Being Bilingual: The Relationship between Translation and Bilingualism

October 1st, 2012
Being Bilingual The Relationship between Translation and Bilingualism

Sometimes I feel as if we translators get no respect.

False Fluency

One reason for this is vocabulary and comprehension: Being able to speak a second language is often a skill acquired in a very narrow set of circumstances – in the home, for example, or while living abroad. The vocabulary and grammar learned is therefore often very limited – sufficient for your needs, but not broad enough to be able to translate at a professional level.

Many people experience a false fluency in these situations – in the narrow band of their lives in which they use their second language they are perfectly fluent, but remove them to an unfamiliar situation and they discover they don't have the words or the comprehension to effectively communicate, much less translate.

Special Skills

Another aspect of professional translation work is precision. Many bilinguals know enough of their languages to communicate, certainly, but translation requires much more than simple communication – it requires the ability to fully and completely comprehend the language being translated and then an equal ability to render an accurate translation into the destination language. Approximations or interpretations won't work – the translation must be accurate in tone and meaning. In order to accomplish this, bilinguals must have a deep understanding of the languages in question.

However, overly literal translations are also no good, and are sometimes rendered by bilinguals who have an overly academic knowledge of a language but no real life experience with it. For example, if I want to express the sentiment ‘I'm kidding myself’ in French, I would say Je me raconte des histoires.

If a translator were only able to literally move this phrase into English, they would render it as ‘I’m telling myself stories’. The literal translation is not useful or effective, but it requires the training of a translator to be able to render the meaning instead of merely the words.

Many bilinguals discover how difficult translation is when asked by friends or family to act in this role, and appreciate the special skills required. It's almost always the non-bilinguals who assume simply knowing a second language is sufficient for translation work! There are, in fact, Translation Schools which offer the necessary training. Admission to these schools requires first that you demonstrate skill in at least two languages – and only then can the real training begin.