Category Archives: The craft of translation

What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the dot.com bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:

disruptive-disruptivo-fundeu

I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:

disruptive-definition-ahd

In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from Thesaurus.com:

disruptive-synonyms-thesaurus-com

We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search

There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

There are as many definitions of translation as there are people in the world. Or, at least, as there are people who want you to hear their definition of such a pedestrian profession. Age gives you a new set of goggles to see the world every few years if you are gracious enough to let Time give you advice, that is.

Let’s assume translation has one main role, that of allowing one culture to be understood by another, and vice versa. In that sense, translation’s goal never ends as long as human cultures endure towards that end horizon we never seem to reach. That one culture needing to be understood in a different one possesses attributes, nuances and colors foreign to the receiving culture is a given. That cultural differences may be different, even shockingly surprising, is a fact that does not change. So, what does change in translating them? Processes, procedures, workflows, sales tactics, terminologies —What exactly?

The school of translation I attended in my youth was formerly called a school of languages, which reveals the fountainhead of ideas guiding the teaching of translation, imposing the models that are to be copied and passed down to professors and students, and offering up lists of authoritative books on linguistics, dictionaries, theories, etc. A closed world, you might say, almost like a serpent pursuing its own tail. Why? Even though translation was being (and continues to be) taught for several language pairs (Spanish>Italian, Spanish>German, Spanish>French, Spanish to English being the most popular), this academic bubble keeps on churning out translation graduates to an ever-encroaching global world. During my stay in Córdoba (Argentina) in 2005-2007, translation students graduating with little or no knowledge of how to present themselves to the world or understanding on the use of CAT tools was the common complaint I’ve heard. The emphasis in translation teaching was squarely set on language, grammar and texts.

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

From that school of translation of the 1980s to the Aughts of the 21st century, I saw a significant change: a university offering hundreds of Spanish, French, German or Italian translators to a nonexistent local market to the same institution offering an increasing number of Spanish translators to a globalized local market. And that brings us to a second change, that of the local or urban market, quite well defined in its physical, commercial and intellectual boundaries, converting, voluntarily or not, to one more affiliate of the global machinery of commerce. As a company, big or small, you no longer have to send representatives to foreign countries… you send your translated literature to those lands!

Moving on to an aspect with a different scope: translation itself has changed. The forces of globalized commerce, rather than bringing together different cultures, languages and cities, have brought them into closer proximity via two distinct vehicles: the English language and consumeristic technologies. In the 70s and 80s, the translated literature accompanying a product was something of a luxury or an option, but it was certainly not a commodity. In fact, if memory serves me well, reading the Spanish translation of some consumer pamphlet or manual was a singular experience that enhanced the purchase, or “purchase experience” as the marketers of today are wont to say.

This purchase or acquisition was enhanced because the translation itself revealed a level of writing, of composition, an arrangement of texts that we no longer see in assembly-lined texts produced within companies where simultaneous release or production is prime priority. The excellence in writing a piece announcing the new car model, computer or coffeemaker, for example, has been replaced with so-called quality statistics, colorful infographics and PowerPoint slides. Translations have lost their soul.

I still remember the care I needed to place on writing a single-page introductory letter to prospective buyers of the milk products my company was making for local markets, which were no longer sufficient for expansion. My boss, the sales manager, had to approve my drafts before I could commit a single word to paper via our IBM Selectric typewriter. Now companies rely more on robomail, Word templates and slick stock photography on websites to introduce themselves. Where’s the writing skill? The individualized text has become the commoditized content.

In the face of such challenges, companies intent on penetrating new and foreign markets —or that want to reintroduce themselves ­­— ­­­­would do well in securing the services of translators who are very good writers first and language experts second. People and individuals, all consumers in one way or another, still want to feel personally welcome, distinctly touched by your writing, even in the Age of Emojis.

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Filed under Commodification, Quality in translation, The business of translation, Translation as value added, Writing skills

El traductor como lector-autor

El siguiente es un ejercicio en redacción en mi primer idioma natal, el español. Quizás algunos lectores se sientan obligados a pedirme la versión en inglés (háganlo, si así lo desean).

