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Bilingualism and Translation
Thread poster: Raf Uzar

Raf Uzar
Poland
Local time: 00:10
Polish to English
Sep 13, 2009

Transubstantiation asks the open question of whether being bilingual is a blessing or a curse for translators. Here's the link: http://transubstantiation.wordpress.com/
I prefer to ask the following question:

- Is being a bilingual from childhood better than learning a second language later in life for the purposes of becoming a translator?


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kleiner Kater
Chile
Local time: 19:10
English to Spanish
+ ...
I don't think so Sep 13, 2009

Raf Uzar wrote:

- Is being a bilingual from childhood better than learning a second language later in life for the purposes of becoming a translator?


I must say I don't think there's a difference. I didn't learn English until I was 18 and I'm a translator and an interpreter.


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:10
English to Spanish
+ ...
Neither a Blessing nor a Curse Sep 13, 2009

It all depends on how we each cultivate what we have. To become translators, our language knowledge must become cultivated to the point that we have a fluent, high-level, balanced command of our working languages. For many people who are bilingual, that balance can be lacking because the situations in which they use their languages are not the same. Witness the situation that exists in the community where I live, a city in the United States located on the border with Mexico.

Our city has a population that is largely descended from people from the "other side", that is, Mexico. A significant proportion, especially those who changed sides when they were already adults, are monolingual Spanish-speakers and may only have a rudimentary knowledge of English. The most important minority is comprised of monolingual English-speakers with little or no knowledge of Spanish. At least half or more of the population, also including some of non-Mexican origins, are to a fair degree "bilingual"; that is, they can "get along" in both languages in most everyday situations. The people in this category are probably the most numerous and include those who have grown up and received their education in this same community.

In essence, we may say that most of the children here grow up "bilingual". But to what degree? Mainly this consists of using Spanish at home with the family and English in school. The educational system concentrates on English and ignores Spanish. Thus, few of these people are balanced bilinguals and those of us who actually have the skills to be translators or interpreters are a very small number.

So in fact, those of us who are in the profession have made a special effort to learn what it takes. Many have had the advantage of receiving parts of their education on both sides of the border.

But there is no such thing as a blessing nor a curse, it merely involves taking what you have and going much farther through a lot of hard work.

An additional point that should be made here is that learning how to transfer ideas seamlessly between languages is not a natural process, even for persons who are balanced bilinguals. It is actually akin to learning another language because it entails further rewiring of the brain. That again requires much more hard work.




[Editado a las 2009-09-13 16:29 GMT]


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 00:10
English to Croatian
+ ...
Being bilingual is not enough Sep 13, 2009

Being bilingual from the childhood is a nice asset, but it is never enough to ensure that one will be a good translator. You actually ask whether being bilingual from the childhood can stand in the way of developing translation skills? No, I don't think so. If a translator for some reason failed to be a good translator, bilingualism is certainly not to blame. It may be something else such as the lack of motivation, ambition or passion for the translator's job. Or some personality features that may disable developing these skills, such as pride or narcissism. Indeed, it requires a patient, organized and hard-working personality.

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xxxAguas de Mar
Learning and translating: two different things Sep 13, 2009

First of all, we would need to define what being bilingual is. To me, being bilingual is being able to fluently speak two languages. I would say that being bilingual is almost a basic need for translators, so I do not see how it could ever be a curse.

Now, to answer your question, my mother tongue is Spanish. I learned English since childhood to the point of knowing the language almost as a native (and sometimes even better than some natives). I started learning French in my twenties, and I am learning Portuguese in my forties.

What I can say from the point of view of LEARNING is that, in my own experience, the earlier one learns a language, the easier it is, and the better we become at mastering it (provided we keep using the learned language through life). I am much more at ease with English than with Portuguese and, despite its similarity with Spanish, I have found Portuguese to be the most difficult language of the three I have learned so far (probably due to its orthography and phonetics).

For the purpose of TRANSLATING, what is an absolute need to me is a thorough domain of my native tongue, Spanish. I find I can translate from the above mentioned three languages into Spanish without much problem, and with approximately the same quality, despite my different levels of knowledge of them. The only difference is that it takes me much longer to translate a Portuguese text than an English text.

