Being Bilingual and Translating

Last night on Twitter we stumbled into the subject of translation, a subject I have an interest in, and have enough done some professional work with. And the idea was floated that if you’re fluent in both languages that would surely make the translation process easy. Which is why I wanted to write a bit about it here.

I will concede that it probably makes it easier, but becoming fluent in another language comes with some difficulties of its own in terms of translating.

When I reached the point of being fluent in English along with my Norwegian mother’s tongue, I basically stopped thinking of the two languages in relation to one another.

While learning a language, there is a period where you mentally translate everything you hear and read in your head to understand it. When you’re fluent, you just understand.

Then you have two ( or more ) languages that you just understand, and unless you actually work as a translator or interpreter, you typically won’t think along the lines of “how would this be said in the other language”. It’s all just part of your language skill. It’s not two different sides, it exists on the same plane, so to speak.

This is felt all the more keenly if you ever actually end up trying to translate something. Suddenly trying to think in terms of “wait, what would this be in the other language” is a bit like starting to think about how you breathe or walk. Trying to consciously take control of something your brain handles automatically. It’s not quite as dramatic, but the principle is the same.

And no matter how fluent you are in a non-native language, there will be certain terms that have just never shown up in your studies, and don’t hold a place in everyday conversation, or even in most books or articles you might read. Or there will be a term you know perfectly well what means, you just have no idea what it is in the other language. It might not actually have a counterpart at all. Proverbs and such are an excellent example. Sometimes it will have something equivalent in the language you’re translating to, but maybe it just doesn’t. And then you have to figure out how to express the same meaning, or have it make sense in some other way.

In my work I ran into a lot of technical terms and jargon that I knew well in Norwegian, but just hadn’t had any reason to encounter in English. Having someone to consult with is very valuable, and using Google to search for things can also help. Even Google Translate, as flawed as it is, can help with translating individual words ( even some very short phrases ), since it often offers more than one alternative, but having a proper dictionary is probably a safer bet. You should definitely never rely on Google Translate to get the grammar right. It might, but you shouldn’t trust it.

I’ve also noticed that the more fluent you are in a language, and the more you use it, the less fussed you are about being proper in how you speak and write. You start picking up slang, memes, and bad habits. Where once you might have made fun of native-speakers for their poor grasp on their own language, you end up joining them in the misuse and abuse of grammar and proper spelling. It’s virtually inevitable.


PS! I do offer my services in translating, proof-reading, fiction writing, etc. at reasonable rates. More information on my Contact/Commissions page.


Posted on November 29, 2015, in Miscellaneous, Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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