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Linguistics and Translation
Thread poster: Ronnie J Rigdon

Ronnie J Rigdon  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:47
French to English
Sep 20, 2013

Does being a linguist (i.e. someone who has studied or has a degree in linguistics) give someone a leg-up in translation? I know it's possible to be a good translator without linguistic training but is there any advantage to having an understanding of linguistic principles?

I would think it would since linguistics gives you an understanding of the mechanics of language (not even any language in particular) but I'd like to hear other thoughts.


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autor  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 05:47
Member
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Specialist or non specialist Sep 20, 2013

Depends whether you're concentrating on a specialist field in which you have first-hand experience. If so you will perform better than a language student with no subject experience every time.

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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:47
Russian to English
+ ...
In the past most translators were linguists -- people with Sep 20, 2013

Ronnie Rigdon wrote:

Does being a linguist (i.e. someone who has studied or has a degree in linguistics) give someone a leg-up in translation? I know it's possible to be a good translator without linguistic training but is there any advantage to having an understanding of linguistic principles?

I would think it would since linguistics gives you an understanding of the mechanics of language (not even any language in particular) but I'd like to hear other thoughts.


philological education. Nowadays many people who know a few languages take to translation. I believe that linguistic studies are absolutely essential to translation -- perhaps even not the whole program, but at least a few essential courses in linguistics and poetics, plus creative writing, or at least some advanced composition, courses.

I have never met anyone who was a good translator and did not have any knowledge about linguistics -- I just don't think it is possible. You can study on your own of course -- there are plenty of books around.





[Edited at 2013-09-20 21:47 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 12:47
Chinese to English
I'm not convinced it helps Sep 21, 2013

Half of my first degree was linguistics, and I don't think it's been any direct help. I did formal, theoretical linguistics, and it's still a very young science. It hasn't got to grips with the hard bits of language yet, i.e. meaning. And translation is all about meaning, so there's a disconnect between the two.

Some of the reading I did around the subject back then has paid off, though. I recommend George Lakoff. Jean Aitchison on the lexicon is useful, particularly the concept of priming. And it might be worth reading some stuff on language typology. But none of these are any substitute for having a feeling for your languages.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 12:47
Chinese to English
Incidentally... Sep 21, 2013

I firmly believe that philology - basically etymology - is the worst thing you can possibly study. People who reach for the etymology of a word to explain its modern meaning are so wrong, so wrong. It's the worst kind of misleading language priggery.

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Andy Watkinson
Spain
Local time: 06:47
Member
Catalan to English
+ ...
@LilianBNekipelo Sep 21, 2013

LilianBNekipelo wrote:
perhaps even not the whole program, but at least a few essential courses in linguistics and poetics, plus creative writing, or at least some advanced composition, courses.



I quite agree that a course in "poetics" might be useful for translators of that persuasion or that judicious use of "creativity" is a lifesaver.

But to say that studying such courses is of the essence is a bit over the top.

I can assure you that when I translate the prospectus for a bond issuance, the last thing my client wants is for me to start getting creative.


I doubt I'm alone.


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Simon Chiassai  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:47
English to French
+ ...
depends on your language Sep 21, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

Half of my first degree was linguistics, and I don't think it's been any direct help.


My undergrad was also about linguistics and I do feel it helps. But my degree was in my B language and this is perhaps why I find it so useful, as it helped me understand the underlying linguistic relations within a text.

Phil Hand wrote:

But none of these are any substitute for having a feeling for your languages.


Again, I believe it depends on your languages. I find that the "feeling" I get for my A language (French) isn't always correct or appropriate. Rules are rules, regardless of what I think sounds better or flows better. Of course these rules can be sometimes bended or disregarded depending on the type of text, the audience, etc. But this has nothing to do with what "feels" right, rather with what is expected of you as a translator, and I believe it has less to do with "feeling", and more with "knowledge".


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:47
Hebrew to English
Linguistics degree is of some use Sep 21, 2013

Technically half (but in reality was probably closer to three quarters) of my undergraduate degree was linguistics. I think it's debatable whether it helps or not. Personally I find it does.

Of course this depends on a lot of things - the exact make-up of your linguistics degree, mine for example was quite well-rounded in that it included most areas: semantics, pragmatics, phonetics and phonology, syntax, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics/neurolinguistics, morphology etc. Some of these areas are obviously more relevant than others when it comes to translation (on a day-to-day basis I'd say syntax is the one which I find most helpful). My degree also allowed for quite a lot of cross-linguistic comparisons (using my source language) so that obviously was useful.

The main thing a linguistics degree does give you, I believe, is the ability to analyse language on quite a technical and detailed level (and to have a wealth of knowledge that you can apply to this). Being able to break down a horrible sentence with a nice syntax tree can come in handy sometimes!


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:47
Russian to English
+ ...
My experience is quite the opposite -- I absolutely Sep 21, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

I firmly believe that philology - basically etymology - is the worst thing you can possibly study. People who reach for the etymology of a word to explain its modern meaning are so wrong, so wrong. It's the worst kind of misleading language priggery.


love linguistics. It is not such a young science, if you include philological studies in it. Even Plato made some contributions. I think it helps a lot, but perhaps you have to love it first.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:47
French to English
+ ...
General skills probably useful, specific knowledge not Sep 21, 2013

A first degree with *some* linguistics alongside your studies of the actual language will help you develop your analytical skills of language generally. If you choose a university whose language course includes linguistics, it's also probably a good sign that they're going to actually focus a bit on the language and not just bang on about whether the depressive state of La Princesse de Clèves was related to her hat size.

