Bilingualism – Blessing or Curse?

There are a thousand and one ‘myths’ about what needs to be undertaken to become a good translator. One of these is the opinion that the ideal translator needs to be bilingual. But is this really the case? Is the mark of a great translator the fact that he or she is bilingual (or even multilingual)? In order to answer this question it is first necessary to try and understand what is meant by the term bilingual (or multilingual).

Generally speaking, a bilingual can refer to someone who fluently speaks two languages. This definition itself poses certain problems. Firstly, how do we define fluency, and secondly, does speaking also include writing? We can assume that fluency is the ability to speak (and write) effectively, skilfully, articulately with smoothness and ease. Obviously, knowing two languages fluently is most certainly a key element in becoming a translator. But is it enough?

Translation is by some seen as a gift, by others it is seen as a craft which can be understood, learnt and perfected. What relation does bilingualism have to these approaches to translation? Should the ideal translator be a ‘native’ bilingual who has learnt both languages since childhood? Or does it matter if one language is learnt later in life, as a second language? Some believe that only childhood bilingualism is the only real way forward, although experience tells us this is not always the case.

This seems to be the main sticking point in discussions of bilingualism vis-à-vis translation. Those who believe translation to be a gift often see bilingualism as a ticket to translational competence and, as such, bilingualism is equated with a ‘gift for translation’. However, it is naive to think there is a one-to-one relationship between bilingualism and translational competence. Although being bilingual is certainly vitally important for the translator, being bilingual does not mean that one will become a translator.

The other side to the story is the common belief that someone who is bilingual is automatically a translator. Bilingual (non-translators) are perplexed by questions from monolinguals who ask them to translate a word, phrase or text. “But I’m not a translator,” is the most common reply, often followed by the retort, “But you speak two languages fluently…” In these situations, blingualism can often be seen as more of a curse than a blessing…

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54 Responses to “Bilingualism – Blessing or Curse?”

  1. Michael Barnett Says:

    My own opinion is that being a native speaker of both the source and target languages is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for being an effective translator, but it is certainly a great advantage, especially in the target language.

    I am not a professional translator but I participate as a hobby at proz.com, offering suggestions for French to English medical translation issues. Having observed the questions and answers on that site for several years, it is clear that at least two additional criteria beyond bilingualism are required of a medical translator – an understanding of the science and an understanding of the medical idiom. Although I did not realize it until I started reading the off-center translations of non-physicians, medicine is actually a sub-culture. Its vocabulary goes far beyond calling a hip bone a femur. There are everyday idioms of expression used in medicine, not necessarily involving “scientific” words that are peculiar to the subculture. One might use the expression “zebra disease”, for example, meaning “exotic disease”, alluding to the medical school maxim “When you hear hoof-beats in the distance, think of horses, not zebras” (meaning that the medical student should consider a diagnosis of common ailments before thinking of uncommon ones).

    Moreover, beyond the thousands of such idiomatic expressions, there is a cultural difference in the style of academic medical prose in the English and French speaking worlds. French language medical papers tend to delight in the use of polysyllabic scientific terms while the English medical press, at least since 1975 when this issue was addressed by the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, tend to use more everyday language. To an English speaking medical reader, the French papers seem oddly pompous, elitist and obfuscating. Translating these papers into English that does not sound “translated” requires a delicate register change – too much and the English version won’t sound academic.

    So, at least in my field, an effective translator requires skills far beyond those of mere bilingualism.

    Regards,

    Michael Barnett, M.D.

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    Michael,
    Many thanks for your comment. The maxim: “When you hear hoof-beats in the distance, think of horses, not zebras” is particularly interesting and could also be used in translation, that is one should think of the common, easy translation first and not try to be too clever.

    What skills would you say are needed to become an effective translator?

  3. Ryan Ginstrom Says:

    I’d say that there are four key abilities needed by the translator.

    1. Ability to understand the source material

    2. Ability to write in the target language

    3. Thorough knowledge of the subject matter, and the ability to write about it convincingly in the target language

    4. The ability to translate: the ability to digest the meaning of the source material and reproduce its impact accurately in the target language

    It’s much easier to gain native-level competency in reading comprehension (passive) than in writing (active), which is why it’s generally advocated that one translate into one’s native language.

    Although there are many balanced bilinguals, IME there are very few balanced “biliterates.” This is because most people are only educated in one language, and in my case, 16 years of education were barely enough to learn to write English properly. :)

  4. transubstantiation Says:

    Ryan,
    Thank you ever so much for your comments. Your list of four key abilities is very helpful but is it enough? Here are some questions:
    1. Ability to understand source. What does ‘understand’ actually mean?
    2. Ability to write in target. How do you define ‘write’?
    3. Thorough knowledge of subject. What is meant by ‘thorough’?
    4. …reproduce its impact accurately… How do you define ‘accurate’?