To be noted is that I adhere to the "old school", and believe that one should only translate into her/his mother tongue. This said, I know I am able to easily translate from Spanish into English, but doing so into Portuguese would be a nightmare.

So, in conclusion, being bilingual from childhood, to me, is no better than learning a second language later in life for the purposes of becoming a translator. What counts for becoming a translator is mastering the target language which, in my opinion too, should be the native one.

[Edited at 2009-09-13 16:07 GMT]


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Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 17:10
Spanish to English
Not a very good article, IMHO Sep 13, 2009

Speaking more than one language decently, no matter at what age you acquire that skill, though the first requirement for being a translator, has nothing in itself to do with translation. Where would be the fluency if everytime we opened our mouths we were thinking of an equivalent way to say something in another language(s). There lies madness.

Besides most of the stuff we translate would totally flumox the native speakers of our language pairs and might as well be a foreign language to them.



And then the use of the word "fluent", does it really mean, like a native speaker? Or does it mean that you don't have to stop and search for words all the time, which is more my understanding of the word.


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Maria Tsang  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:10
German to French
+ ...
everyone is multilingual Sep 13, 2009


- Is being a bilingual from childhood better than learning a second language later in life for the purposes of becoming a translator?


Everybody is multilingual from childhood.
You speak and think differently with different kind of people (family adults, other children, teachers, pets, strangers, ...). Translating or switching correctly between all the languages one speaks is a very important and necessary communication skill in every days life.


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Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:10
Italian to English
Speaking languages is nothing to do with translation Sep 13, 2009

Aguas de Marco wrote:

To me, being bilingual is being able to fluently speak two languages.



I don't actually speak my native language very well.
I write it extremely well (or so I have been told).

I speak my working language quite well only if I am reading it.
I understand (even very complex) texts written in it and 95% of what I hear spoken in it.

You can be dumb (or is it orally challenged) and a brilliant translator.


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Michael Barnett
Local time: 18:10
English
+ ...
Native bilingualism is certainly an asset but... Sep 13, 2009

Lingua 5B wrote:

Being bilingual from the childhood is a nice asset, but it is never enough to ensure that one will be a good translator. You actually ask whether being bilingual from the childhood can stand in the way of developing translation skills? No, I don't think so.


I agree with Lingua 5B completely that being a native speaker of both the source and target languages is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for being an effective translator, but it is certainly a great advantage, especially in the target language.

I am not a professional translator but I participate as a hobby at proz.com, offering suggestions for French to English medical translation issues. Having observed the questions and answers on this site for several years, it is clear that at least two additional criteria beyond bilingualism are required of a medical translator – an understanding of the science and an understanding of the medical idiom. Although I did not realize it until I started reading the off-center translations of non-physicians, medicine is actually a sub-culture. Its vocabulary goes far beyond calling a hip bone a femur. There are everyday idioms of expression used in medicine, not necessarily involving “scientific” words that are peculiar to the subculture. One might use the expression “zebra disease”, for example, meaning “exotic disease”, alluding to the medical school maxim “When you hear hoof-beats in the distance, think of horses, not zebras” (meaning that the medical student should entertain a diagnosis of common ailments before thinking of uncommon ones).

Moreover, beyond the thousands of such idiomatic expressions, there is a cultural difference in the style of academic medical prose in the English and French speaking worlds. French language medical papers tend to delight in the use of polysyllabic scientific terms while the English medical press, at least since 1975 when this issue was addressed by the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, tend to use more everyday language. To an English speaking medical reader, the French papers seem oddly pretentious, elitist and obfuscating. Translating these papers into English that does not sound “translated” requires a delicate register change – too much and the English version won’t sound academic.

So, at least in my field, an effective translator requires skills far beyond those of mere bilingualism.


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Quamrul Islam  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:10
Member (2009)
English to Bengali
+ ...
Experience and practice make up a good translator Sep 13, 2009

Becoming a good translator requires a great deal of efforts, experience and practice. One must have a passion for language if he/she wants to qualify as a good translator. Simply being bilingual is a natural/cultural/social phenomenon, and it has little to do with professionalism in translation. However, the situation varies from one individual to another. If someone is bilingual and at the same time has a passion for learning, he/she can definitely do well in the profession. In this connection, let me add that I myself have been a bilingual (Bengali+Urdu) since my childhood, but I had to learn both these languages intensively and extensively in order to achieve a really working knowledge (and professionalism).

