The first time a rookie client needs to have a text translated, he’ll often ask himself the following question: why don’t I get one of my bilingual salespeople (or engineers or secretaries) to translate this for me? The implication here is that translators are just bilingual people who charge more! However, the truth is that there is more to being a translator than being bilingual and even professional translators (who are, by definition, bilingual if not multilingual) are not qualified to translate in all fields of knowledge. Why is that? What is the difference between someone who is simply bilingual and a professional translator?
Here’s a short answer.* Bilingual people normally learn to speak two languages in two different contexts: one at home, the other at school or work, or they may have emigrated from or lived in a country in which another language is commonly spoken. Vocabulary, syntax and other linguistic subtleties apply to different languages, as well as different fields of knowledge. Flowers are my favourite example of this phenomenon. As a girl, I spent a great deal of time wandering around the marsh next to my French-speaking grandmother’s house. That grandmother taught me the names of the flowers, trees and berries that grew wild there. In town, with my English-speaking mother, these marvels of nature simply did not exist. It is only once I reached adulthood that I learned to name them in English, my mother’s language. I still need a dictionary to find the English names of flowers and these names evoke no fragrance or colour for me: they’re just words on paper. In other words, botanically speaking, I am unilingual.
Conversely, a French-speaking engineer who did his studies in English will not necessarily be able to translate a technical text into his mother tongue. Although he learned his profession’s English vocabulary and syntax at university or at work, no one spoke about “plans and specifications” around the kitchen table when he was young. As an ‘ordinary’ bilingual person, he knows the vocabulary for some things in one language and for others in his second language. He also sometimes slips English technical terms into conversations that are taking place in French …
Translators are bilingual people who have learned the grammatical details of (at least) two languages and who apply their knowledge to their work on a daily basis. They have acquired lexicons that are both complementary and parallel. When they are familiar with a field they are able speak about it in both languages without mixing them up. Another key difference that sets translators apart: when they are not familiar with all of the terms used in a given field, translators have the tools and skills to find many equivalencies quickly.
*Inspired by Parler plusieurs langues, Le monde des bilingues, an excellent book written by François Grosjean and published by Éditions Albin Michel in 2015. My post is intended as a quick overview of the issue. (website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch, blog: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual)
**Text translated by Sébastien St-François and Alison Newall