  5. Ryan Ginstrom Says:

    I tried to keep my comment as brief as possible — maybe too brief!

    For reading and writing ability, I mean the ability of an educated native speaker with field-specific knowledge.

    For knowledge of the subject, I say the translator should understand the source document as well as an expert in the field would, and the translation should read as if it were written by an expert in the field.

    For reproducing the effect: if you’re translating a cake recipe, the readers of the original and translation should come up with the same cake with the same amount of difficulty. If you’re translating a poem, the translated poem should evoke the same feelings as the original (I don’t translate poetry, but this is what a poetry translator told me he aims for).

    Note that nowhere above do I say that the words must be translated accurately. I mean that the original and translated documents must have the same effect.

    There are of course many complicating factors (e.g. what do you do if speakers of one language like sweeter cakes than speakers in another? Is the effect reproduced if the readers of the source language like the cake but the readers of the target language hate it?), but this comment is already long enough…

  6. Jim Says:

    A good translator is a good translator.
    Languages are just his working tools…

  7. transubstantiation Says:

    Ryan,
    Thank you for the reply to the reply. :-)

    More questions:
    “I mean the ability of an educated native speaker with field-specific knowledge”
    But what is a mark of this ability?

  8. Parrish Says:

    There are thousands upon thousands of words in the English language. I have heard it said that the average person who grows up under the English language must learn an average of 20-30 words per day beginning with his or her first day in this world and continuing until the age of 18! Wow, how much we have learned and the majority of this learning was probably not in a formal teacher-student environment.
    There is a lot to learn in a short amount of time. But one thing we can do to improve our growth in any language is to focus on those vocabulary words which are most commonly used. I found many sources online for free that feature lists of the most commonly spoken words in English. For example, the 250 most spoken words or the 1000 most spoken words.

  9. germanservices Says:

    I have to admit, I usually prefer proofing a text from someone who is not fully bilingual, but is comfortable in my field (video game localization). In my industry, one finds a lot of both extremes: excellent translators with a lack of understanding and gamers with bad translating skills. Any of those can be bilingual and still, it does not matter:)

  10. Ryan Ginstrom Says:

    “””
    “I mean the ability of an educated native speaker with field-specific knowledge”
    But what is a mark of this ability?
    “””

    I prefer a functional approach. Take 100 educated native speakers working in the pharmaceutical industry. Give them texts about pharmaceuticals to read, and gauge their understanding of them. If you have the reading ability of an educated native speaker with field-specific knowledge, your understanding of those texts will fall well within the bell curve of the 100 native speakers. A similar approach would work for writing ability.

    For these purposes, educated native speaker of X =

    * language X was spoken at home
    * language X was spoken in the community
    * educated for 16+ years in language X

    Note also that your reading ability should extend beyond your field of specialization, since even the driest technical texts tend to contain cultural references and idioms that require the broad knowledge of a native speaker.

  11. Krys Says:

    My view is that translation, which is fundamentally pattern recognition, involves very different brain patterns to those used in interpretation. I cannot pretend to total fluency in any of my working languages, despite growing up in a family where one of these was spoken within the house. I am however qualified to PhD level and have 13 years of work experience in the field to which I restrict my translating activity. My plus is an understanding of the field. This goes way beyond terminology. When called on to review the work of other translators, I have seen equally dire results when reviewing translations by specialists in the field, who are native speakers of the source language, and by language graduates, who are native speakers of the target language and have parroted specialist terminology, but lack the fundamental understanding of specialists in the field. Thus, I consider specialist subject knowledge plus writing ability in the target language to be way more important to success in translation than any other criterion. Simultaneous interpretation is a totally different matter, and I would guess that bilingualism would be of advantage there.

  12. Owen Says:

    “Native” proficiency is never good enough on the target language side. Something quite a bit more is required than being just as good as the average person on the street. What is necessary is excellence in the target language and as much competence as one can manage in the source language, competence sufficient to know precisely what is being said, even if one could never invent such expressions in the source language. Those who achieve exceptional native competence in two or more languages (like they could work as technical writer in more than one language) are extremely rare. This level of expertise is totally unnecessary for the successful translator. Bidirectional interpreting may be a different story, but as a translator, as long as I have my dictionaries and network of source language native colleagues, it would be a waste of time professionally to try to get that extra few percentage points of source language creative fluency.

    • transubstantiation Says:

      “but as a translator, as long as I have my dictionaries and network of source language native colleagues, it would be a waste of time professionally to try to get that extra few percentage points of source language creative fluency.”

      Owen,
      Interesting view but fundamentally flawed. How can it ever be a ‘waste of time’ to improve one’s fluency, and therefore competence, in a given language?

  13. Freeman Weems Says:

    Technically, it is very important. A second rate understanding of your source language or the DELUSION that you can translate out of your native language lead to serious quality issues.

