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Being bilingual/trilingual and writing skills
Thread poster: Mario Chavez

Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:09
English to Spanish
+ ...
Apr 24

As a practicing translator, working with texts for editing, translating, rewriting or assessment purposes has always been the bread and butter of the translator. In other words, these activities involve writing in one way or another, and has little if anything to do with bilingualism or trilingualism (speaking two or more languages).

What are your thoughts? That being bilingual automatically implies writing skills? Or should we be explicit and speak of writing skills when we refer to translation and similar tasks?

Thank you.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:09
Member (2007)
English
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I imagine all "good" translators think the same Apr 24

Mario Chavez wrote:
What are your thoughts? That being bilingual automatically implies writing skills? Or should we be explicit and speak of writing skills when we refer to translation and similar tasks?

Anyone who is making a success of translation as a career, rather than just earning a living for the moment churning out texts, must surely think the same as you and I think. I know many native speakers of English who can't write well. They produce rambling, contorted sentences that contain ambiguities and sometimes even grammar errors. Some of those people speak at least one other language perfectly well too, although I very much doubt they write well in any language. They might make good interpreters, but then that's a completely different job (as I found out the hard way). There's no way they should be professional translators.

Being bilingual implies being able to speak two languages, that's all. I'm sure there are totally illiterate bilinguals out there. I personally coached a perfectly bilingual teenager for an English exam in France, only to discover that she could neither read nor write English - she just spoke it as well as I did. It was a nasty shock but fortunately she soon learned. A "good" (i.e. a currently or likely-to-be successful) translator must understand a second language very well, and must be able to express themselves very clearly in their first language.


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:09
English to Spanish
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TOPIC STARTER
Thinking orderly is writing orderly Apr 24

I had two different conversations with a PhD student from China (who is studying the same PhD with me here in Lisbon) and with a master's student from Turkey. They can speak English pretty well and get most of the nuances in modern idiomatic English. I don't know how well they write in English, however.

One thread emerged during these two conversations: they complained of being unable to start writing a paper, although they had all their relevant concepts and ideas in their heads. To simply tell them to just write down those ideas for later development was useless. I'm afraid it is a matter of habit. Good writing habits begin early in life, not in a person's late 20s (as these students are 29 and 27, respectively).

A second problem I detected a few years ago: some English translators (working from Spanish into English) in a Yahoo group were reluctant to express themselves in writing in Spanish, even though it was their B language, and even actively complained against a rule I had set up for a mirror group on another social media ­­­—that all discussions for the Spanish translators group be made in (surprise!) Spanish. The problem I saw: lack of confidence in language B writing skills, not even on a professional or academic level, just on a colloquial, no-pressure plane.

I've taken a dim view of translators who make up excuses to write in their B language since then.


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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 12:09
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
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I agree with both of you! Apr 24

In order to translate well, one has to be a good writer. I know some bilingual and trilingual people who speak French and English (my main working languages) much better than me but are a zero when it comes to translating: bad grammar, spelling mistakes, improper punctuation…

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Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 20:09
Member
Chinese to English
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Writing in different ways Apr 25

I write well in both Chinese and English, but the style of writing is quite different. I tend to be more concise and to the point in Chinese, while with English I tend to beat around the bush a little bit with embellishment.

On the whole I probably write better in English just because I do so a lot more frequently outside of translation. I have never written an academic paper in Chinese and I doubt I would be able to do it.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Disagree Apr 25

I have to disagree. And not just because it's Mario.

Translation is first and foremost a matter of, well, translation. Not good writing.

Understanding the source and communicating it adequately in the target.

Like interpreting.

A kind of Google Translate Plus.

After all, most non-translators write very poorly and still somehow manage to earn far more than us from writing reports and conveying ideas badly.

Good writing is just the icing on the cake.

OK, it's important in some contexts, but unnecessary in most.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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I don't quite agree Apr 25

Mario Chavez wrote:
That being bilingual automatically implies writing skills?


No, but... in some languages, and in some fields, you can get away with just following the source language. This means, however, that poor source text writing will result in poor translation text writing. Which can be avoided by simply refusing to work with poor quality source texts (or being fortunate enough never to encounter them).

This is true of some fields in my language combination -- if the source text is brilliant, the translation will win prizes, but if the source text is rubbish, the translation will be crap as well, unless the translator is savvy. I often do editing of other people's translations. A client might ask of me to rate a new translator's ability after just one translation, but often, if the source text itself is good, I can't evaluate the translator reliably.

On a different note, I must mention that I myself can't write good prose either (in either of my languages), though I can recognise it. I suspect that good prose skills are more important in some fields than in others. It might be a mistake to think that one should be able to evaluate all translators based on the flair with which they can write e.g. a plot summary or a book report. On the other hand, although good writing ability is a talent, there is a skill component to it, and it would be fair to expect of translators to improve theirs through training.

