The secret life of words*

7 Fév

Translators are known to nitpick on linguistics. I am no exception. One word which is sure to create a debate if you throw it in front of a bunch of translators is bilingual. Prepare yourself for a lecture on what a true bilingual is, as opposed to a poser.

The generally admitted idea in our circles is that a bilingual person is one that grew up bilingual and has a similar command of both languages. For instance: Jack’s mom is American, while his dad is French. That’s why he’s bilingual. I understand and accept the largest meaning of bilingual as someone who speaks two languages, even if they are only a native speaker of one language. For instance: She’s a bilingual lawyer working for a French firm in Italy.  On the other hand, I’m really irked by the use of bilingual to describe an undefined level of fluency in a foreign language. Example: Oh yeah, I aced my A levels in French and Spanish. I’m bilingual in French and in Spanish. I also want to learn German and become bilingual in German. Now that is annoying. Anyway, that is not my point. There has been countless debates on the misuse of the word bilingual. However, what truly bothers me is what comes next.

Once translators are done defining what constitutes a true bilingual, they usually go on to state that those  true bilingals are rare gems indeed, implying that they have an edge on monolinguals. But do they? I have no doubt that there are talented translators who happen to be bilinguals out there, but I sure have met bilingual translators whose work I haven’t been impressed with. I find it funny that some professionals who agree that  it takes much more than speaking several languages to translate seem to feel in awe of bilinguals and to envy them. Sure, bilinguals can work both ways in terms of source and target language, but monolinguals can still work with several source languages, as many do. Plus, lots of successful and respected translators choose to specialise in just one pair. Going back to my initial definition, just because you have a similar command of both languages doesn’t mean you have a great command of either language, in which case you can be mediocre both ways. I woudn’t describe that as an edge.



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