You Never Know Where Your Languages Will Take You


It’s been a while since I have posted anything here since running a business tends to consume all of my time, sometimes to a nearly unhealthy degree. The gap since my last post has made me consider where my languages have taken me compared to where I thought I was going when I started out. To give you some background, I have had a near obsession with languages since I was fairly young, studying any language I could get materials for. This unguided, haphazard approach to learning languages became much more structured when I went to college and limited myself to my “major” languages: Russian, Spanish and French. I chose these three intentionally thinking I might end up working for the United Nations whose working languages include English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

Yet it was Russian that really held my attention. The mystique of the language and country during the cold war was very intriguing to me. I even spent six months in the Soviet Union studying and perfecting my Russian. I remember how excited I was the day I realized I could speak Russian easily without even thinking of the grammar. I left the country feeling very proud of my ability to speak confidently, fluently and intelligently on most topics, assuming I’d be back in Moscow very soon after I graduated. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 job opportunities were not the same and I ended up in graduate school studying Russian and Spanish.

After graduating, my professional life quickly led me to a job at an insurance company translating from Spanish and Portuguese, languages which I had secretly looked down on as “back-up” languages that were not as prestigious or fascinating as Russian. Now I found myself suddenly needing to use them both at a professional level. I began devouring Spanish content, memorizing obscure Spanish grammar rules and making long vocabulary lists to be sure that I could do the job well. Since I only had three semesters of college Portuguese under my belt, whenever I had “extra” time, I’d spend it working on Portuguese grammar and vocabulary, principally relying on words and grammar that were different from Spanish. Within a reasonable period of time, I felt comfortable using and speaking in both languages at work.

Yet after four years in the insurance industry, I was ready for a change. I started a language services company with my partner in 1997. It quickly became very clear just how useful and indispensible Spanish actually is in the United States. Soon after a very large client required me to put my atrophying French skills to the test. I went through the same process to ramp up my French. It’s been 20 years since that time and I still use French and Spanish on a daily basis, and Portuguese a few times a week. Yet Russian has never played a large part of my professional life in all of that time. Over the years, I can sense my Russian skills deteriorating, despite occasional bursts of interest in reading and listening to the language on the web. When I do have opportunities to speak Russian, the words are no longer on the tip of my tongue and I can feel myself having to think about verb forms and noun declensions that once came out naturally. To a large degree, we make our own opportunities in life so I am not ruling out ever using Russian on a professional level. However, for now I am enjoying using languages that I feel completely comfortable in and studying other languages for fun when I can. It can be hard to know where your language will take you right out of college so stay open to all possibilities and do your best to keep your skills up in languages that you aren’t actively using.

What Makes a Good Translation?

A Spanish “translation” that appeared on gas pumps throughout Indiana in 2001

I am often approached by people who speak another language who are looking for work. I will ask if they translate or interpret, or both. This inevitably leads to the question, what’s the difference? As I have discussed in a previous post, there is a difference. However, the fact that they do not even know that tells me a lot so I try to steer them toward resources on getting started as a translator. Many people assume that any bilingual person can do a good translation. Therefore, often a very complicated, well-written document ends up in the hands of someone with absolutely no translation experience. So what all goes into the process of translating, and how you do judge a good translation from a bad one?

It is often said that translation is an art, and I agree. Think about it for a second. If I were asked to draw a picture of someone, I could certainly produce an image resembling a human being that anyone would recognize as such, but could that compare to the naturalness and fine detail of what a true artist could do? Could I call myself an artist? Translation can be viewed in the same way. It is an intricate and often subjective process that goes far beyond a simplistic word-for-word exchange. A good translation needs to carry the meaning and the tone of the original text, while still remaining culturally sensitive and appropriate to the target audience. Poor translations abound and it is such translations that people tend to remember. There is nothing funny about a bad translation if it negatively affects your company image or product. No one wants to be the butt of a bad joke because a translation has failed to hit its mark. The image above is just such an example. It is a translation that appeared about ten years ago here in Indiana for the “Don’t Pump and Run” campaign. I thought they had all been removed long gone until I recently saw one while filling my tank. This gem of a translation blooper wasn’t done by a computer, but by someone who honestly felt that he/she had the skills to do the translation. For those of you who speak Spanish, you will get a real kick out of it. For those of you who do not, it’s funny to native speakers because it’s a literal and nonsensical of the English version. It is also contains invented words, accent marks written as apostrophes and misspellings, including when a misspelling of the English word petroleum. How this was ever approved and posted at thousands of gas stations statewide is a mystery to me.

