Bilingualism and Translation:
Cognitive Constraints on Comprehension of Specialized Texts
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
-- Albert Einstein
Translation jobs are often done by non-linguists who were raised and educated bilingual and later acquired expertise in specialized fields. There is a great deal of debate regarding how much such practitioners can translate and whether language professionals need to be experts in specific domains. Some people believe that scientific and technical material should only be translated by bilingual experts in the field because it is impossible for translators to obtain expert knowledge. However, non-linguist translators, even though they often have necessary knowledge of terminology correspondence, still face difficulties in rendering the actual article in another language. This is far from being simple and, according to Marissa Presas, “bilingualism is only a preliminary stage to the development of translation competence” (Presas, 2000). Similarly, there are translators who argue that their abundant knowledge of semantics and syntax ensures adequate and professional translation of specialized texts without prior preparation or training. Both sides are going down a slippery slope. The aim of this paper is to argue if natural bilingualism is enough to work in the translation field, as well as examine what competences are required for bilingual translators, and attempt to explain what cognitive constraints bilingual professionals encounter in the process of acquisition of specialized texts.
Bilinguals are often regarded as innate translators. The Oxford Dictionary defines the noun bilingual as “fluent in two languages” (Oxford Dictionary). Erika Hoff, psychologist and author of “Childhood Bilingualism” points out that when a child is immersed into a multilingual environment, it changes how this child uses cognitive resources. It is difficult to imagine how a monolingual child would switch to another language; however, this has never been an issue for the bilinguals. As a result, they focus on specific tasks easily, which explains why they do better at the tasks that require direct attention (Hoff, 2006). Based on Hoff’s argument, one can possibly infer that language ability and bilingual fluency are the only competences that really matter in translation. Although empirical studies conducted by Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood suggest that bilinguals’ meta-cognitive skills are increased and that they have superior thinking ability, this does not always adequately apply to the translation profession (Harris, 1977). Once the quality of specialized translations done by natural bilinguals is criticized for the first time, the concept of “being good enough” begins to fade away. Moreover, serious blunders in scientific and/or technical texts often lead to legal consequences. The examples of case studies illustrate how defective technical and medical translations impact the operation and maintenance of machinery, lead to wrong treatment in hospitals, and damage someone’s reputation. Arika Okrent refers to one of such cases: a bilingual staff member of Florida hospital translated the Spanish word intoxicado as intoxicated. A professional translator would know that intoxicado actually means poisoned. As a result, the doctors were treating the patient – who, in fact, was suffering from intracerebral hemorrhage – from drug overdose. The patient became quadriplegic because of the delay in treatment (Okrent, 2013). The outcome of this case cannot speak in favor of bilingualism as an innate translation skill.
Obviously, there must be some reasoning of the wrong equivalent the above-mentioned translator opted. The mental dictionary and cognitive process of a bilingual differs from the monolingual speaker. When a person hears a word, he/she does not hear the entire word at once: the sounds arrive in sequential order (Marian, 2012). Therefore, long before the word is finished, the human brain activates the signals matching the “word,” and then the brain begins to infer what that word might be. In the above-mentioned example, it is most likely that the bilingual translator guessed that phonetically and phonologically the Spanish word intoxicado resembled the English intoxicated. However, intoxicado is closer to poisoned and does not have the same connotation of drug use as intoxicated. If nobody tells such “translators” about their mistakes, the ignorance for them will be bliss. The innate bilingualism, therefore, may not be satisfactory for translation competence.
That being said, the issue of competences needs to be raised. The PACTE Group carries out experimental and empirical researches about translation competence. Taking into account that translation is a problem-solving process and based on the analysis of PACTE collected data and study variables, one can hypothesize that strategic competence is the most important of all competencies (PACTE, 2009). This implies the ability to plan, evaluate, and carry out the translation process, as well as to identify and solve translation problems. In addition, in his article “Redefining Translation Competence in an Electronic Age. In Defense of a Minimalist Approach,” Anthony Pym mentions the keys [competences], of which many bilinguals are unaware since many never had any “academic training” in the translation field, i.e., did not study the language in a systematic way. He writes, “Bilinguals would start translating for themselves, then for others, and this progression should hold some keys for what all translators do” (Pym, 2003). The set of such “keys” includes language and cultural competences: awareness of the sociocultural context within which the source text (ST) and target text (TT) are received. Provided that the bilingual is not just fluent in both source language (SL) and target language (TL), but also understands the cultural differences between them, he/she can properly render the meaning into the TL; however, this may not happen if the bilingual was born and raised in another country and, therefore, is not fully aware of such cultural nuances. For example, the US-born Russian speaking people sometimes use the word митинг [miting] as an encounter; however, in Russian it means demonstration or political gathering. If such a bilingual were asked to translate, the equivalence would not be achieved. The above example illustrates that being bilingual also requires to be bicultural since going to political demonstrations (known as meetings) was once an integral part of Soviet life in Russia, and the translator has to be aware of this cultural aspect. As far as specialized texts are concerned, good knowledge of terminology has to be paired with a good knowledge of sentence composition, because the texts translated by bilingual experts often gives you an impression that you are reading English with Russian, Spanish, German, or other words accordingly. Knowledge of technical slang is also essential. For example, the English technical terms male connector and female connector are often rendered by some Russian bilinguals literally; however, in the technical Russian language they are translated as slang words “папка” [father] and “мамка” [mother]. It is uneasy for a natural bilingual who never lived in his/her locale to be aware of such peculiarities in the specialized texts. Such challenges, however, are not beyond the power of professional linguists who can cognitively comprehend the polysemy of lexicon.
In addition, bilingual practitioners often render words differently than dictionaries. This has a cognitive and psychological explanation. When heard or seen, the words for the bilingual are usually used in the context, i.e. in the situations defined by physical characteristics, cultural habits, mood, personal attitude, etc. Therefore, different cognitive conditions predispose the translation and affect the translated word; this may lead to inaccuracy in translation. However, translation of specialized texts, belonging to a particular subject field, does not tolerate any deliberate omissions, liberties, or deviations from the ST. Although bilingual practitioners – who are not necessarily trained translators – often have excellent knowledge of terminology, they cannot analyze the terms linguistically. Furthermore, in the process of translation and/or interpreting one should take a cognitive linguistic approach in order to comprehend the linguistic units (terms) that convey conceptual meaning (Benitez, 2009).
To conclude with, bilingualism can only be seen as an initial stage in translator’s profession. Although multilingual speakers do often have necessary expertise in specific domains, the cognitive challenges they face are due to the lack of academic knowledge of the languages, absence of cultural competences, differences in mental dictionary, and specificity of cognitive and psychological processes in their brains versus those of trained translators’. Also, translation requires continual practice and discipline. Unfortunately, not all bilinguals inherently possess these qualities; however, not all clients understand this.
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Okrent, Arika. n.d. 24 November 2014. .
Presas, Marisa. "Bilingual Competence and Translation Competence." Developing Translation Competence. Ed. Schäffner. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000. 19.
Pym, Antony. "Redefining Translation Competence in an Electronic Age. In Defence of a Minimalist Approach." Translator's Journal 2003: 481-497.
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