Note: this posting is an exercise in Spanish writing, and Spanish is my first mother tongue. If you’d like to read this post in English, kindly ask me via a comment or email. Thank you.

Algunos de mis colegas ya saben que estoy matriculado en un programa de doctorado en traducción y terminología. Aclaro que más me interesa la traducción que la terminología; esta última es una disciplina multidisciplinar (como lo es la traducción o los llamados estudios de traducción) que merece su nota de bitácora por separado.

Una de las cuestiones que ha venido aguijoneándome desde hace años es la enseñanza de la traducción. Y el móvil de estos pensamientos surgió en un rincón inesperado: la redacción técnica en inglés. Allá por 1997 me había matriculado en una clase (tres horas crédito) dictada por un profesor de origen armenio o persa, muy afable y organizado. El programa, ofrecido por Cal State-Fullerton, se centraba más en los principios de redacción técnica más que en los programas informáticos que más de moda estaban entre los comunicadores técnicos del momento, como RoboHelp, DreamWeaver, FrontPage y Quark Xpress.

¿Acaso podemos enseñar a otros a escribir? La pregunta es un poco tautológica y también se contesta sola en caso afirmativo. Todos aprendemos a hablar en la cuna cultural que nos toca. En esa aula de la vida y la familia, aprendemos los sonidos que refieren a esos glifos y símbolos que llamamos ya sea letras, palabras, idiogramas o pictogramas (según seamos de ascendencia europea, china o polinesia, etc.). A medida que aprendemos a dominar el encadenamiento de sonidos y palabras, vamos nombrando ideas, sentimientos, cosas y conceptos, en medio del ensayo y el error. Claro, cometíamos muchísimos errores, que a nuestros mayores a veces les parecían graciosos, encantadores, tontos o una combinación de todo ello. Siempre me maravilló pensar en que un niñito que yerra mientras aprende a hablar y a expresarse poco le importa que se rían de él. Es más, toma las risas y bromas como parte del aprendizaje, sin internalizarlas ni guardarlas. Comparemos esa circunstancia con la del adulto cualquiera que reacciona con un gesto ofendido cuando se le corrige la escritura, la puntuación o la gramática.

Aprender a leer es ese puente que todos cruzamos a tientas hasta que podemos expresarnos por escrito. Es una labor ardua y disciplinada que nos lleva mucho más esfuerzo que aprender a hablar. Y hay varios estadios de aprendizaje y de dominio, desde el nivel del tercer grado (por un ejemplo) hasta la categoría universitaria y más allá. Descubrimos, de adultos, que el habla y la escritura se especializan cada vez más tanto por razones tanto tribales como profesionales.

Aprender a escribir es una actividad continua que nos lleva toda la vida. A menos que decidamos quedarnos en un estadio, como el del trabajador en una fábrica de zapatillas, contentos con lo alcanzado y sin que nos interesen otras áreas del conocimiento, siempre necesitaremos armarnos de nuevos vocabularios y nuevos recursos retóricos para expresarnos por escrito.

Hay quienes están satisfechos con dar el siguiente parte sobre las vacaciones de una semana tomadas el verano pasado: “La pasé muy bien/Me divertí muchísimo/La ciudad era espectacular/Hice muchos amigos/Visité varios museos” y así sucesivamente. Los parlamentos se acortan, aunque desestimo la primera razón que nos parece obvia: que estamos apurados en la vida. No, no lo creo. Otro ejemplo es responder al amigo o pariente que nos ve luego que hemos visto una película de estreno. Solícitamente nos pregunta: “¿Cómo fue la película? ¿De qué se trataba?” Y le contestamos con frases remanidas como “¡Estuvo fantástica!/Era un drama basado en hechos reales ocurridos en la Alemania del siglo XIX/Era una de aventuras con Hombre-Araña y Tor; me gustaron las actuaciones y los efectos especiales”.

Y ahí se terminan nuestras habilidades redactoras.

