What we are going to tackle here will not be new to those among you who have tested people for in-house positions or organized working language teams for conferences. It may be familiar to translation and interpretation students who have signed up for admissions testing, or to people undergoing job testing, and who invariably seem to be under the impression that they have to do well at anything that is thrown at them.
There are several misconceptions inherent in this perception. It is important for you to be aware of them, for several reasons. The most important reason is that not being aware of them can damage or confuse your language apparatus. Many people who would otherwise be good at some things can end up believing they are substandard in others and never reach a point at which they are maximized and their abilities positively reinforced. (And this can happen as early in the game as in translation and interpretation schools).
One of these misconceptions is, that you have to do equally well at any and all tests administered. This is false. In any language situation - including that of perfect bilinguals - there is an order of priority in your linguistic mental processes. Even a bilingual will have a dominant and a recessive mother language. The dominant language is the one that automatically catches and transforms all the ideas thrown at it in any other media - this is why the "mother language" approach to translation and interpretation is favored. I am not saying it is the only approach. It is simply the one that saves the most time, requires the least effort in terms of correction and hence is the most convenient, from the point of view of productivity.
How can a bilingual know which language is dominant and which is recessive? Code-switching patterns are one indication. Particularly among people living in bilingual societies, code-switching is very common. In spontaneous code-switching situations, the dominant language does not necessarily provide the vocabulary, but it cannot help but provide grammatical vertebration. Take the popular phenomenon known as Spanglish, for instance. A phrase like "vacunar la carpeta" or "exitar por el camino alto" indicates a dominant English vertebration fleshed out with a Spanish vocabulary that monolingual natives would find incomprehensible. On the other end, talk about "mobbing" as a way of driving out tenants from a flat by bringing in undesireable neighbours, or "bulling" (bullying) as an undesireable school behaviour, can only take place in an environment that does not use English in everyday life; in this case, Spain.
Children are particularly good at this. I have heard German children growing up and socializing in the Philippines saying lumaufen (composed of the German verb laufen and a Tagalog infix). Conversely, children of Tagalog speakers growing up in Germany tend to the typical form inumen, (composed of the Tagalog root inom + the German infinitive ending). This grammatical dominance is one of the ways in which a mother language transforms foreign input. Let us presume that 10 is still a "soft" age for code-switching, a situation that can arise when one's operative environment normally employs more than two languages. The usual 10 years that it takes to separate two linguistic packages may then be protracted. By the time a person is 15, however, a dominant-regressive-passive relationship will have become distinct.
This phenomenon can happen in larger population groups, giving rise to dialects or variants of a language. Spanish gypsies, for example, speak a variant of Romany called Caló or Calé in which verbs of Roma origin have been given the first Spanish verb form ending, -ar, preparing them for use in Castilian sentences. (To supply = maturnar, to scorch = bengebar, to open = gucarar). This is the pattern followed by neologisms in Spanish, as evidenced by Spanish vocabulary taken from Arabic during the Middle Ages. Unlike the Arabic language, however, Roma was never in an ideal position to become integrated into everyday Spanish speech on a broad scale. This has led to a situation in which native Spanish speakers cannot consider Caló Spanish, even though through the years Spanish has evidently become dominant in the bilingual community of Spanish gypsies.
From a production point of view, as we have said, the "mother language" approach is the most economical solution for the purposes of translation or interpretation. However, it is not always the most available option. To a large extent, it is the market that determines what can be done, as against - in an ideal world - what should be done. In a region where both Spanish and Quechua are spoken, for example, the real demand for Quechua may be such that people speaking Spanish as a dominant mother language eventually end up working into Quechua, simply because language service providers into Quechua do not survive the lack of demand, and it is the Spanish speakers with Quechua as a recessive language who are there to give service when required. This is the reason why languages like Hindi, Khmer or Amharic may actually cost more than the languages of major demand - even despite the lower cost of living in those regions where they are spoken.
At first glance, the term "second language" may seem deceptively self-evident. However, it is not that easy. To avoid compromising this topic, I am going to use it to refer to the variable languages in a translator's profile; i.e., the languages whose levels may change, as against the mother language, which remains constantly dominant throughout a person's lifetime.
The popular notion among outsiders to the profession is that the translator or interpreter has a 100% grasp of both source and target languages. This is because the palpable evidence indicates that he is able to render in one language exactly what is being said in another. So laymen tend to fill in the gap, thinking that the process of translation or interpreting is done word for word. We all know otherwise, although we may not be so clear as to how that works. The professional paradigm of the situation is closer to the truth: the translator or interpreter has, or should have, an above-average grasp of his mother language, against which his second language (and third, and fourth language, and so on) measures up, and the real picture on a bar graph is more likely to look like the profile of a stairway, with the mother language at the top of the heap.
The differences between the steps of this stairway - the gaps - are precisely what make a translator or interpreter effective, in practice. In practice, absolute control over both target and source can be more of a hindrance than a help, leading to confused code-switching - what we call "interference". Bilinguals are functional precisely because one language becomes dominant. If both were equally dominant, there would be a tendency towards unpredictability in a language service situation (which would account for the reluctance of some outsourcers with respect to "bilinguals").
You have probably heard of interpreters being classified "A", "B" and "C", in which "A" represents the mother language. Many interpreters who are new in the field strive for a "B" classification in their source languages, thinking this will rate higher with client prospects. But in reality, some of the best interpreters - who work in organizations like the United Nations - are C to A interpreters. They work in the gaps and maximize them. And there would seem to be some principle by which the more art they are able to squeeze into it without compromising the message, the more efficient and effective their performance.
