This is a guest post by by Ann Marie Boulanger, M.A., Certified Translator (FR-EN). Ann Marie is a Quebec-based French to English translator.
Seen any unicorns lately? Me neither!
Extremely rare is the translator who can translate back and forth seamlessly in the same language combination, producing texts that audiences in either language would never suspect had been translated. Unicorn-rare, I’d venture to say. Conversely, translators who actually do so and claim to produce work of equal quality in both languages are a dime a dozen.
Unicorns aside—because, really, has anyone ever proven they don’t exist?—I’m going to make the bold and probably controversial statement that a translator should only translate into their native language.
Among the bidirectional translators I’ve encountered over the years, the number-one argument I hear in support of their translation practice is that they’re fluently bilingual. Yet, we’re all familiar with the eye‑roller of the “bilingual secretary” whom clients constantly cite as their go-to translator, right? So, let’s state the obvious: Being bilingual doesn’t make you a translator. But, here’s something a little less obvious: Being a translator doesn’t qualify you to translate from language A to language B, and from language B to language A.
The role of culture in translation
Too often overlooked in the translation equation is the element of culture. In Translation Studies, Fourth Edition, translation theorist Susan Bassnett makes this elegant analogy: “In the same way that the surgeon, operating on the heart, cannot neglect the body that surrounds it, so the translator treats the text in isolation from the culture at his or her peril” (2014, 25). This means that the translator must not only have absolute mastery of the language of their target audience, but also an intimate understanding of the culture of that audience. For this to occur, the prevailing wisdom is that a translator should ideally have been born and raised in the target language and culture, or at the very least, almost completely immersed in it from birth.
I offer myself up as a prime example. I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, to an Anglophone mother and a Francophone father, making me fluently bilingual—enough to succeed at being a translator, anyways. However, English is my mother tongue (they don’t call it that for nothing!), and I was raised in an American‑influenced, Anglo‑Quebec cultural context. That means that all of my media consumption (television, radio, movies, books, newspapers, magazines) has always been predominantly in English. And while I’ve spent my whole life straddling the province’s linguistic divide and have always been aware of Francophone Québécois cultural phenomena playing out in the background of my everyday life, I remain firmly planted in the English-speaking world. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that Québec’s star système of celebrities, and its cultural scene in general, is a virtual mystery to me, and to many of my Anglophone peers, for that matter.
What I’m not embarrassed to say is that, even though I may speak, read and understand French at a high level, I do not write impeccably in French. I mean, I’m okay. Better than average, actually, and better even than many native Francophones in Quebec. But, would I ever attempt to translate into French? Jamais! Number one, I do not—and will never—write like a native speaker who grew up immersed in the French language, with all the elegance and refinement that implies. And number two, I am lacking the Franco-Québécois cultural background that would give my translations credibility and authenticity. Point final.
When the client asks…
It’s fine for a translator to say they have native-level proficiency in their second language, and, hey, they just might. There’s not a lot that can’t be learned and perfected. However, translating into a language in the absence of a solid grounding in the culture of that language is like walking a tightrope without a safety net. You can string the words together in grammatically perfect form, as eloquently as can be, but if you fail to correctly render a cultural reference from your source text, your translation is going to land on your target audience with a sickening thud.
Many clients also mistakenly assume that all translators are capable of translating in both directions. And translators who do so often get away with it precisely because their clients don’t know any better and often aren’t strong enough in the target language themselves to spot the inevitable errors. These errors may be glaring or tiny, and grammatical or cultural in nature, but a native speaker will always pick them out. And so, some translators who really should abstain continue to translate into their non‑native language because their clueless clients (who often speak the same native language as the translator) continue to accept their less-than-perfect work.
Let’s stick to honing our craft in our target languages and leave the other side of the coin to the true experts: the native speakers. There’s more than enough work to go around without attempting to translate in both directions of our language pairs. And that goes for all translators—unicorns notwithstanding, of course.