    Apparently, in business reality, it is not so important. Every translator in China firmly believes that they are qualified to produce English translations from Chinese lexicons. They majority of them also claim native level English abilities whether it is true or not. The end result is poor quality translation work. But no one seems to care, because they work for rates which are at least 200% below the industry standard, sometimes more. Countless large corporations in the United States depend on China for English translation. It is so cheap, that they just tolerate the lower quality, or get a native speaker to sell us all out and correct the translation for beans.

    True bilinguals/multi-linguals get that way through a unique cultural background, or extremely intensive, and lengthy training. They are not the kind of person you run into on the street every day. Many active translators are very weak in their 2nd or 3rd language. One might also keep in mind that bilingual ability does not a translator make. While you will never be a translator if you do not at least read two languages, there is a little more to the professional trade than that.

  14. transubstantiation Says:

    “True bilinguals/multi-linguals get that way through a unique cultural background, or extremely intensive, and lengthy training. They are not the kind of person you run into on the street every day.”

    Freeman,
    One might argue that this is most certainly NOT the case. Obviously, defining a ‘true’ bilingual is necessary here but the fact is that the majority of people in the world are bilingual/trilingual, and monolinguals are a minority.

    • Marinus Kruissen Says:

      Seeing the state of education in many, developed and less developed, countries, I tend to disagree. Many people here in the Dominican Republic, say they are bilingual, butif you ask them in English,what is the time?, they respond, Hu?

      Many people in the less developed countries do not have the opportunity to be educated, let alone speak two languages.

      Therefore, is the majority bi- or multilingual, I believe not.

  15. Urszula Nikiciuk Says:

    I wouldn’t mind such a curse ;-)

  16. Urszula Says:

    I can`t understand why some people consider bilingualism as a curse. In my opinion the more languages we know the easier the work of translator becomes. Of course to be a good translator we don`t need to be bilingual, but learning the second language since childhood really helps people to reach fluency and simply… perfection.

  17. Paulina Says:

    I am deeply convinced that an ideal translator simply does not exist. Either being bilingual or multilingual will not make one automatically good at translating. It is really hard work to do the translation. Not only need one to use his/her translator’s abilities but also imagination and heart. Trying to do it the best one can is a blessing. A course may be only people who claim that they are the ideal translators.

  18. Ania Says:

    In mu opinion being bilingual helps in doing translation. But is it not equal to the statement that someone who is not bilingual cannot be a good translator. Of course it is an advantage when someone knows two language perfectly but a success depends on translators attitude.

  19. ilya Says:

    IMHO, a person fluently speaking several languages does not necessarily master the flow of any written language. So while being bilingual may give an advantage, it also may plainly mean nothing. A translator must be able to do specific tasks: keeping solid knowledge of a specific vocabulary relevant to a current task; maintaining linguistic consistency throughout a job; following and expressing the style of the source (whenever this applies, e.g. when translating movies or fiction – i have quite an experience with this hell); being able to produce clear and intelligible target text; being able to decode bad writing in the source (how many % of your sources represent brilliant transparent logical authoring, hey?) Well, this will do for the must-have basic translator’s virtue. Now please, how many people you know possess all the above using their native language?
    I think these qualities can be learned by anyone attentive enough to catch the game. Being bilingual (or more) certainly helps, still, it takes more to form an actual translator.

  20. transubstantiation Says:

    Ilya,

    “keeping solid knowledge of a specific vocabulary relevant to a current task; maintaining linguistic consistency throughout a job; following and expressing the style of the source”

    This seems to be an good approach to the task in hand.

  21. Elizabeth L. Says:

    In my opinion even if you are bilingual, this doesn’t make you a good translator. For example I speak fluently English [I try to do my best] and Polish; both of them are languages which I know since childhood, however it is hard sometimes for me to translate something from English to Polish, although I know how what the proper translation is, but it needs to be ‘dressed’ in nice words. A good translator needs not only know perfectly two languages but both cultures and mentality. If bilingualism is a curse or blessing depends of the person who speaks these language.

    • Dave Says:

      Elizabeth,
      If you were fluent, you’d “speak English fluently” not, as you wrote, “speak fluently English”. ;-)

  22. Kasia Puchawska Says:

    Speaking and writing fluency in both source and target languages is in my view the sine qua non of being a translator. But it is not a sufficient condition, even in the case of childhood bilingualism. This claim is based upon a belief that a good translator is a little bit an artist (meaning: creator, someone who makes something new starts its existence). Not only linguistic skills, general knowledge and experience but also originality and talent are the essential features of a good translator; these characteristics enable the translator to solve complicated or even “insoluble” linguistic problems in an individual and creative way.

