Category Archives: Bilingualism vs. Translation

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

The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

Raise your hand if you have never heard the phrase traduttore, traditore. No? Consider yourself lucky. It’s an old Italian adage that has become quaint and antiquated, or quaintiquated. In the ALTA blog Beyond Words,  wrote this in 2008:

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Put it simply, Italians were complaining about untranslatable expressions that did get translated into French. The complaint, in modern terms, was about what got lost in translation…as if human languages were precisely interchangeable.

The book Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders, captures poetically and visually some examples of untranslatable words from around the world. The Dutch word glaswen, for example, means a sarcastic or mocking “blue smile.” And it’s not only individual words but entire idiomatic expressions that find no accurate or faithful equivalent in other languages. So, out with that archaic idea of absolute faithfulness.

Nontranslator persons usually juggle two other ideas when they speak about translation: meaning and literality. A word may have a single meaning that is abundantly clear, such as dog or horse. We are talking about the quadruped pet in the first case and the quadruped running beast in the second. The moment you use either word as the core of an expression, such as I’m dog tired or Out of the horse’s mouth, the average American will unerringly notice a change in meaning completely unrelated to the first nature (pet or beast) we referred to earlier.

But even when we consider multiple-meaning words, like table, hammer, nail, cloud or net, we have to remind ourselves that only the meaning that answers to the particular context at hand should be considered. This particular meaning can then be influenced by the focused meanings of the neighboring words and paragraphs. So, take it from me: when someone talks about the meaning of a text, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

You may be the author of an employee handbook or an advertising campaign slogan, or even the tagline for the company’s tradeshow exhibit, but you know nothing about the particular sets of meanings that can travel to another foreign language. You may be bilingual and you still won’t know. Enter the meaning-wranglers, those solitary cowboys of the wordplains called translators.

The second topic many nontranslator persons stumble on is the case of the literal translation or the word-for-word translation, as if they knew what it really means. Unless you can easily find your way around bilingual dictionaries and texts (no Google Translate allowed, that would be cheating), you are not qualified to tell a translator whether her translation is literal or not. However, in the spirit of cooperation, let me disabuse you of the false notion of what literal translation seems to mean.

A literal or word-for-word translation is actually a time-honored translation approach very much in use since ancient times. This strategy, also called a metaphrase, meant using the foreign language words that best approached the syntax and meaning of the original text. An example of metaphrasic translation: A book was found on the floor. Spanish: Un libro fue hallado en el piso.

A more “free” translation would paraphrase or say the original in different ways. Taking the former example, two Spanish paraphrases: a) Encontraron un libro en el piso. b) Había un libro en el piso.

Now, before my fellow translators accuse me of misusing the passive voice above (Un libro fue hallado en el piso), imagine if the phrase A book was found on the floor were part of a suspense novel instead of a police report. Different sets of meanings. Again, only a professional translator is qualified to make the calls on how best to recast those sets of meanings, or combinations of meanings, in a foreign language. Not a bilingual person, no matter how fluent that person is in two languages. Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living.

It is worth noting that a literal translation would recreate a document equivalent to the original with little regard to the syntax and natural fluidity of the foreign language for the translation. Because a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax structures is required to render a professional translation, there’s a certain amount of irony in the request for faithfulness presented by customers unfamiliar with the grammar intricacies of the foreign languages. A bilingual speaker may be competent in speaking a foreign language, but she is not necessarily equipped to write in that foreign language on a professional level.

I also suspect that a certain implicit word order in the foreign language is the focus of attention of the nontranslator person who demands a faithful translation. Different factors, not the smallest of all a long residence in America, away from the mother tongue spoken in Chile, República Dominicana, Perú or Bolivia, may sway a bilingual person to unknowingly write in a way that is strongly influenced by the English syntax. It follows, then, that the “correct” or idiomatic way a phrase is written in French, Spanish or Italian may read a little off, this translator-facilitated word order deemed literal by the customer because it does not jibe with what the customer’s model in her head.