[Edited at 2017-04-25 09:56 GMT]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
On non-native writing skills Apr 25

Mario Chavez wrote:
Some Spanish-English translators in a Yahoo group were reluctant to express themselves in writing in Spanish, even though it was their B language. ... The problem I saw: lack of confidence in language B writing skills, not even on a professional or academic level. ... I've taken a dim view of translators who make up excuses to write in their B language since then.


This is a different topic, however, and there are many issues involved that may not be related to writing skill in one's target language.

Firstly, not all translators are bilingual. While it's true that bilingual people sometimes become translators, some other translators are monolinguals who learn their "other" language at college. These college learners may spend some time in the other language's country, but unless they relocate there, or marry, their college learnt language remains a foreign language for them and does not become their second language. (I'm using the term "second language" and "bilingual" here in the sense of having an ability that approaches the point at which an ordinary native speaker is not able to tell that you're not a native speaker, except for pronunciation.)

Secondly, there is also the issue of passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. Even in one's native language, an ordinary person's active vocabulary is much smaller than his passive vocabulary, and I think the gap is even greater in one's second language, and obviously much more so in a foreign language. The term "vocabulary" here means not just individual words, but also phrases and expressions.

Thirdly, do not forget that translators tend to evaluate each other by their writing, and for this reason translators may prefer to write in the language in which there is the least risk of tripping up and creating a poor impression about oneself. Remember, being [over/under-]confident about one's ability does not say anything about the actual ability. A perfectionist may feel less confident even if he is good.

At lastly, your comment relates to "e-communication" (e-mail groups, chat groups, bulletin boards, blogs, etc), which is subtly different from ordinary communication and which must be learnt by newcomers. Over time, any language that has a large number of speakers who communicate with each other on forums exclusively in that language will develop a certain style of writing (which in the case of English has become "more conversational", hence the adage often quoted by English speakers as if it would be a universal principle that e-communication is "more conversational").



[Edited at 2017-04-25 10:04 GMT]


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:09
English to Spanish
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TOPIC STARTER
Writing styles Apr 25

Lincoln Hui wrote:

I write well in both Chinese and English, but the style of writing is quite different. I tend to be more concise and to the point in Chinese, while with English I tend to beat around the bush a little bit with embellishment.

On the whole I probably write better in English just because I do so a lot more frequently outside of translation. I have never written an academic paper in Chinese and I doubt I would be able to do it.


That's a pretty cool contribution, Lincoln. Thanks!


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:09
English to Spanish
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TOPIC STARTER
Additional ideas brought in Apr 25

Thanks, Chris and Samuel, for the additional ideas.

There's a school of thought (for lack of a better term) that guides a translator to write his translation at the level of the original. In that case, since the theory and strategy put in place is one of fidelity to the original text's style, the translation may not be better written than the original.

A slightly opposed school of thought guides the translator to improve in the translation the original's awkward expressions, erroneous syntax or disorderly prose, to name a few problems. When comparing the original and the resulting translation, the latter shows not a different register but a more polished or normative prose. Not a different style, that's another thing.

When I say writing skills, I don't mean soaring, eloquent prose by default. And literary prose was far removed from my mind when I mentioned it on this thread. I don't want to belabor the point, but let me just say that excellent writing skills, for all intents and purposes, involve the ability to write well-constructed sentences and paragraphs, the aptitude to write a “tight” (that is, concise or compact) central idea and supporting sentences or clauses, regardless of whether the text is a business letter, a short email, an executive summary, a set of technical procedures or a product description on a marketing collateral.

Samuel, true that the electronic board writing style is different (in the case of the Yahoo! group I referred to) but the point remains: translators should be able to express themselves well in writing in all their active languages.

Now, you make a good point regarding active and passive vocabulary. Also, a translator's B language may become more passive if he doesn't live in a B-language country (by work, marriage, etc.) to practice it. Then again, since writing is a very versatile technology (in the broadest sense of the word), active practice, mental discipline and perseverance in any learned language should compensate for the inertia.

Finally, in a 2007 presentation at an ATISA conference in San Diego, Dr. Sonia Colina (The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ) made a very convincing case of how a translator living in a foreign country for too long may start losing some fine knowledge of his own native language (A language), which is reflected in his translations by the misuse of subjunctive tenses, prepositional collocations, etc. This geographical influence (again, for lack of a better term) is almost inevitable, but I think one can counteract it by applying some of the following:

a) Frequent trips and stays in one's mother country
b) Frequent reading and writing in one's mother tongue(s) - Newspapers, books, etc., favoring printed matter over online resources if possible
c) Taking classes at different levels (college, adult education, etc.) in the mother tongue(s) - One example would me for me to go back to Córdoba, Argentina and take a 3-month paint class.

