Saturday 31 May 2014

Translators and multilinguals

You speak so many languages! You should be a translator.” 
What do you mean you can’t translate this memo into English? You speak both languages, don’t you?”

I don’t speak your other language, I’m afraid. Can you translate what your child is saying, so I can assess her language development?”

Sounds familiar?

There seems to be this deeply ingrained conviction that the words multilingual and translator are synonymous. This is like assuming that those of us who intone ‘La donna è mobile’ while scrubbing our backs in the shower are professional singers, which is quite funny. Translators are indeed professionals, but being multilingual is not a job description.

The reasoning that multilinguals are translators because translators are multilinguals would be just laughable, too, but for the common practices which derive from it. Some of these may be rather harmless, like encouraging multilinguals to choose jobs because they are multilinguals, as in my first example above. Do monolinguals choose their careers because they use one language? The reasoning draws on two misconceptions, one about translators and one about multilinguals.

Translators aren’t people who can say the same things in different languages, and multilinguals aren’t multi-monolinguals who use their languages in order to be able to repeat themselves in them. Languages, whatever they may be, aren’t different containers into which the “same things” can be poured. If they were, we wouldn’t need borrowings, for example, and translators wouldn’t need dedicated training to do their job. Assuming that they don’t explains my second example. Chapters 1, 2 and 12 of my book The Language of Language have some more about why such misconceptions about multilingualism and translation came to be.

Multilinguals use different languages because those languages serve different purposes, but translations make one language serve the purposes of another. This is also why I don’t think that translation is a useful method of learning a new language.

Image © Tsunajima Kamekichi (Wikimedia Commons)

My objections relate to my persuasion that learning languages must mean learning to think in them (or we wouldn’t need to learn them), whereas translation teaches you to manage one language through another. I made this point in an online discussion on this topic, at the academic site ResearchGate. What I didn’t say there was that I’ve never forgotten the pleasure I felt when I first dared to buy monolingual dictionaries of the languages I was learning in school, and found that just reading those dictionaries as you might read a novel taught me more about how to use the languages than I had ever learned before.

Ability to translate demands a degree of awareness of each of the languages involved that multilinguals simply do not posses, as multilinguals. This applies to interpreters too, of course. The main differences between the two concern mode and timing: translators usually deal with printed texts and may be lucky enough to take time to enjoy a nice cuppa once in a while when inspiration lags, whereas interpreters, sometimes called simultaneous translators, usually translate speech or sign on the spot. I happen to have worked as both but, when off-duty, I’m quite like my fellow multilinguals in often having no idea even which language(s) I’m using at any one time.

My third example above illustrates an unfortunate practice in school and in clinic. Relatives (or friends, or neighbours) are co-opted to assist in assessment processes for which they obviously lack qualification, just because they know the language of the child under assessment. It’s like asking common mortals to take screwdrivers and soldering irons to the innards of their laptop, just because they use it every day. My example is actually mild, because children are also asked to translate for the sake of their elders. These two blog posts, authored by speech-language experts, say it all, concerning the effects of translation on assessment procedures and instruments: Brian A. Goldstein’s ‘Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That! and Elizabeth D. Peña’s aptly titled ‘Stupid translation’. It is true that little and big multilinguals do translate spontaneously, when they suspect that misunderstandings may arise among users of their languages. But this is much like 7-year-old big sister explaining to baby brother that mum came home in a rotten mood today and it is therefore advisable to tone down the usual level of mum-is-home mischief: we want people to understand what’s going on. Big sister is not a cognitive scientist for that.

Sisterly efforts to generate intelligibility by means of assorted translations must be a good thing: human beings have spent quite a lot of their time as human beings translating their languages for the benefit of fellow human beings. Sometimes, however, it’s not entirely clear whether the purported ability of multilinguals to translate makes them good guys or bad guys. If you can make sense of unfamiliar (linguistic) behaviour, then you must be privy to someone else’s secrets, which makes you not-really-one-of-us. Multilinguals who confess their inability (or unwillingness) to translate may, in addition, seem reluctant to share those secrets with “us”, as my second example illustrates. This may well be why multilinguals appear to have the status of permanent guests in all of their linguistic communities: I often get the uncanny impression that the Traduttore, tradittore quip, which is meant to apply to “disloyalty” to languages, keeps clinging to the multilingual users of those languages and applying to people.

How “disloyal” to whom, then, are those of us who insist that being multilingual means precisely that, being multilingual? The next post, by a guest with whom I’ve had the privilege of working before, argues that a lucid understanding of multilingualism has yet to impact decisions about language education policies.

© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 28th June 2014.


  1. Dear Madalena,

    I respect your work and some of your points, but I don’t agree with your approach to the idea of “multilingual being translators” as laughable. It is in fact quite the opposite, and many of the most skilled translators I work with are not professionals but what you would call “amateur” translators: people who after many years of working in certain fields and with a deep knowledge of both target and source languages, are able to perform great translations without having “learnt” how to do so professionally.

    This is not a general concept, of course. Not all multilinguals have what it takes to be a good translator (mostly because they don’t even want to be one) but a motivated individual, who masters her/his first language and has extensive knowledge of the source language can translate any given text (except those extremely technical) with the same chances of success than a professional. This is hard to accept, especially to those who spent years and years studying to become translators, but it is true, nevertheless. Not because I say so of course, but because any TPM around the world will tell you the same thing: you don’t get pro at the university, but in the “field”. And at that stage, amateurs and pros show pretty much the same level of competence.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to create a controversy on this subject. I liked your and article and I am looking forward reading more from you.

    Best regards.

  2. Dear ‘Anonymous’ – since you chose to not let us know who you are,

    We seem to agree? The hedges that you highlight (e.g. “Not all multilinguals”, “good translator”, “has extensive knowledge”, “except those extremely technical”) match mine. As I say in the post, multilinguals do translate spontaneously, though not all, and not with the good technical knowledge that any multilingual is often credited with.

    Thank you for this comment and for your kind words about my work!



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