It is very advantageous, then, for both you, the customer, and for me, your translator, to sit down and clarify what you mean by a translation that meets your expectations in terms of meaning. More often than not, we both should be asking ourselves: what are the expectations and needs of the one who really needs the translation? In other words, the actual user: the hospital patient, the buyer of your goods or services, the reader of your articles.

Now that’s a cool and a modern concept.

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Literal translation, Translation as writing, Writing skills, Writing skills

A follow-up on 50 Best Jobs (book)

I received a letter from Dr. Laurence Shatkin today. Dr. Shatkin is one of the authors of the book titled 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality, 2nd edition (JIST Publishing). In short, he explained that he had to base his book on the Department of Labor’s SOC (Standard Occupational Taxonomy). Because Dr. Shatkin’s letter is both gracious and professional in tone, the least I can do is to include excerpts from it:

The most important limitation is that I must rely on career information databases from the Department of Labor to provide information on the hundreds of occupations that I put into my books, and those databases sometimes lump together occupations that you or I might prefer to be defined separately. For example, although the government’s official Standard Occupational Taxonomy (SOC) recognizes one occupation called Accountants and Auditors, the O*NET database (which is what I used for the personality types in 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality) splits this into two separate occupations. Sadly, with Interpreters and Translators, both SOC and the O*NET keep these two titles lumped together. The O*NET does not provide separate information on their personality types or on any other characteristics or requirements.

What results is an average. I would guess, although I do not have any data on hand, that there are more interpreters than translators. (I’d appreciate hearing from you about whether this is true). This would explain why Social is the second personality type listed as the average for this combined occupation, although a translator’s work environment is not very social. In fact, translating is probably an excellent occupation for an introverted person.

I should point out that the Department of Labor tends to keep occupations lumped together in cases where the initial stages of the preparation pathway are similar. In the case of Interpreters and Translators, one would start preparing for both of these occupations by becoming knowledgeable about a foreign language. Eventually, one would reach a fork in the road and would decide which occupation is more suitable.

The statement about the type of education/training required is also based on information from the Department of Labor. Most occupations allow a range of preparation routes, and this one (or two, if you prefer!) probably allows a wider range than most. The policy of the Department of Labor is to list the shortest of the possible entry routes, even if it’s not the one most preferable. So, for example, they list associate degree as appropriate for Registered Nurse, even though a nurse without a bachelor’s degree faces severely limited job choices. That’s why “long-term on-the-job training” is listed for Interpreters and Translators.

This open dialogue is encouraging. Care to participate?

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Interpreting, Marketing, Professional development, Public Relations, Translator Education

A disservice to career seekers

I am an avid reader. Sometimes you can find me spending 2-4 hours at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. The practice of perusing the contents of a book before buying it is enhanced by the ability to use the Amazon app on your smartphone and scan the ISBN code for prices, reviews, etc.

This weekend I saved myself almost $30. One of the books I did not buy is titled 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality, 2nd edition, by Michael Farr and Lawerence Shatkin, Ph.D.

I invite you to see it for yourself. Please go to page 260 and read the description for Interpreters and Translators. Court, community, health care interpreters, interpreters for the hearing-impaired and translators are lumped together in this oversimplistic, rushed description of our professions. The personality code AS stands for “Artistic” and “Social.” I have known many social interpreters, but translators are not necessarily your social butterfly. We like to work quietly, with as few distractions as possible, because translation requires a great deal of concentration and intellectual focus.

I recently wrote to the book’s publishing house, JIST Publishing, in Indianapolis, IN, to complain about the serious misconceptions inserted in this shabby description. I also posted a review on Amazon, so it does not bear repeating here. Suffice it to say that prospective students of translation and interpreting in this country will be mislead by reading this inaccurate portrayal of language professionals.

Beyond this pointed complaint of mine, I acknowledge that there is a collective PR campaign that you, I and our fellow interpreters, translators, agency owners and other stakeholders in this industry have to carry out. The floor is open.

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Interpreting, Professional development, Translator Education