Uno de los ejercicios que daba a mis alumnos de traducción años atrás era el de escribir un trozo de 150-200 palabras en el que me describieran un paseo, un monumento, una visita a una ciudad, etc. En lugar de recurrir a las expresiones cuasineandertálicas (si se me permite el humor), estos alumnos se veían entre impulsados y forzados a describir, armar oraciones complejas, usar varios tiempos verbales, además de adverbios, frases preposicionales y otros recursos conocidos pero caídos en desuso. Claro, algunos de los trabajos se leían como relatos formulistas y preenvasados, pero era un buen paso.

Traducir es leer y (re)escribir lo leído. Para que la traducción no se lea formulista ni tenga todas las características de un texto zombi, hay que cultivar buenos hábitos de lectura, los cuales siempre informarán nuestros hábitos de escritura. Es indispensable ir más allá de leer textos en nuestros idiomas natales; hay que seleccionarlos con cuidado, sin temor a equivocarnos. Ya sean libros, revistas, artículos, ponencias, intervenciones, libros, folletos, afiches, almanaques, tarjetas, etcétera, todo es útil. Que nada escape a nuestro ojo crítico.

Nuestros ojos son como un segundo cerebro que desempeña actividades tanto cuando están abiertos como cuando están cerrados. ¿O acaso no han cerrado los ojos cuando escuchan una melodía o después de leer un pasaje, a fin de visualizar lo escuchado o lo leído? Los ojos no son simplemente faros ni detectores de modelos visuales (pattern scanners). Es posible desarrollar y cultivar una vista estereoespacial, a la manera del sonido estereofónico, donde podamos aprehender diferentes pieles textuales, distintos matices y colores en las palabras. Si aprendemos o reaprendemos el arte de la lectura, más allá de su obvia utilidad cotidiana, estoy seguro de que podremos aprender a escribir con una soltura aún por descubrir, en la cual nos podamos reconocer.

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Filed under Grammar, Lectura - Reading, Lectura contemplativa, Redacción - Writing, Writing skills

A day in the life of a 21st century translator

I’m not your vanilla-type translator. I’m not a conventional writer. Keen-eyed readers of my blog might have noticed that I never capitalize Every Single Word in my blog headings. I march to the beat of my own drum. However, I didn’t start like that at all. I thought I would be translating articles, business documents or similar media day in and day out for a corporation or organization after I earned my diploma.

Twenty five years ago, with a bachelor’s degree in English and Translation Studies in hand, I did not have one or two specializations in mind. Although I had studied the basics of Law for four semesters as part of the translation studies’ curriculum, I only knew I didn’t want to be a sworn translator nor a bilingual officer of the court (called perito bilingüe in Argentina at the time) nor did I want to specialize in legal translation (as in law-related translations).

The two main forces that shaped my professional decisions over those 25 years were not creativity, inspiration, following a particular leader or influencer or discovering the holy grail of selling professional services. No, sir. The two factors that drove me to where I am today as a diplomate translator were a) market demands on my services and b) my own intellectual interests.

There you have it then: I’m not a translator who just writes translations day in and day out. Today, Thursday, May 5th, 2016, is representative of what I do:

  • Write and deliver a rush 400-word corporate translation by 11:30 a.m.
  • Finish a medical transcription in Spanish and then translate it into English for delivery by noon
  • Insert newly translated paragraph in two InDesign documents, prepare deliverables (PDF files for printing) and deliver them before 7:30 p.m.
  • Review the typesetting of a corporate slogan I had translated into Spanish weeks ago and send the annotated PDF file back to the customer, with pertinents recommendations to their desktop publisher for improving copy of the same corporate slogan in RTL (right-to-left) languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

Translation courses and BA/MA programs for the 21st century emphasize the use of software tools to manage projects, terminology lists and translation memories. These courses also include practical instructions on project management (a related career choice for translators), software localization (another related career) and business aspects of the profession, such as marketing tips. All these components are important and have a place in a translator’s career, but they should not be taught nor emphasized at the expense of a thorough, critical and lively discussion of the craft of translation. After all, a translator is a craftsman. It’s the writing, not the tools, that make a translator, whether in this century or in the millenia to come.

