Can someone bilingual be a translator?

It can be tempting for companies to try and save money by asking bilingual members of staff to undertake translation or interpreting work.  Sometimes this is perfectly adequate: maybe the document is solely for internal use, or perhaps the subject matter is relevant to the individual’s role and they understand the context and any technical vocabulary needed better than an outsource provider could.  However, this is often symbolic of a widespread perception that anybody fluent in a language can be a translator, while in most circumstances, for instance if the document was to send out to clients and investors or if the ‘translator’ was not familiar with the subject matter, it would be essential to use the services of a qualified specialist.

Although a misconception, it is true that anybody who is bilingual or fluent in a foreign language has the potential to be a translator or interpreter.  Many of us can be very competent at something, but still a long way short of professional.  For instance, we might cook very tasty meals, but not up to such a standard that we could open a restaurant.  We might be able to complete our tax returns and manage our own financial affairs, but not set up as accountants.  When choosing to do something as a career, rather than because it is necessary or interesting, not only do we usually feel we are naturally gifted or more inclined towards this profession than most other people, but we also choose to invest more time, energy and effort in becoming more skilled and accomplished.  It is this experience, enthusiasm and expertise that you pay for when you hire a professional landscaper to redesign your garden rather than doing an acceptable amateur job yourself.

There are skills or qualities which make some people better suited to being a good translator.  On a basic level, a professional translator will have the time and resources to dedicate to the job in hand, while somebody who is fitting it in on top of their day job may find their attention is needed elsewhere and they are unable to produce a document on time or to the high standard required.

Furthermore, above and beyond competence in a second language, enthusiasm for writing or language in general is a distinct advantage.  Particularly for literary translations or marketing and some general business texts, the translator should be gifted in writing fluently, elegantly and or persuasively in their native language, as the stylistic impact of these texts is just as important as the accurate rendition of meaning.  Linguists who specialise in translation theory assert that there is no direct equivalence between words and sentences in different languages.  Rather, each language is a unique system, composed of sounds, grammatical components (verb endings like –ing or –ed, plural –s, –ly, which turns adjectives into adverbs, etc), words and rules about grammar and sentence structure.  The job of a translator is more to ‘decode’ a sentence in one language (or system) and then ‘rewrite’ it in the code of another, than it is to translate every individual element to its closest equivalent in the target language.  Not all native speakers have the intuition to do this effectively and sensitively to clients’ needs.

While this is perhaps less critical for technical or scientific translations, in these cases it is essential to be familiar with the up-to-date industry regulations and specialist vocabulary.  Not only can some everyday words, such as ‘work’ or ‘moment’, have a very precise meaning when used in fields such as physics or engineering, which might confuse someone who was not familiar with the subject area, but in fast-moving fields, terms are constantly changing or being coined to keep up with new discoveries and products.

For all translations, more skills are needed to produce a fluent and persuasive final document than the ability to accurately translate the meaning from one language to another.  A high quality translation, tailored to the needs of individual clients, needs the professional expertise and rigour of a qualified and experienced specialist.