Nonetheless, the ABC model remains very useful for monitoring language acquisition. This is because acquiring languages follows the same rules as using them, or translating out of them. Anyone who has ever tried to learn two languages on the same level at the same time will know what I mean. Namely, one does not get very far. The two languages fight with each other for dominance over one's brain. You can have advanced French and beginner's Spanish and get along fine between both language classes, but intermediate French and intermediate Spanish with no gap between them taxes a learner's resources.
Unless you purposely want a profile shift to happen, entering into conflict with yourself in this way is counterproductive in terms of time and effort. So if you have to have a profile shift, it is best to plan it instead of just getting carried along.
What is a profile shift? A profile shift is a level displacement between two variable languages. A "C" language may become a "B" language, to the extent of displacing another "B" language into a "C" position. Among the inconveniences or "symptoms" it may cause are: guaranteed interference between the two conflicting languages throughout the period of conflict, and possible nightmares, or at least dreams, in the invading language. One day, you might try to speak your ex-"B" (now "C") language and find you have an ex-"C" (now "B") language accent. When you sense this kind of shifting, probably the best thing to do is hold on to your mother tongue and let the new acquisition settle in. Later on, you may want to work on recovery, but make sure the new "B" is at a safe remove. The only way to go is UP if you want to stay multilingually functional.
As I have said, however, "A" in this paradigm will never change. This is the reason that claims to bilingualism have to be tested. Inverse work has to be checked for error, sometimes with disastrous results - not because the inverse translator is incompetent as a translator, but because the judgment as to correctness in speech and writing, so belaboured during childhood and in the classroom, may not have been fully and adequately lived.
Active versus Passive
This "ABC" idea is a useful model in profile analysis, but for practical purposes, we should overlay this with another paradigm: Active and Passive.
An active language is one that you use in your everyday life, reading, writing and speaking. For many people, this is the mother language. For many immigrants and itinerant scholars, it may be otherwise. I have heard immigrant translators say they had been living where they were for twenty years and hence were native. And I have to admit I do not really know what they mean, or whether they were simply confusing "native" with "active". I would frankly feel safer asking them where they were during the first ten years of their lives and their medium of instruction from primary through secondary school. The answer to those questions, combined with the languages they speak, tells me more. The rationale behind this is that it takes ten years to sort out two-way code-switching and presumably fifteen to sort out three. And we are all presumed occupationally functional with a high-school vocabulary of around 8,000 words.
A passive language is easier to define: this is a language that you read and understand perfectly. You understand it through a mother-language matrix, as a secondary reflex. Note that this means you are not a false native, since false natives DO NOT translate and act on primary reflexes. Children, for example, very easily become false natives, and may as easily forget the acquired false native language once they have left the environment (even though a false native who later recovers the "lost" language rarely speaks with a foreign accent). Since passive knowledge is just about the most basic prequalification for translation, it is perfectly possible to translate out of a passive language. The critical factor that will vary from one case to another, or from one point in time to another, is the time it takes, presuming the same level of accuracy - beginner translators will tend to require more time than experienced ones. And it will take much more to move on to sight translation.
Language activation may lead to profile shifts. If, before such shifts, all your combinations have involved passive languages, living in a country where a second language is spoken can activate a language to "B" levels. Writing extensively in that language on a native level certainly will. A "B" language may "threaten" a mother language superficially - albeit, badly enough to lose jobs. In this sense, this is an area you have to be careful about. A protracted period of thinking and working in the inverse may raise doubts when you "snap back" at the most awkward or critical times.
As has been said before, the only way to go is UP. Master - nay, dominate - your mother language. Remember that you work in the gaps, so make sure your command of it is impeccable.
Language activation may come in the form of a specialization. Imagine, for instance, that you are going to be in a foreign country for a long time taking a course in dentistry, on which you will have to write a thesis on top. Or you work every day for three years, for a Dutch client who does nothing but grow tulips. When this happens, it is best to take stock of that specialization and its related fields, because, if you are going to diversify, you wouldn't want to land cold turkey in dentistry right after tulips. Documentation and glossaries are useful, but cannot be trusted over a protracted term if activity in such a specialist field is not sustained.
The activation of one language may lead to the gradual loss of another. I have heard colleagues say, "I gave up German because my English was getting affected." My own private reaction to such statements is to question the level of English in the first place. It would be difficult for intermediate German to come into conflict with proficiency-level English, unless a temporary kind of traumatic situation were involved, such as in-country immersion courses. Over the long term, language levels settle down to comfortable operative distances. If such an operative distance does not, or no longer meets, the requirements for translation, it is best to refresh, while maintaining the operative distance.
Immersion is not a one-shot activity. A translator's profile is mutable; i.e., it may be understood as composed of a "terra firma" and looser elements. Thus, travel, life experience, cultural exposure - in a word, living one's languages is sine qua non, and should come into the entire package, rates included. The argument that cost of living is lower in some countries than others thus holds no water, quite apart from the fact that, due to circumstances beyond our control, movement may be artificially restricted.
Logically, language loss may be inevitable in some cases, or some languages you acquire may never meet the levels required to translate from them. But learning a third, fourth or fifth language does not have to make you ineffective. If anything, it should go some way into telling you more about how languages - including the ones you habitually work with - operate.
For another thing, apart from helping, the mere exercise is something to enjoy. Time was when linguistics was considered a field for armchair theoreticians, and the faculty lists turned out a majority of monolinguals who had never been inside the head of the speakers whose languages they were studying. But it takes more than just theory to make a linguist. For practising translators, the linguistic ability functions as an instinct that can only be developed with input, not destroyed.