  23. Katarzyna Mswps Says:

    I am convinced that a bilingual, or even multilingual, person not necessarily has to be a good translator. Of course, it is essential to be gifted in a way, to be quick on uptake as that enables one to acquire a language with no major problems. However, hard work is in my opinion the key factor in becoming a good translator –> the more you practice and the more effort you make, the more likely you are to become a translator. It might be easier for bilingual/ multilingual people as they already have the knowledge of languages, but those who strive for becoming translators and work a lot can achieve wonderful results as well. One of my friends is bilingual, and, although he speaks pefrectly English and Polish, he’s not able to translate as it’s often too hard for him to find the approproate word in a particular language system to convey the exact meaning.

  24. Anna Ko.swps Says:

    OK, sometimes bilingualism can be overestimated, I agree. But the opinion that a bilingual person may be a good translator can be justified. The person has a great knowledge of two languages, so he/she understands the message but at the same time it doesn’t mean that he/she will be able to convey it. I know few bilingual people, some of them can translate very easily and some simply don’t. It’s like asking a person from a family of long music tradition to sing, some of its members don’t have that talent though they may have the musical ear.

  25. Ewelina W. Says:

    In my opinion, bilingual translators are far much better than translators, who have learnt (the second language) by any kind of tuition. Bilingual people differently interpret words because they know the cultural context, in which a certain language appears in. Of course, meaning of words such as objects/things are the same but emotions, political,religious,ethical ideas/education and these type of words have a different meaning in different languages and countries. This explains why translations of bilinguals are much better than versions of other translators in translating culturally different languages. So the advantage of being a bilingual translator is obvious, they are the members of two different communities and countries and (I think) it is the culture, which plays the greatest role in good translation.

  26. Iza A /swps Says:

    Being a billingual does not always equal being a good translator, that is a fact. But I cannot say thai it does not help. Let’s say we have two equally talented translators from Polish into English, one being ‘native’ speaker of Polish and English, and the other who learned English as a foreign language. Who does have an edge in this case. Off course, a billingual, at least at the beginning of his/her career.

  27. Aga M/swps Says:

    Unfortunately, I am not a bilingual person. I said “unfortunately” because I’m deeply convinced that bilingualism facilitates the process of conveying the intended meaning from one language to another. Of course, I realize that being a bilingual person does not equate with being an outstanding translator, BUT undoubtedly it is a blessing.

  28. Michal Rachanski Says:

    Being billingual is very helpful in this job, but it is not essential, and it does not mean that a billingual person is always a perfect translator. I know people that were raised in other countries but they don’t have this ‘gift’ that a good translator shall have, and, moreover, they hate translating.

    An excellent translator shall posess two abilities: an open mind and a talent for language learning.

  29. KJ Says:

    I must say that I’ve never thought about it. But while I was reading I saw, that being bilingual may help, but it’s not everything. Everybody who translates probably already know that understanding is not enough. You also have to transform original text in a way that speaker of this target language will understand too. That is sometimes not an easy task…

  30. Ania P. Says:

    At first sight, it seems that knowing perfectly two languages gives us total power in the ability of translating. I actually also thought so for a long time, because, what might be difficult in translating when you know both sides, all the equivalents? But, having studied translation and having touched problems of translation personally, I realised that knowing languages is not everything. Of course, it is easy to translate single words, but translating some specific texts we often have to translate it in many levels – it is translation of lanfuage into language, culture into culture, tradition into tradition, ‘atmosphere’ into ‘atmosphere’ and many more. It requires some linguistic competence as well as wide knowledge of culture and other factors connected with the source and target language.

  31. Olga Kowalczyk Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article.
    I think that the bilingual translators are more successful at work than the translators who have learnt the second language. Even though they all should posses the passion or as you wrote the gift for translation. Without it even a bilingual translator will not manage to do a good translation.

  32. Kasiaa Ch Says:

    In my opinion a bilingual translator is surely more acquainted with the languages in practice. Through the concept of bilingualism , I understand a person who had a opportunity to learn two languages already in his or her childhood. This is the time when he or she assimilates a lot of knowledge and forms a good accent in both languages. But when talking about translators, everything depends on how much you know about the process of translating and how much experience do you have. I think that nowadays experience is the most appreciated, and in this case it is not that important whether you are a bilingual person or not.

  33. Aneta G Says:

    I think bilingualism is very useful and helpful when somebody wants to be a translator, although I think is not necessary to learn foreign language during childhood to be a good translator. In my opinion speaking another langauge does not always mean the person will perfectly translate phrases, idioms or sentences. As mentioned in the article translation is a gif, the person who wants to be a translator should also feel the meaning of the phrases, words or sentences in the second language, that does not necessary mean bilinigual people have that gift. Of course in some cases people can be bilingual and perfectly translate, what make them very good translators. I also think that people who learn foreign language and work hard to improve the craft can be excellent translators.


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