Bilingualism and translation

While I was researching a paper I’m writing on the motivations of those who participate in community translation projects, I came across an interesting book on bilingualism:
Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean.

At the moment, I’m preparing a survey for people who have participated in any crowdsourced translation project, and I was looking for a resource that could help me word the questions about language proficiency. Grosjean’s book did the trick, although not quite as I expected. It’s a very accessible introduction to bilingualism, and although it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know about issues that include how people become bilingual, why they have accents, why code-switching occurs, and whether bilinguals are also bicultural, it did remind me of all the aspects of bilingualism that I need to keep in mind when I ask survey respondents who were involved in a crowdsourced translation initiative how often they use the languages that were part of the initiative.

Bilingual: Life and Reality is divided into two parts: the first focuses on bilingual adults, and the second, on bilingual children. As I mentioned earlier, it is a very accessible book, targeted at a general readership: “those who are interested in bilingualism or involved, in one way or another, with bilinguals” (2010: xv). Thus, it is sprinkled with anecdotes about bilinguals (such as the ones about his baker’s wife, who serves customers in both French and Swiss German, or the comments by bilingual authors like Nancy Huston), and it indicates the references to scholarly works in endnotes rather than footnotes or in-text citations. It also explains in considerable detail terms like code-switching and borrowing, which readers who are unfamiliar with linguistics might not know very much about.

Of particular interest to me (since I am trying to reflect on what it means to be bilingual and to word my survey questions about language proficiency) is Grosjean’s definition of bilinguals as “those who use two or more languages (dialects) in their everyday lives” (2010: 4) and his debunking of a series of myths about bilinguals, namely that bilingualism is rare (2010: 13-17), that bilinguals are equally proficient in all of their languages (20-35), that being bilingual automatically makes one a good translator (36-38), that bilinguals code-switch because they are lazy (rather than because certain concepts are better expressed in another language or because someone wants to identify with a certain group, show expertise, etc.) (52-62), that bilinguals have no accent in their various languages (77-81), that real bilinguals acquire their languages as children (90), that being bilingual means also being bicultural (108-112), that bilinguals seem to have a different personality for each language they speak (121-125) and that bilinguals always express their emotions in their mother tongues rather than their less dominant languages (129-133). Grosjean does argue against some prevalent myths about bilingual children as well (e.g. that bilingualism will delay a child’s language acquisition and that bilingualism negatively affects a child’s development), but these sections were less relevant to my research, and so I didn’t spend much time reading them.

I can see the point of adopting a wide-ranging definition of bilingualism like the one Grosjean proposes rather than a definition that excludes those who do not master two or more languages equally well; as he argues, if we use “bilingual” to refer to only the small group of people who master two or more languages so skillfully that they could pass for a native speaker of each one, what term could we use to refer to the larger group of people who speak two or more languages on a regular basis but are not completely fluent in all of them?

Now I just have to sit down and transform these details about bilingualism into succinct survey questions designed for respondents who might not have any formal training in translation or linguistics and who therefore might not be familiar with some of its terminology. I want to see how often respondents regularly use the source and target languages of a community translation initiative, how often they translate(d) into their most proficient language (which may not be their mother tongues), and how comfortable they feel writing in the target language. My next step is to check out language-related questions from surveys conducted by the Canadian and US governments as well as the European Commission.

Grosjean, François. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Grosjean’s blog also discusses some of the issues that are raised in Bilingual: Life and Reality.

3 thoughts on “Bilingualism and translation

  1. Interesting entry — I’ll definitely check out this book. As a bilingual American (I speak English and Mandarin), the myth that “being bilingual automatically makes one a good translator” is something that I come across very often here in China. For all intents and purposes, my Mandarin is just about as fluent as it can get for someone who wasn’t raised in China. Regardless, sometimes I’m asked to translate this or that, and I often find it rather difficult.

    Now, I can write in Mandarin and orally express my own thoughts without much difficulty. But when it comes to someone else’s words, or a phrase that someone randomly asks me how to say in English, I often draw a blank. It’s not because of a lack of language mastery, but I still have no idea why. Haha.

    It would be nice to have a concrete explanation, though, ’cause then I’ll have an excuse to refuse to translate things for my friends 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comment, Zachary. Grosjean actually uses the term “special bilinguals” to refer to translators, language teachers, bilingual writers and others who make a living from knowing and using more than one language. He also uses it to describe people like secret agents, who depend on their language skills to do their jobs and stay safe. He argues that unless bilinguals have specifically studied how to use each of their languages in similar fields and for similar purposes (e.g. to converse informally with friends, to write a scientific paper, to participate in a high-level debate), they will have trouble translating from one language to another. This is because they will inevitably be unfamiliar with the discourse of given field or social situation in one of their languages. If you’ve always talked to your friends and family in one language, for instance, and almost never used your second language to have these kinds of informal conversations, you’d have trouble translating an informal chat between friends because your two languages don’t overlap in this context.

    His book will definitely give you a few good reasons to offer your friends when you can’t (or don’t want to) translate something for them, so for that alone, it’s worth a read!

  3. @Julie

    That definitely makes sense. I find that, for example, my ability to tell jokes goes completely downhill when I’m speaking in Mandarin, ’cause I have a predominantly (if not obnoxiously) American sense of humor. Out of curiosity, from a linguistics perspective, does the inability to translate in certain situations/fields have any relationship to the frequency of code-switching in similar situations? Just curious — have never formally studied this stuff before.

    Anywho. I love a good book suggestion 🙂 Thanks again.

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