The above list is rather descriptive and consists of activities I have personally taken up.


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Robert Forstag  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:09
Member (2003)
Spanish to English
+ ...
An unrealistic - and inappropriate - standard Apr 27

Samuel Murray wrote:

This is a different topic, however, and there are many issues involved that may not be related to writing skill in one's target language.

Firstly, not all translators are bilingual. While it's true that bilingual people sometimes become translators, some other translators are monolinguals who learn their "other" language at college. These college learners may spend some time in the other language's country, but unless they relocate there, or marry, their college learnt language remains a foreign language for them and does not become their second language. (I'm using the term "second language" and "bilingual" here in the sense of having an ability that approaches the point at which an ordinary native speaker is not able to tell that you're not a native speaker, except for pronunciation.)

Secondly, there is also the issue of passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. Even in one's native language, an ordinary person's active vocabulary is much smaller than his passive vocabulary, and I think the gap is even greater in one's second language, and obviously much more so in a foreign language. The term "vocabulary" here means not just individual words, but also phrases and expressions.

[Etc.]


Samuel makes some solid points here. There are excellent translators who do not speak their source language(s) fluently - or even passably. Conversely, there are plenty of persons who would generally be considered "bilingual" who really do not have what could be called a high command of either of their languages, something that manifests itself in their speech and writing (i.e., in both of their languages).

Having a good command of one's non-native language(s) is more important - indeed essential - for interpreters than for translators. Yet even in the world of interpretation, I would venture to say that those who consistently speak and write their "B" language at a level where they do not make significant mistakes on a fairly frequent basis are fairly rare. I have spoken with (and witnessed the work of) certified interpreters whom I would not characterize as having an excellent command of English. Yet some of these same people are considered good enough to receive handsome fees for their services, and are even flown to locations far away from their hometowns for assignments.

So demanding near-native speech and writing abilities in a second language is a very high bar indeed. Those who attain (or even approximate) such a standard are certainly worthy of the highest respect, and it is an eminently worthy goal. But the fact is the majority of persons working in the world of translation fall short of such a lofty standard, and dismissing such people out of hand on the grounds of a lack of fluency in their non-native language(s) is, in my view, simply preposterous.


[Edited at 2017-04-27 19:55 GMT]


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espanoz
Australia
Local time: 23:09
English to Spanish
Being bilingual and writing skills Jun 26

I recently gave a talk at a Writers Festival on bilingualism and the challenges of translation.

I do believe that a good translator must be, not only proficient in their language/s but also able to correctly express the ideas presented in a text in the source language into the target language with total accuracy and good style. It is my view that this exercise requires excellent writing skills.


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:09
English to Spanish
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TOPIC STARTER
Writing skills Jun 28

espanoz wrote:

I recently gave a talk at a Writers Festival on bilingualism and the challenges of translation.

I do believe that a good translator must be, not only proficient in their language/s but also able to correctly express the ideas presented in a text in the source language into the target language with total accuracy and good style. It is my view that this exercise requires excellent writing skills.




Could you share a link to that talk? That would be interesting to many of us.

As we can see, sadly, many translators still think that translation is a separate process from writing.


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Sorana_M.
Romania
Local time: 14:09
English to Romanian
+ ...
More than two languages Jun 30

When I was in college (15 years ago or so), I could speak, apart from Romanian, English, French, German, and Italian. My speaking and writing were close-to-perfection in English and French, because I had been studying them for years, and it had been a rigorous study, thanks to my teachers, while I had taught myself German and Italian by watching TV. Not elaborate self-teaching, but enough to be able to participate in conversations. I could never write properly in German and Italian, though.

My parents also mastered more than two languages each. Different languages.

Today, I feel I have forgotten French almost completely, because I haven't used it for years, while German and Italian are resting in pieces in some remote corner of my mind. But I can understand simple conversations in Spanish.


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Texte Style
Local time: 13:09
French to English
Depends on context! Jul 3

I know excellent translators (one now working at the Hague further to my reccommendation) who don't speak their source language. Some prefer not to reveal their inability to conjugate. I remember one telling me that she wasn't going to put herself at a disadvantage when ringing my boss to demand payment. From what I have seen proofreading these excellent translators, this inability does not in any way impact their production of texts that read well.

Writing well is a skill in its own right: the ability to set your ideas forth in a way that means people can understand, manipulating the language to achieve effects such as surprise or humour, homing in on the exact word that resonates with the reader, making references that they may relate to easily, withholding then revealing information at the right time... While it's very useful in marketing, tourism, cultural texts, it's perhaps not entirely necessary to translate a handbook for hairdryers.


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