“Anyone who is bilingual (or who speaks another language) can be a translator” – is this true?

By Rebecca Ellerker, Freelance Translator

translating text

Yes and no.

It is commonly perceived that anyone who speaks another language can translate and this topic has received a fair amount of attention from scholars and translators alike. Those of us who are bilingual, or have the skills to communicate in another language, will have often been asked to do ‘a quick translation’ to help family and friends. I remember being on many family holidays, even as a teenager (early on in my language learning journey), and my monolingual parents asking me to translate in supermarkets or tell them what street signs were saying. I was able to do it; we purchased the things we needed, and we got where we needed to go. However, this type of ‘translation’ or ‘communication’ is a far cry from the work I do as a professional freelance translator.

To arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question, we need to consider what it means to be ‘bilingual’ (or have the ability to speak another language) and what a translator actually does. A concrete definition of bilingualism is hard to come by; definitions range from the, ‘the fact of being able to use two languages equally well,’(1) to ‘a fluency in or use of two languages.’(2) The important point to note here is that there are two strands featuring in these definitions of bilingualism: language use and language competency.

Speakers of more than one language will often find that their proficiency in their second language is defined by the circumstances in which they have learnt or used it. For example, when I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I had spent extended periods living abroad and had consequently developed a strong level of fluency; I could conduct my daily life in France and Spain without any problems whatsoever. However, when I started my first graduate job, a matter of weeks post-graduation, working in European finance for a large multi-national company, I rapidly realised that I had much to learn in terms of corporate financial terminology!

Turning now to the act of translation: this can be an activity as simple as transferring words from one language into another. Rather like the kind of ‘translation’ I performed on my early family holidays. However, often professional translators work with complex, specialist or technical texts. Translating then becomes much more than the simple transfer of words and the translator must focus on producing a target text that transfers the meaning of the source text in a manner that is accurate, reliable and appropriate to its intended audience and function.
Professional translators must have their wits about them. An overly literal translation is rarely acceptable and the translator must consider every aspect of their translated text: lexical, functional and cultural elements, to name but a few.

A translator must have an eye for detail and will have, more often than not, an in-depth knowledge of their chosen specialism. Translating a legal document, for example, requires the knowledge and skill to produce a flawlessly written legal text in the translator’s target language. Likewise, translators specialising in marketing slogans must have a thorough awareness and understanding of both the source and target cultures to ensure that their translations are appropriate and effective for their target audience. A quick internet search for ‘marketing translation fails’ reveals countless brands that have made errors due to a lack of cultural understanding and awareness. Errors that professional freelance translators cannot afford to make.

So, if we have established that a person with knowledge of a second language can translate words from one language to another, but that this fact does not necessarily make them translators, then, logically, we should consider how linguists can learn the relevant skills to become proficient, capable translators.

A course such as the MA in Translation Studies at Exeter provides the perfect opportunity for those who have the knowledge of a second (or third…) language, to develop their ability to translate and become skilled translators. I recall many years ago being asked to translate a legal letter for a family friend who was in the process of purchasing a house in France. Whilst I had the ability to understand the words, and look up the direct meaning of the words I didn’t know, I realised that I certainly wasn’t capable of reproducing the letter accurately and, importantly, reliably in English. I learnt then to truly value the skills of the professional translator and understood that being bilingual did not mean that I could automatically consider myself a translator. Having now successfully graduated from the Translation Studies course at Exeter, I am proud to say, at last, that I feel able to call myself a ‘Freelance Translator’!

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/bilingualism

[2] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/bilingualism