Are Translators Linguaphiles?

22 October 2018

By Caeli

Category: Posts

Edgar’s team of English translators recently had the opportunity to attend LangFest 2018, a conference that celebrates languages of all kinds. The A-Team,1 as we like to call ourselves, heard a variety of lectures on topics such as linguistics, language preservation and chunking (a technique for acquiring languages). I even picked up some basic Japanese and Indonesian while I was there! The conference was genuinely fascinating: I learned so much about the harmonious—and strained—relationships between languages, which gave me useful insight as to how I should approach translations. However, while I was there among hundreds of language enthusiasts, I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter.

The very reason I became a translator was because I have a love (and knack) for languages. Raised in an anglophone household, I attended French school most of my life and picked up Spanish and bits of German along the way. But I wanted more. I was attracted to the idea of delving into new cultures by learning to speak, read and write in many languages. Once I entered the world of translation, however, I was discouraged from pursuing my polyglottal dreams.

To master the art of translation, you have to be intimately familiar with your target language and culture and be reasonably proficient in your source language(s)—a bit of research will help you fill in the gaps. I included that little S between parentheses because I work from French as well as from Spanish, but many translators I know limit themselves to a single source language. Why? Because throughout our university studies in translation, we’re continuously told we have to focus exclusively on a couple of languages to truly be skilled at our craft. It makes sense. Picture your mind as a suitcase. If it has to fit only English and French, you’ll have plenty of room for style guides, cultural references and idioms in each language. But if you also try to cram in Hungarian grammar, Quechua vocabulary and Mandarin characters, chances are you won’t have much space for all the intricacies of English and French, never mind those other languages. Besides, you may be rummaging through your luggage for quite a while before you find that one term that pairs so nicely with the verb that was right on top of the pile. “I know I put it in here somewhere…”

When I tell people I’m a translator, they often follow up by asking how many languages I speak. They’re usually disappointed when I say, “just English, French and Spanish.” (Although every now and then I do get a “Spanish? How cool!”) While I still like the idea of dipping my toes into new languages, I’ve decided to concentrate on just a few to make sure my mind stays sharp when it comes to the three languages I use at work.

Which brings me back to LangFest. Here I was, surrounded by people whose profession relied on, or hobby consisted of, picking up tongues. (Not literal tongues. That’s nasty. And weird.) I’m definitely passionate about words and language, but I wondered whether I could still be a linguaphile if I didn’t want to study as many languages as these polyglots. As a translator, I’m always learning, and more knowledge generally leads to more idiomatic target texts. But when it comes to learning new languages, the idea that less is more has been drilled into my head. Although translators, like polyglots, are born out of a fascination for language, the linguistic path we take is slightly less polyamorous. For now, I’ve chosen to limit my interest in foreign languages to curiosity so that I can really sharpen my translation skills in English, French and Spanish. Once I've got that down, who knows?


1 We’re the A-Team because we’re a team of Anglophones. Mr. T does not work with us.