on paper have quite good professional qualifications in French and German. I have spent very little time in the respective countries, and although I can read the languages, I would never feel comfortable working with them professionally.

I have picked up some Swedish and Norwegian along the way, and my husband has family in Sweden and Norway. When I worked in house, it was assumed that we worked with all three Scandinavian languages, while specialising in one. I still translate 'general' texts, but only for clients who know me and know my limitations. Otherwise I am very picky about what I take on.

The alternative might be to specialise in a relatively narrow subject area - it might just be possible to keep more languages up to scratch in that area. My father could take a church service (fixed orders of service and known texts) and make polite conversation with the congregation afterwards in quite a number of languages. He only preached sermons in two.

Learning a language is child's play - if you are a three-year-old learning your mother tongue.
It can be fun at any age, but don't let yourself be fooled. Three-year-olds are not stupid, and they can be the stubbornest, most determined creatures alive. If learning a language was easy, they would get bored and move on to something else! And in fact it is a lifelong task to master language.

Or the more you know, the more you realise that you know nothing...


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:39
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
I agree with Peter too. May 2, 2014

It rather rankled with me that to get a Master, those with only one source language had to get at least 12/20 in all subjects whereas those with two only needed 10/20.

After all, the fact that a translator could also translate from another language you never use is simply irrelevant. Each client deserves the very best translation.


 

Frankie JB
France
English to French
+ ...
not the best doesn't mean not good enough May 2, 2014

I agree that knowing "well" a language is not enough to offer professional services from it. I agree that it's important to contain your ego and be reasonable. I agree that it's hardly feasible to have more than two, or in some rare exceptions more than three, source languages and be a the top in each of them. It's obvious that you cannot compete (all other things being equal) with someone whose only source language is your third's (in terms of years of study or volume translated). But I don't agree that you cannot be very good in, and offer, two source languages. Being better in a language doesn't imply you are not good enough in the other. You can be slightly better in one (just like you may have a stronger eye) and competent enough to sell the other too! Maybe in some cases a tad less skilled than monosource translators (or most likely a tad less quick), but as long as the end product satisfies the client it's all that matters. It's not solely a matter of ego to have more than one SL as you seem to say.

Edit: I should add that if you consider, like me, that mastering the source language is only 1/3 of the skills required (the other 1/3s being writing skills and general intellectual qualities), being, say, 10% less proficient in the language doesn't mean the end product will be 10% inferior in quality... For example, there are chances that a self-exigent experienced multisource working in their third pair will be better than a young monosource, if not because of a better pure linguistic proficiency, maybe because of greater translation/terminology skills or more vocabulary...

In conclusion, it then appears that having several source languages doesn't mean you are less competent than monosource competitors, and that for many different reasons... The "all other things being equal" condition is nice in theory but doesn't hold water in practice.

[Edited at 2014-05-03 10:41 GMT]


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:39
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
cultural references May 2, 2014

And the important thing is not to know about lots of different cultures, but to know the culture of source and target language really well

Certainly for the type of translation that I do, riddled with cultural references


 

Georgia Morgan  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 05:39
Member (2011)
Portuguese to English
Target not source the problem May 3, 2014

I can understand how someone feels equally proficient in two source languages. What I cannot understand are translators who are happy to translate "in both directions", ie, in and out of their native language. I only translate from Portuguese INTO English. I would never attempt it the other way round.

 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:39
Russian to English
+ ...
A professional, educated and qualified May 3, 2014

translator should be able to translate in both directions--perhaps not novels, but definitely simpler documents and general texts. It looks silly when a translator cannot speak the language they are translating from. Many translators are multilingual, so the dysfunctional term "native language' may not apply to many, and as an offensive term will hopefully be taken out of the linguistic terms soon. It is basically not used in the US in most contexts--at least by some more PC conscious people.

As to deciding to learn a language for the sole purpose of adding another language to your repertoire, as a source language, I find it pointless, and silly-- a waste of time, if this is the only purpose. It is better to be a very good translator, translating just from one language than a mediocre, or even a bad translator, translating form multiple languages.

