What makes a good translator? What makes a bad translator? Fluency in the source and target languages is without a doubt essential… but is it enough? We look at the latest science behind bilingualism and compare it with our experience as professional translators and interpreters.
The bilingual mind functions a bit differently than the monolingual brain. According to Ellen Bialystok a leading researcher in this field from York University: “The bilingual mind is in constant conflict. For every utterance, a choice is made to focus on the target language, so there is a constant need to select.”
By forcing the brain to choose, the regions involved in the overall executive function are strengthened. One experiment conducted to test whether or not executive function is actually increased in bilingual candidates is called the “Simon Effect.” In this type of study, participants are asked to respond to colored objects on a screen in front of them and might be instructed to hit the right key for all red objects and the left key for all green objects.
When Bialystok conducted one of these types of studies, she found that the bilinguals from India (Tamil-English) were faster and more accurate than their English-only speaking counterparts from Canada. The bilingual volunteers were much better at determining the location of the objects and were better able to focus on the objects’ color which showcases incredible executive function. When bilinguals switch between languages, they are actually activating the parts of the brain involved in executive function differently than monolinguals – bilinguals actually reorganize parts of their brain through functional neuroplasticity: “...fluent bilinguals show some measure of activation of both languages and some interaction between them at all times, even in contexts that are entirely driven by only one of the languages.” In other words, the changes to the bilingual brain are locked in “on” mode.
With this myriad of advantages, you may expect bilingual individuals to move easily into the translation industry. Indeed, many bilinguals – especially children of immigrants – may grow up as de facto translators and interpreters for their family members. It is important, however, to draw a distinction between being bilingual and being a proper translator. All translators are necessarily bilingual. However, not all bilinguals are – or should be – translators.
Translators must be wide readers and excellent writers in their target, or native, language. This is especially key when working with material of a specialized nature. Imagine if you, a sales, marketing or software development professional in this example, were tasked with preparing a legal decision. Or perhaps the response to a request for proposal for a solar energy network. It’s all in English – and you write English very well. So, what’s the problem? Both documents will have specialized terminology, syntax, word usage (don’t confuse ‘may’ and ‘shall’ in that legal document), turns of phrase, etc. It would be quite obvious to a professional that you have no clue what you’re talking about.
The translator of legal or solar engineering material is fluent in this specialized “script” and in two or more languages. They study and travel, subscribe to journals, attend conferences, and train themselves on specialized technology, and have often had previous careers in the very same fields they now translate for. It is this expertise and professionalism that makes them inept translators.
Today’s data soundly refutes the old belief that bilingualism is a disadvantage for children and causes confusion. In fact, by learning to speak two or more languages from an early age, the brain’s cognitive functionality is increased. Processing just one language alone uses many different parts of the brain. Whether language is being read, listened to, or written, the brain needs to interpret the words for meaning and context to process, understand and respond using the appropriate rules for that specific language. When two languages are involved, the process becomes a bit more complex.
The most recent Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2018, Pages 148-157 examines “the classroom language context and English and Spanish vocabulary development among dual language learners attending Head Start” programs within the United States. According to this research, it was determined that dual language learners in preschool in English-Spanish bilingual programs had added advantages in their Spanish language skills with no effects on their English skills.
One study comparing if there would be any effects on the students’ vocabulary between a two-way Spanish immersion program and a monolingual English immersion program found no differences between either group’s English development but the dual language program did increase the Spanish skill sets of all students involved. Another study comparing the same types of programs determined that bilingual programs increased Spanish vocabulary without affecting English vocabulary development. In fact, these findings demonstrate that when children are taught in their native tongue (i.e. Spanish in this case) and are introduced and taught in another language (English) as well, they are able to effectively develop their abilities in their native language in addition to the new language – setting them up to be great translators, should they choose to follow that path.
Here at Syntes, we know what makes a good translator and we follow extensive screening criteria when recruiting new linguists. Being bilingual is just one factor of this process, albeit an essential one.