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diplomate translator, Professional development, Project Management, Public relations in translation, Spanish DTP, TEnT tools, The craft of translation, Writing skills, Writing skills

Seeking customers and the animal way

I have had time to listen to marketing experts at ATA conferences and I have also read their advice on well-written articles, listicles, self-promoting tweets and blogs. To most of these experts, the situation is binary: either you seek customers or you don’t. In the former, they’ll guide you through the steps, but you’re risking your future if you ignore their advice, meaning that you aren’t that keen on seeking new customers.

In this world of the marketing expert, you’re either actively seeking new customers, promoting your practice through ongoing blogging and social media and attending trade shows, or you aren’t really serious about acquiring new targets and raising your income. Their collective advice is to seek out new prospects aggressively. Even a self-professed introvert who works as a life coach told me recently on Twitter that public speaking (that is, the art of speaking in public) also involves networking and self promotion. I’d hate to prove her wrong, but I will.

Even marketing experts who trawl (or troll, depending on your definition) the world of professionals have advice for those of us who don’t feel comfortable with networking. I have read their arguments and techniques, which are ultimately an extrovert’s advice for extroverts about marketing themselves repackaged and labeled “Networking for Introverts.” Again, this binary or, rather, tunnel vision, is disappointing, coming from people whose livelihood depends on teach others how to network. Sometimes I think they are living and preaching a religion called networking.

Unlike them, however, I find great guidance in the animal world.

Puma lion of the Andes

Having spent countless hours watching documentaries by National Geographic and the BBC, especially those beautifully narrated by the late David Attenborough, I have found that some traits animals, big and small, display to feed themselves, procreate and raise their young, and to survive, are worth observing and, to a reasonable extent, applying to our professional lives.

The African lion eats every 6 days. Other large cats (the cheetah and tiger) have similar eating habits. Large herds of antelope and wildebeest roaming the plains on their annual treks are often followed by prides (groups of lions) waiting for their chance to strike and score one of these large preys. There is a rhythm to these movements tied to how often the lions hunt and eat, but it’s not just the travel of moving prey that govern how these large cats hunt to eat, but also the rains and droughts. Drought in one place means herbivores like wildebeest and elephants have to move elsewhere for grass; hence, lions have to follow these rolling restaurants in order to secure sustenance and survival.

These hunters don’t advertise their intentions, however. They don’t come to an antelope and say “Hi, there; I’m a lion and I’d like to take you out to dinner. Or lunch, whichever you prefer. I can put you down for, say, 11 a.m.?” No, these hunters hide, their spots concealing them in the tall grass, their soft-padded paws allowing them to approach their prey unnoticed, at least until it’s too late for the stalked herbivore to escape unharmed.

Lions do announce their presence in at least two ways: when a lionness calls her young and when a lion rumbles his powerful growl, which goes on for miles, to intimidate other prides and to sow fear among prey animals in the dark.

Eagles, vultures, frigates and owls, among other bird species, take on projecting a powerful presence, with some variations in their approach. Peregrine falcons, for instance, attack bats as these exit their safe caves, but the falcon singles out one bat, not several, to hunt down. By contrast, a spider casts an almost invisible net to hunt not just one, but several insects. There’s even a spider species whose web can snag a bat!

Speaking of spiders, some, like the jumping spider, observe its prey from a distance, then jumps to catch it. Other spiders, like the trapdoor spider, hide in a hole on the ground covered by a trapdoor. As soon as the victim crowls by, the spider catches it fast. These are some of my observations, but are the parallels to seeking customers that I’ve gleaned?

  • There is no universal way to find a suitable customer; find the ways that you feel most comfortable with and excel at them.
  • Customers come in different sizes, so you might need to do some self-examination to find out what size you are so as not to overextend your efforts in going for the wrong size.
  • Customers aren’t just economical targets; they are human, like you. Instead of being aggressive, how about being persuasive?
  • Customers, like roaming wildebeest and elephants, don’t like to be followed around as they can smell your networking intentions and will likely flee in the opposite direction. Maybe it’s best to observe and learn about them from afar, then approach with caution when they show their vulnerable side.