So what are the qualities that go into making a “good” translation? It must meet several criteria in order to be considered “good.” The first criterion is rather obvious—it has to be accurate. Examples of where this often fails are mistranslations, missing sentences and bad grammar. This point accentuates the need to use translators with a thorough knowledge of both languages, not merely two years of a high school language. Mistranslations and missing words or sentences can have devastating consequences. Additionally, if a translation is fraught with bad grammar or spelling errors, the reader tends to lose confidence in not only the document, but also the company that produced it.

Clarity is another important factor. A translation has to be easily comprehensible and well written, regardless of how poor the original document may be. Good translations commonly read much better than do the originals. Many writers tend to write in rather long and complicated sentences; this is especially true in legal documents. However, a translation should strive to present all the information and nuance of the source text in a clear and uncluttered fashion whenever possible

Naturalness of the translation is the key factor in helping to prevent a translation from sounding like one. Typically, or at least at my company, after a translation has been proofread for accuracy and completeness, an editor will go through the document and make sure that it reads smoothly and sounds as if it were originally written in the target language.

An easily overlooked component of a good translation is mirroring the mood of the author. In general texts, there may not be a definitive tone, but in editorial and literary documents there always is a clear attitude of the author. For a translation to convey the same feeling to the reader, it must use words and expressions which can transmit a similar spirit. Failure to express this accurately can easily mislead the reader as to the writer’s true feelings and attitudes.

Next, a translation needs to be culturally appropriate for the target audience. References to religious figures, sports or country–specific items may confuse or offend the reader. Such references either need to be excluded in the source document before translation begins, or be culturally readapted into the target language.

Lastly, the audience needs to be taken into consideration. Sometimes this is a broad group of people, but more often, it is a narrow, targeted audience. A text written for a group of scientists needs to be translated at a much higher reading level than would consent forms for newly arrived immigrants. Moreover, if a document is destined for a certain country, it is usually best that the translation be performed by a native translator of that country to ensure that only terms and expressions of that country are used. Metric conversions and spelling changes may need to be made to ensure that the translation is acceptable in the given country. This is just a very brief look at the basics of what goes into a good translation. If you have questions, please let me know.

The Importance of Culture in Language Learning

I recently heard someone who studies multiple languages say that he didn’t care about learning the culture behind those languages. This is really surprising to me on many levels since not only is culture a major and inseparable component of “knowing” a language, it is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of acquiring a new language and keeping yourself motivated. If you argue that a language can learned devoid of culture for mere functional or academic purposes, then what you will end up with is the mere ability to function in the language as an outsider at the minimal level and have no real appreciation for the people who use the language. Choosing not to learn about the country or countries where a particular language is spoken nor its government, history or people not only robs you of the richness that knowing another language normally brings with it, but also makes it very difficult to appreciate the news or place current events in any meaningful context.

However, trying to avoid the culture of a language is actually rather hard to do if you study a language to a thorough level and interact with its speakers. For example, you simply cannot learn to speak and function in Arabic if you are not familiar with its underlying culture or Islamic influence. Speaking Japanese without understanding its rather complicated honorific speech system would be socially disastrous and detrimental to any business negotiation. Each language carries with it all of the history and culture of the area that it arises from. The political, social and economic conditions of the country influence its vocabulary and the shades of meaning of its words. The cultural landscape of some languages is quite vast since they are spoken across many different countries, each flavoring the language in its own unique way. Spanish, as an example, is the official language of 20 countries and widely spoken in the U.S. with variations that reflect each region’s reality. In Mexico, many words for food that Americans are familiar with have different meanings than elsewhere in the Latin world. A tortilla, for example, is a thin layer of corn or flour unleavened bread in Mexico, whereas in other Spanish-speaking countries it is an omelet. Every American knows what a taco is, but the word has a myriad of meanings outside of Mexico that have nothing to do with food. In cases like this where a language is spoken in different counties, it’s more practical to learn the most about the culture and people of the country that you will actually interact with.

Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language. They reflect the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but they are also great for your language skills. I still remember very clearly one that I learned while I was a student in the former Soviet Union, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят!,” which literally means you don’t bring a samovar to Tula. This expression certainly means very little to most people who don’t know anything about Russian culture. What is a samovar? Where in the world is Tula? Well, a samovar (pictured above) is a traditional Russian urn used for boiling water to make tea, both of which are items inextricably linked to Russian culture. Tula is a city in Russia famous for being a major manufacturer of samovars; hence, there would be no need to take one with you if you go there for a visit. If you invest the time in learning many such proverbs, you will be well rewarded by what you gain not only from cultural insight, but in how your language is appreciated by native speakers.

Learning a language without the cultural framework in which it exists is like cooking ethnic food without the spices of the region. You simply will remove all of the flavor from the language. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel or live in the country for awhile, great! If not, try to learn as much as you can by reading books and magazines from the country and watching its television programs so that you can get a feel for how the people think, act and speak. Don’t just be bilingual, be bicultural!

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

Serbo-Croatian language flag

Image via Wikipedia

As a linguistics major in college I remember being taught that the question of what is a language versus a dialect is a political question rather than a linguistic one. This is indeed the case. Languages are held in high esteem by their speakers. Dialects are deemed to be less prestigious than the main language. Confusion between the terms arises from the fact that there is no clear distinction into what makes a language a language, or a dialect a dialect. For many American English speakers, regional accents are often considered to be dialects of English. For example, Southern speech is frequently referred to as “dialect” in just the same way as one would refer to British English. From a broader and politically-neutral perspective, a dialect can be considered to be any form of a language that is mutually intelligible to speakers of the same or related language. Therefore, American, British and Australian English would all be dialects of each other since the speakers of these three variations of English can essentially understand each other, apart from localized slang and expressions that often stump the listener.

However, the picture becomes a bit murkier as you consider closely-related languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. To varying degrees these three Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible to speakers of the other languages. Political boundaries have defined them as separate languages and different orthographic rules have further modified their written forms.  Often in such cases speakers of one of the languages have much less difficulty understanding the other language. In fact, I used to teach English as a Second Language and would regularly hear Spanish and Portuguese speakers conversely with each other in their own language after class. The Brazilian Portuguese speakers told me that they had no problem whatsoever understanding the Spanish speakers, but the Spanish speakers often struggled to understand the Brazilians.

For political reasons, sometimes languages that are mutually unintelligible are considered to be the same language, as is the case with Chinese. China considers Cantonese and Mandarin to be the same language. In fact, these two languages do share the same writing system and use the same characters, but the spoken form of the languages is so different that the speakers are unable to understand each other without writing back and forth. In other cases, the exact same language is considered to be a separate language. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are essentially the same language, called Serbo-Croatian during communist rule. Now for political reasons they are considered distinct languages. Serbian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Croatian in the Latin alphabet and Bosnian in both. As languages and countries continue to evolve, what we now consider to be dialects may become languages or vice versa.

What does an interpreter do?

Interpreter place at the European Court of Justice

Image via Wikipedia

If you read my post What Does a Translator Do?, you’ll remember that translators handle written texts while interpreters deal with spoken language. When people picture an interpreter, they typically conjure up a headphone-wearing, glass-enclosed United Nations type interpreter, like Nicole Kidman in the movie “The Interpreter.” While this is a fairly accurate portrait of what some interpreters do, it is just one facet of the language interpretation profession. I’d like to present a brief outline of the different types of interpreters and what they do.

