Sunday, November 7, 2021

Keeping both feet on the ground – maintaining bilingual proficiency


[Footprints in sand*]

Professional translators must not only to be proficient in the languages they work in but also maintain that level over their career. Attaining proficiency generally involves some combination of intentional action, e.g., studies, and life circumstances, e.g., living in places where people used a language. By contrast, keeping both languages up to par requires conscientious effort as the geographically distant language receives less reinforcement. However, it is possible to overcome that disadvantage to a large degree through active exposure, oral and written. The benefit of such an effort is a long, successful career in translation.

[Rusty gears]
It is clear that an important difference between an aspiring and professional translator is language proficiency, especially in the language being translated. Attaining this level of knowledge of a foreign language generally involves formal study but more often than not also develops from intensive exposure that the language or culture, whether through frequent visits or long stays in a relevant country or living with people that speak that language. As adults, most translators live in the country of birth or an adopted country, reducing exposure to one of the languages. As rust settles forms on the geographically distant language, the person slowly loses the ear. More seriously, without exposure to current developments in vocabulary and structure, translators find themselves failing to understand the meaning of more modern language. The longer the exile, the greater that gap between the language being currently used and their knowledge. Over time, the “new” language becomes a truly foreign language. This dissonance is even true for native tongues. Long established expats can sound like characters from an old movie, slightly off in some ways. It is clear that, without reinforcement, translators can lose some relevant language skills over time.

[Social networks]
Of course, the best way to connect with a language is to use, speak and write with others in that language. With current technology, building an international network is matter of time, not money. For some, work situations create natural bridges when they require regular communication, such as in business or teaching. For others, it is matter of reaching out to friends and family and investing time in communicating. Curiously, communication limited to an expat community tends to reinforce localized language, which is not always identical to that of the home country as it includes 2nd language interference and foreign vocabulary. Of course, frequent visits are very productive linguistically. Even if a language is a native language, it still requires active use to maintain.


In terms of convenience and being up-to-date, the various forms of media provide ideal passive reinforcement. Whether through television, radio or YouTube, to name a few, a person hears authentic language unaffected by local peculiarities This language is often the most updated, at least for a specific age group, because it intends to be communicative. It also requires little active effort beyond turning the TV or computer on, being available on countless Internet channels. By regularly watching such programs, translators can keep updated on changes in vocabulary and structure as well as maintain their ear.


However, since the oral media generally aim at the general public, reinforcing higher level language involves reading newspapers and books. Newspapers, especially those with a higher standard of writing, generally use more formal language than television, thus strengthening the internal feel of correct language. Books and professional journals firm the benchmarks for translating formal material in the relevant fields. A person must be interested and regularly invest time and effort to make a habit of reading more professional material but the reward is updated knowledge and enriched language. Regular active reading of well-written language is the most demanding of all the means but also the most productive form of reinforcement.

Personally, I practice all three to the different techniques. I not only regularly use English in all my oral and written communication as a translator, I also teach English at the local engineering college, which requires me to have thorough knowledge of English language structure. I also watch UK and French TV through an Internet site, providing almost daily exposure to current language. Furthermore, I have a subscription to the weekly magazine Le Canard Enchainé, which keeps up to date on events in France and reinforces my vocabulary. Alas, my Russian, despite the great number of Russians with whom I interact with, has not kept up with the times. As I tell my customers, my Russian is “Breznevian”, i.e., from the 1970’s. As a result, essentially, I translate certificates from Russian as bureaucratic Russian has not changed much in a hundred years. In these ways, I try to keep my languages up to date.

This commitment to maintaining and even improving knowledge of all applicable languages is a key to a long, successful career. Not only does it keep them up to standards, it also provides personal satisfaction. After all, the reasons a person chooses to learn foreign languages and become a translator generally includes a love of language, which does not fade with time. By keeping all their languages firmly rooted, translators can stand up proudly for their profession.

* Captions help the blind access the Internet.

All pictures through Pixabay.

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