[Edited at 2014-05-03 11:12 GMT]


 

Joanna Spychala
Poland
Local time: 06:39
English to Polish
+ ...
What if your 2nd best is good enough? May 3, 2014

One could say the same thing about translators' specializations: why would someone translate texts in his or her 2nd-best, 3rd-best or 4th-best specialization...?

In my opinion, there are no clear answers here, no generally 'right' or 'wrong' choices, as translators come from different backgrounds and work on different markets. Sometimes you are expected to translate (or interpret) from a number of languages and there is no way around it (e.g. at the EU institutions), sometimes you are expected to translate in and out of your native language (e.g. in Poland or other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). It is important to know our limits and be aware of what we can or cannot do professionally but I do not think that offering your 2nd-best language combination or specialization is wrong or unprofessional, provided that the quality of your work is high enough.

I understand your point, though, and I do agree that specializing in just one language combination may make us more productive.

[Edited at 2014-05-03 12:29 GMT]


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:39
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
PLEASE May 3, 2014

don't let's start on that old chestnut again!

 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:39
Hebrew to English
Just because you can, doesn't mean you should May 3, 2014

LilianBNekipelo wrote:
A professional, educated and qualified translator should be able to translate in both directions... It looks silly when a translator cannot speak the language they are translating from.


There's a difference between having the theoretical ability to do something and offering it as a professional service. Just because some translators don't offer translation in both directions does not mean that they cannot "speak the language they are translating from".


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:39
Russian to English
+ ...
You should be able to, even if May 3, 2014

you choose not to do it.

 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:39
French to English
+ ...
"Learning languages" and "Learning *about* languages" are different things May 3, 2014

Remember the blog poster isn't proposing that translators learn many languages for the actual purpose of translating from those languages. Their point (whether right or wrong) is simply that it is desirable for a language professional to have a broad knowledge of the way languages work generally.

With regard to Peter's point, it's worth remembering that clients aren't simply contracting your expertise in a language pair, but are often contracting your expertise in a combination of language pair and speciality. I think it's quite feasible and commercially viable to be an expert in, say, legal translations in one language pair and IT translations in another pair. Working in more than one language doesn't necessarily mean that you will offer a "secondary service" in one of the languages per se.

[Edited at 2014-05-03 17:38 GMT]


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:39
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
I disagree May 3, 2014

Peter Linton wrote:
Look at it from a customer's point of view. It is slightly insulting, even unprofessional, for a translator to offer a 2nd-best language combination, not the best. All the more so for the 3rd-best, 4th-best combinations.

I quite disagree with this idea of disqualifying those who do not run their business the way we do. To me, a professional translator is one who is capable of keeping happy customers with high professional standards and economic success, and I don't think we can call translators names because they do not use our favourite software, don't have a foot rest, don't have our same set of dictionaries, have a different brand of car or, for that matter, translate in more language combinations than ourselves.

With appropriate education/training and love for languages, people who are bilingual or trilingual for family reasons can become quite capable of offering translation from one of their languages to another (normally into the one they fully master), and on top of that they can learn one or more additional languages to a level that will allow them to translate from those languages in a fully professional manner.

In my case, I work in two language combinations (from my second mother tongue into my first mother tongue, and then also from a learnt language into my first mother tongue) on a daily basis. If my customers think I am unprofessional, they have kept it for themselves for two decades. So far, they have shown appreciation for the fact that they do not need to have two separate translators for the two language combinations I work in.


 

Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:39
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
And I agree with Christine May 3, 2014

Christine Andersen wrote:

I have two languages at native level. I spend most of my time keeping my native language and my language of habitual usage up to scratch - my target and my source.


That's exactly what I've been trying to do for the past 37 years.


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:39
Hebrew to English
... May 4, 2014

LilianBNekipelo wrote:
You should be able to, even if you choose not to do it.


I think the ability to speak both the source and target languages is (should be) a given.
A translation completed by someone a) with a shaky grasp of the target or b) less than a stellar grasp of the source sticks out like a sore thumb.

I think it's good to bear in mind Tomás' words, which I have just added two thoughts to:

I quite disagree with this idea of disqualifying those who do not run their business the way we do....I don't think we can call translators names because they... translate in more [me: or less] language combinations [me: or directions] than ourselves


[Edited at 2014-05-04 05:54 GMT]


 
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