First of all, interpretation comes in two forms: consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpretation, a speaker talks in short segments, typically 15-60 seconds, then the interpreter presents the message to the audience. This usually requires the interpreter to take notes to be sure nothing is missed. The interpreter usually is visible and speaks into a microphone for the whole audience to hear. This sort of interpreting is common for short speeches or events where the schedule allows for the additional time needed for the interpretation. Consecutive interpretation is by far the most common form with interpreters working in all fields. Though some government entities, courts, and hospitals employee their own interpreters to handle their daily needs in specific languages, the majority work as independent contractors. Consecutive interpreting can also be provided telephonically. You might have noticed that some stores now have special language telephones set up next to the customer service desk to allow non-English speaking shoppers access to an interpreter within a few minutes. Telephone interpretation has become more prevalent in recent years with many hospitals and government agencies relying on it as a quicker and cheaper alternative to having a physical interpreter come out to their location. When an interpreter needs to be mobile during a presentation, such as a company plant visit or city tour, the interpreter is referred to as an escort interpreter. This is an unfortunate name given some of the requests I have gotten over the years with specific physical descriptions of the “interpreter” the client desired. Consecutive interpreting tends to be used more in shorter events since it doubles the time necessary to convey the message.

In simultaneous interpretation the interpreter begins to interpret the message nearly at the same time as the speaker. In fact there is a brief 2-10 second lag before the interpretation begins to enable the interpreter to gather the whole meaning of the sentence. With languages where the verb comes at the end, like German, the interpreter must wait until the end of the thought before starting to interpret. This type is usually for large conferences, corporate meetings and in some courtrooms. Simultaneous interpreters are often referred to as conference interpreters since these are the types of venues for which they most often interpret. This sort of interpretation is frequently judged to be more difficult since it requires the interpreter to both listen and speak at the same time. Consequently, there are fewer simultaneous interpreters in the interpretation field and they can be quite expensive to book. Like consecutive interpreters, most work as freelancers. However, unlike consecutive interpreters they are much more likely to travel aross the world from one venue to the next. The interpreters are equipped with a headset and microphone to hear the speaker and then relay the interpreted message into the microphone. The interpretation is transmitted either by radio or infrared waves to the audience that has wireless receivers. In the case of a multiple-language event, the audience may be able to choose from several languages on different channels. Simultaneous interpreters always work in pairs, trading off every 20-30 minutes. They are often unseen and work in either an enclosed interpretation booth or glass-walled room in order not to distract from the event.   

Depending on the circumstances, both types can be used. I have personally been in depositions where I have whispered the interpretation simultaneously into the person’s ear while the lawyer was asking the questions, then consecutively interpreted the answers back to the lawyer. This is just a very brief glimpse into the fascinating and high-demand field of interpreting.

Dying World Languages

More than half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are facing likely extinction within the next 50 years. In fact, it is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. Many of these languages still have thousands of living speakers, yet the languages are not being passed down to the next generation. Such languages are considered to be “dying” since eventually their last native speaker will die leaving no one left to carry on the language. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project studied this phenomenon and named Northern Australia, Central South America, Canada’s Northwest Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States as areas where indigenous languages face the greatest peril. Even here in the US there are some 40 Native American languages still are spoken today in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

There are many reasons why a language does not get passed down from one generation to another. However, in most cases it is the dominant language of the area that gradually overtakes the minor language in school, work and at home to a point where the speakers of that language no longer bother or find it necessary to pass along the language to their children. In other cases, language policies of the region speed the language’s demise in favor of the dominant language. Once a language is dead, it’s unlikely to ever be revived. Hebrew is the only language to be successfully revitalized as a national language once it had lost its native speakers.

The question is why should anyone care? The truth is that when a minor language dies and is replaced by a more dominant language, the world loses a piece of its cultural history, not that different from the extinction of an animal species. The culture of an entire people is tied to its language so more than just the language is being lost. Since the majority of the dying languages are not written down the oral traditions of thousands of years may be lost forever once the last speaker is gone. For this reason, linguists and cultural anthropologists are in a struggle to record the sounds, grammar and oral histories of as many of these languages as possible. No matter how widely spoken a language is, it is still vulnerable. A perfect example is Latin, which was a dominant language spoken throughout the Roman Empire, yet as the language spread throughout the region, over time it splintered into several different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian, etc.) and the mother language itself fell into disuse. Even though it is still learned by millions of students and used to a limited degree within the Catholic Church, there are no living native speakers of it. The lesson for us all is to be sure to pass along our native languages and cultures to our children.