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26 Nov 2014

When bilingualism is not enough

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When bilingualism is not enough

As it often happens on the train here in the Northern England, perhaps out of boredom, or just because the book I was reading couldn’t quite catch my attention any longer, I stroke up a conversation with a person that was sitting in front of me. Noticing that my accent wasn’t “local” and unable to make out where it was actually from, she asked me whether I was Irish!!! I replied saying that I was Italian but had spent quite some time in different parts of Great Britain, mostly in Scotland during my teens, and could not get rid of my slightly Scottish accent. When I told her that I was a translator, the conversation took an unexpected turn into bilingualism. Apparently one of her friends had been living in Paris for ages and she was perfectly fluent in French. Despite her linguistic skills and cultural knowledge, she had not been able to find a job as a translator and had been working as a secretary for years. “Can you imagine it?”, she asked.

Do you need to be trained to be a translator?

I could! And I also knew the reason why.

I resorted to a culinary comparison – supposing that it was our common ground- and let her realize that being able to cook a delicious carrot cake is not a sufficient credential for someone to be called a pastry chef.

The stranger I had met on the train was utterly surprised when I explained her that being proficient in two languages does not necessarily imply being a translator and that, as professionals, translators usually have a degree in translation with years of demanding university training from appointed translation institutes around the world and a thorough knowledge of their specialization fields. Conversely being a professional in a specific technical field and having a reasonably good knowledge of a foreign language are only basic skills and do not apply to the role of a specialized translator.

“This is really interesting! I naively took for granted that having a dictionary and mastering a foreign language was enough to call yourself a translator” she confessed. Unfortunately I had to get off the train, but I was really happy to know that she had grasped the meaning of our conversation.

It is not one-to-one word deal

On my way back home I kept on thinking about the “person-with-a-dictionary-image” she had associated a translator with.

No matter the type of bilingualism, be it a simultaneous and natural acquisition of two languages in the same cultural setting or a superimposed activity carried out over the first mother tongue, it will not suffice to be labeled as the only prerequisite required in translation. As a matter of fact, bilinguals might not be entirely aware of specialized terminology, have the same linguistic skills in both languages, or they might simply lack some cultural aspects related to either languages, leading to “faulty” translations.

Furthermore, a one-to-one word translation would be detrimental since, as translation theorists put it, translation corresponds to the reproduction of a source language meaning into its closest equivalent in the target language preserving the same style and author’s intention.

Tracing the profile of a translator

The main task of a translator, and more precisely, of a technical translator, is to ensure an extremely high level of accuracy and factual complexity. This is done in order to thoroughly comprehend the meaning of the source text and “transfer” its content in a target language preserving the same genre and register.

In other words, translators need to be aware of terminological issues (neologisms, synonyms, acronyms, abbreviations and so forth), genre, style implications and cultural traits. They need to “stay loyal” to what I would define as an “ethical code of conduct for translators” requiring proficiency, efficiency and confidentiality. And last but not least, they constantly need to be up-to-date in their particular field of specialization to fully understand the meaning of a source text, especially when the latter is of poor quality, to deliver a high-quality translation.