Some hunters hunt in packs, other hunt alone. Likewise, some of us translators like to approach a prospect alone, at our pace. We are not “wasting” an opportunity nor are we being “too slow.” Some translators work best in pairs or small groups while others prefer to do it all themselves. Different strategies are applied according to their nature.

Pumas are solitary

We can learn a great deal from animals, insects and others among our fellow inhabitants of this planet. Nature spent millions of years refining their survival skills and their lifestyles, and so it did with us. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we could start listening to nature and find ways of applying what we learn to our professional and personal lives.

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Filed under Advertising, ATA, Customers, Marketing, Networking

The Google-Oracle debacle, Weird Al Yankovic and translation

The software giants Google and Oracle have been in a legal scuffle over the last few years. Oracle, owner of Java, a set of programming instructions that allow software to work with different platforms, argued that any company, including Google, should pay royalties for it whenever they used Java. Google contended that subjecting software to copyright protection would amount to stifling innovation:

The high court’s decision Monday left intact a prior ruling that certain kinds of programming instructions are entitled to copyright protection, as Oracle argued. Google and some other industry groups argued that treating the instructions as creative works protected by copyright could hurt the ability of companies and programmers to take advantage of standard software functions and make different programs work together.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/supreme-court-denies-google-appeal-on-oracle-suit-1435585873

The Supreme Court hands Oracle a legal win

The Supreme Court hands Oracle a legal win

Current copyright law protects the expression of an idea, whether this is conveyed in written, visual or software form, or a variation thereof. Fortunately for Oracle —and for the world of commercial translations— the Supreme Court left a prior finding standing: software can be copyright protected.

However, current copyright law protects translations as derivative works in the sense that they are not equal to the original:

However, it could be argued that a commercial translation (as opposed to a literary one) still carries the distinction of being an original written work. The late Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote that “the original is unfaithful to the translation.” Whether a translation is a poem, a novel, a blueprint or an employee manual, it is a separate creation, a fact that is more markedly evident the better the translation is executed. For example, if you were to peruse the Spanish version of a U.S. hospital brochure, chances are that the Spanish translator may be quite bilingual but not necessarily a good writer in her native language. Hence, a separately created text or written work cannot be considered derivative in any sense, any more than Weird Al Yankovik’s song “Amish Paradise” is of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by rap artist Coolio. That Al Yankovic’s song was inspired by Coolio’s original work is true and cannot be denied, but Yankovic created a new original work, whether you like Weird Al’s work or not.

Naturally, it was lawyers and similarly learned men who conceived of copyright legislation governing intellectual property, including original works and derivative works. Not knowing the true nature of the concept and product of translation, they likely went for the very obsolete concept that any translation is a literal interpretation of a written work. Has the world changed since? No, because translation is not valued higher than an impromptu bilingual interpretation of a statement, an email or video. Another fact: government agencies and hospitals, to name a few, seek translators while operating under the assumption that a bilingual person has automatically acquired excellent writing skills. To make things worse, the American Translators Association does nothing to clear this confusion.

Our copyright laws and international conventions to that effect are based on society’s conceptual interpretation of what translation is or is supposed to be. They are not based on scientific observation or empirical theories. Therefore, it could be proposed that current legislation protecting original work, whether it’s text or software or video or song, need to evolve with a more accurate concept of the objects under the law and their purpose in society.

Society right now considers literary translation quite separate from any other kind of translation, the latter being viewed as purely utilitarian and bereft of aesthetic value. I would contend that that is not the case, especially if the parties buying translation services secured the services of highly competent translators. The better and more competent the translator, the more original the translation will be.

For an enlightening discussion of intellectual property, copyright and translation, you are welcome to read Dr. Lenita M.R. Esteves article published in the Translation Journal.

 

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Filed under Copyright law and software, Copyright law and translation, Writing skills

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills