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…