Why Being Bilingual is not Enough to Be a Translator


English: This is a map of Canada showing bilin...
English: This is a map of Canada showing bilingualism by federal electoral riding based on the 2003 representation order (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people believe that translation is an easy task and that any bilingual individual can perform it correctly.

Well, I beg to differ.

Translation requires more than being able to speak and to write in two languages.

What more, other than bilingualism, does a translator need?

On top of bilingualism, a translator needs:

  • Cultural knowledge:
    Cultural knowledge is what enables you to know, for instance, that the adjective “national”  in French refers most of the time to the province when used in Quebec, not to the country, or that Victoria Day in Canada is “la Fête des Patriotes” in Quebec. Cultural knowledge requires keeping abreast of current affairs, knowing the history of the people you are translating for, and their customs. Just imagine how many translation mistakes could be made without such knowledge.
  • Language mastery:
    Mastery is a self-explanatory concept, and so is language mastery. Mastering a language is far more than simply knowing how to form the plural of nouns, or knowing that verbs also agree with their subjects. Mastery requires knowing and being able to apply the grammar rules that were not part of your high school or college curriculum. For instance, in French, not all adjectives agree in number with their nouns, and not all nouns have the same gender depending on the position of the adjectives. Mastery also requires knowing the 1001 exceptions to the grammar rules of the target language and being able to see misspelled words or typing mistakes, redundancy, ambiguity, shifts in person and number, Anglicisms or Gallicisms, just to name a few.
  • Expertise in a specific field:
    It would be ridiculous to ask a heart surgeon to translate a thesis written by an architect, would it not? Our poor heart surgeon would be at a loss for words, both literally and figuratively. Expertise matters.  A comprehensive knowledge of the topic or field ensures accuracy. Just imagine our surgeon, for whom a bridge is either on a nose or on a road, translating bridge using the word “pont” when our architect meant a covered way (un auvent de garantie) instead of the common structure all commuters know and love. Because of his lack of expertise in the field, our surgeon inaccurately conveyed the intended message of our architect. As you can see, each field has its own terminology and its own writing practices; a layperson would have a hard time learning both the terminology and writing practices in a short period to perform an acceptable translation. Knowledge is built with time, through reading about a topic in both languages because of an innate intellectual curiosity and a thirst for knowledge one spends a lifetime trying to assuage.
  • Great textual analysis skills:
    We all remember the textual analyses we were forced to do in elementary school, do we not? These exercises do not even begin to describe the actual textual analysis required to translate correctly.  Translation requires more than finding key words and key ideas; it requires determining the meta language of the author (level of language, rhetoric devices, intended target audience, etc.). It requires the complete understanding of the source text and the accurate interpretation of the text.
  • Writing skills:
    Finally, it takes not only Shakespearean writing skills, but also a great flexibility in writing styles. A translator must have the ability to convey “the voice of the author” in a target text, not his or her own. Is the author using sarcasm? What feelings or impression is he trying to create in his readers’ minds? This is what the translator must convey in the target text. One must be articulate, pay attention to connotations, innuendos, and double entendres in order to spot them, convey them if they have a purpose and without creating them when uncalled-for.

To be a translator, one must invest the effort and time it requires to hone one’s skills and keep one’s attention on both the details and the general content of the source and target texts.

Is bilingualism enough? Not exactly.

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