Many translators insist that talking to anyone (clients, potential clients, colleagues, beginning translators, etc.) is unnecessary and detracts from their true calling, which can only be fulfilled by spending at least 10 hours a day at the computer. While that’s somewhat of a joke, I think that many translators do feel that unlike interpreters, they don’t really need to keep up their active language skills in their source language(s), and that passive (i.e. understanding what you read or hear) skills will suffice. In my experience, especially when dealing with higher-paying direct clients, it’s actually quite important to be able to communicate fluently in your source language(s). Direct clients in particular are, I think, more inclined to use translators with whom they communicate well, whether it’s over e-mail or on the phone, and are also more likely (whether for good reason or not) to mistrust a translator who has difficulty communicating in the client’s language.
Obviously, many translators have a comparatively easy time keeping up their source language skills because they live all or part of the time in a country or community where their source language is spoken, marry someone who is a native speaker of their source language, use their source language in their non-work life, etc. However, many of us, and I’ll include myself in this, have more logistical barriers to overcome. Taking myself as an example, my foundation in written and spoken French is strong, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time going to school, living and traveling in French-speaking countries. However, French is not widely spoken where I live, nor does anyone in my family speak French, nor do I, as the parent of a young family, visit French-speaking countries anywhere near as frequently as I did until a few years ago.
Once I realized that being able to maintain my written, spoken and cultural skills in French was essential to my business, I decided it was worth an investment of my time and money, and I think that this applies to other translators as well. I think that “linguistically isolated” translators have a number of options for keeping up their source language fluency: with the prevalence of online resources such as podcasts, blogs, online editions of newspapers, etc., it’s quite easy to find free, high-quality materials in your source language. In addition, organizations such as the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe-Institut sometimes have classes that are suitable for advanced speakers. Many college and university towns also have foreign language conversation groups that welcome people at a variety of levels.
One resource that I’ve become very enthusiastic about is the audio magazines from Champs Elysées; (my association with them is only as a customer, no affiliate deal!) these are monthly publications that are available for French, Italian, German and Spanish and are intended for “intermediate to advanced” language learners. You have a choice of receiving just the audio magazine and the accompanying script and notes, or an additional audio study supplement with practice exercises. Although they might take you back to your junior high school days (repeat after the speaker…turn the verb into a noun…turn the “always” sentence into a “never” sentence), I find listening to the French edition to be a fun way to keep up with French culture, listen to a variety of French speakers’ accents and speech mannerisms, and do some targeted speaking practice. So, as they say in the Visa ads; One-year subscription to Champs Elysées including the audio study supplement: $266. Batteries for Discman to listen while doing housework: $2. Being able to banter with a client about the Sarkozy-Bruni scandale: Priceless.