On the other hand, it's important to understand that linguistics doesn't really involve any specific *knowledge* that will assist with translation and it's probably fair to say that there's no major branch of linguistics that is even attempting to assist with translation. (Phil's comment about semantics is true in a sense, but not in others: semantics has made progress in various areas, just that few of them are of direct help to a human translator; nor are they attempting to be.)

It might hone some skills that turn out to be practical in a very tangential way: e.g. having an awareness of syntax may help you think about suitable Google Ngram/corpus searches when looking for relative frequencies of competing translations you're deciding between, or may help you spot systematic patterns in mistakes made by machine translation systems if you end up in that area of the market. But that's about it.

Studying linguistics *will* allow you to see through pseudo-linguistic nonsense of prescriptive grammar and style guides. So on the one hand, you'll be in a better position to shut clients up when they whinge about the wiggly green line under the phrase 'due to'. But on the other hand, you will also have to learn to abandon your scruples and bite your lip when clients are absolutely *insistent* that because Microsoft Word says it's incorrect to write 'which', it must be true.


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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:47
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
Linguistics for translators Sep 21, 2013

Neil Coffey wrote:

Studying linguistics *will* allow you to see through pseudo-linguistic nonsense of prescriptive grammar and style guides.


I think all translators should have a basic knowledge of linguistics, if for no other reason than this one.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:47
Hebrew to English
Yep! Seconded Sep 21, 2013

Michele Fauble wrote:

Neil Coffey wrote:

Studying linguistics *will* allow you to see through pseudo-linguistic nonsense of prescriptive grammar and style guides.


I think all translators should have a basic knowledge of linguistics, if for no other reason than this one.


I forgot about this, which I shouldn't have done given that I was only reading some *person* the other day simply refusing to acknowledge the singular "they", they just kept pedantically asserting it was "wrong". Ggggrrrr.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 12:47
Chinese to English
Interesting Sep 22, 2013

Another vote for what Neil said about prescriptive grammar, that's absolutely right.

Simon Chiassai wrote:

Again, I believe it depends on your languages. I find that the "feeling" I get for my A language (French) isn't always correct or appropriate. Rules are rules, regardless of what I think sounds better or flows better. Of course these rules can be sometimes bended or disregarded depending on the type of text, the audience, etc. But this has nothing to do with what "feels" right, rather with what is expected of you as a translator, and I believe it has less to do with "feeling", and more with "knowledge".

That's really interesting. I know you have a bit of a different relationship with grammar in France to how it is in the UK, and I can certainly see the value of being authoritative. In Chinese, though, when I see texts translated badly from Chinese, most of the errors have come in the reading stage, because the translator has spent their time looking at the words/characters, and has neglected to actually *read* the text, to sit back and feel what it means.


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liviu roth
United States
Local time: 00:47
Romanian to English
+ ...
what ??? Sep 22, 2013

[quote]LilianBNekipelo wrote:

I believe that linguistic studies are absolutely essential to translation -- perhaps even not the whole program, but at least a few essential courses in linguistics and poetics, plus creative writing, or at least some advanced composition, courses.

I have never met anyone who was a good translator and did not have any knowledge about linguistics -- I just don't think it is possible. You can study on your own of course -- there are plenty of books around.



It seems that some people have never seen a translated document regarding criminal matters done by a linguist. I had the misfortune to review a few, and I can tell that they were beautifully translated, good spelling and grammar, correct placement of commas and semicolons .... but devoid of any legal meaning and concepts.
Cui prodest if the semicolon is in the right place if they don't know that a "True Bill" is an "Indictment", if "Statute of limitations" is not "Prescription", if they don't understand the legal implication of "Expungement" etc ?

Therefore, it depends on the specific field; there are certain fields like medical, pharmaceutical, engineering, certain sections of the legal field where linguistic studies are almost worthless unless they are backed-up by serious studies in the field. If the linguist does not understand the subtleties of the specific field, his knowledge of "linguistics and poetics, plus creative writing" isn't worth a dime.

[Edited at 2013-09-22 04:09 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:47
Russian to English
+ ...
Yes, exactly. Sep 22, 2013

Neil Coffey wrote:

A first degree with *some* linguistics alongside your studies of the actual language will help you develop your analytical skills of language generally. If you choose a university whose language course includes linguistics, it's also probably a good sign that they're going to actually focus a bit on the language and not just bang on about whether the depressive state of La Princesse de Clèves was related to her hat size.

On the other hand, it's important to understand that linguistics doesn't really involve any specific *knowledge* that will assist with translation and it's probably fair to say that there's no major branch of linguistics that is even attempting to assist with translation. (Phil's comment about semantics is true in a sense, but not in others: semantics has made progress in various areas, just that few of them are of direct help to a human translator; nor are they attempting to be.)

It might hone some skills that turn out to be practical in a very tangential way: e.g. having an awareness of syntax may help you think about suitable Google Ngram/corpus searches when looking for relative frequencies of competing translations you're deciding between, or may help you spot systematic patterns in mistakes made by machine translation systems if you end up in that area of the market. But that's about it.

Studying linguistics *will* allow you to see through pseudo-linguistic nonsense of prescriptive grammar and style guides. So on the one hand, you'll be in a better position to shut clients up when they whinge about the wiggly green line under the phrase 'due to'. But on the other hand, you will also have to learn to abandon your scruples and bite your lip when clients are absolutely *insistent* that because Microsoft Word says it's incorrect to write 'which', it must be true.


Studying linguistics has even many more advantages than that, essential for any translator.

As to legal documents, I agree that it is not enough to be a linguists, fluent in the working languages. You have to have the lexical knowledge in both of them close to a lawyer and basic knowledge, or sometimes even not that basic, about the legal systems of the countries involved. Even then, though, you need linguistic background, at least some. In fact, you need some in all the branches of translation.



[Edited at 2013-09-22 13:04 GMT]


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