[Edited at 2009-09-13 17:10 GMT]


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Raf Uzar
Poland
Local time: 00:10
Polish to English
TOPIC STARTER
Reply to Kleiner, Henry, Lingua, Agua... Sep 13, 2009

kleiner Kater, I'm inclined to agree - I don't think it does make a difference.

Henry, I love your use of 'get along' - this too can surely be a mark of bilingualism.

Lingua, Yes, agreed. It is an asset. My question to you is: is it the MOST IMPORTANT asset?

Aguas de Marco, jus a note - how do you understand fluency?


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 00:10
English to Croatian
+ ...
No, not most important Sep 13, 2009

Raf Uzar wrote:
Lingua, Yes, agreed. It is an asset. My question to you is: is it the MOST IMPORTANT asset?


No, certainly not, and I've already answered this question implicitly above, I said:

"Being bilingual from the childhood is a nice asset, but it is never enough to ensure that one will be a good translator. " This implies that it is not the most important asset.

If it were, then we would never see people who acquired their second language later in life becoming good translators/interpreters, and there are plenty out there.


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Raf Uzar
Poland
Local time: 00:10
Polish to English
TOPIC STARTER
Asset... Sep 13, 2009

Lingua, so what is the most important asset?

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xxxAguas de Mar
Right on, Russell Sep 13, 2009

Russell Jones wrote:

I don't actually speak my native language very well.
I write it extremely well (or so I have been told).

I speak my working language quite well only if I am reading it.
I understand (even very complex) texts written in it and 95% of what I hear spoken in it.

You can be dumb (or is it orally challenged) and a brilliant translator.



I know a few translators who can translate into their mother tongue from languages they find hard to speak. So maybe being bilingual means being able to fluently understand, and not necessarily speak two languages?

To Raf,
How do I understand fluency? Given Russell's comment, and after thinking about it for a while, I believe fluency has to do with several elements: 1) "feeling comfortable" understanding and using the language; 2) knowing how to "manipulate" it (like when to use one word instead of another); and 3) having a cultural knowledge related to that language; for instance, a document in US English poses no problem to me because I am extremely familiar with the US culture, but would probably have a hard time with an Australian document, even though the language is the same).

[Edited at 2009-09-13 21:56 GMT]


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Heike Schwarz  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 00:10
German to English
+ ...
bilingualism/trilingualism alone isn't enough Sep 13, 2009

Here's an example of multilingualism based on firsthand experience:

I grew up hearing and subsequently speaking three languages to the same degree: German, English and Afrikaans. I also received primary education in these languages, as so-called ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ languages in that very order (at the German International School in Cape Town).

At secondary school level I continued taking English and Afrikaans as so-called 'first' languages whereas French came along as a third language.

My tertiary language education comprised French, English and German and after years of successful translating I am at last on the verge of becoming an officially certified and approved translator for the languages German and English (in Germany).

Added to that, my mother and I have always conversed in Afrikaans and still do so to this day, yet I live in Germany and speak mostly German, and I still read passionately and greedily in all three languages I began my life with.

I believe that this background has given me the privilege of having a highly developed sense for transporting meaning from one of my mother tongues into the next within nanoseconds. Although this capability is only one of the key skills needed to be a good translator, granted, a major skill, but there's just so much more to it than that.

A translator must acquire competence and experience and should be a meticulous speller, a ‘text perfectionist’ (I agree fully with Russell on that aspect - it is a silent occupation). By the same token we need to be lexical specialists in our respective fields. And then there are some useful traits to have, such as empathy and intelligence.

So you see, it is a very nice-to-have and/or even essential quality that can of course be outweighed by other skills. Then again, when we see agencies looking for native speakers of the target language wouldn't it be logical to derive that coincedent simultaneous native proficiency in the source language ought to be a helluva bonus?


[Edited at 2009-09-14 21:08 GMT]


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