Most professional translators have an in-depth understanding of two or more cultures because they have experienced being immersed in these cultures by living abroad. Their role is to communicate the same information and give the reader the same impression in the target language as it did for the reader in the source language. In this article, we explore how experience abroad prepares a professional translator to produce quality work.
“Twelve thousand miles of it, to the other side of the world. And whether they came home again or not, they would belong neither here, nor there, for they would have lived on two continents and sampled two different ways of life.”
― Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds
Experience abroad means a professional translator has interacted more with native speakers
Institutions such as The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, recommend students in translation to go abroad for 6 months to a year.1 This is because, experience abroad is essential in the field of translation as the profession requires a deep understanding of different cultures. This understanding can be achieved through a professional translator’s interaction with native speakers.
A professional translator who has also studied abroad will have more contact with another culture. According to a study conducted by The European Commission in 2014, 1 in 3 students who completed an Erasmus year (Study Abroad Program) were offered a position in their host country.2 If one studies abroad and later goes on to work in the same country, they will have had even more interaction with native speakers than if they had simply done an educational program since the two opportunities involve different types of interaction.
More experience abroad facilitates the ability to think like a local, and most importantly, in their native language. Exchanging ideas abroad in the language of the host country is the perfect way to train oneself to think in the target language and a good professional translator is likely to have done so. Learning a language from your home country also has benefits (such as allowing learners to work within their limited linguistic boundaries, also known as “The Zone of Proximal Development” 3), but it doesn’t provide learners with intercultural linguistic interactions and real life situations in a foreign country.
A professional translator has out-of-class learning experience
Many of the contacts made while abroad help a professional translator to expand their multilingual networks. Intercultural contact also encourages translators to participate in a wider variety of activities in their target language(s), which gives them an additional way to improve their language skills.
While abroad, translators pick up habits of doing things in their target language(s) and later, bring these habits home. Activities such as watching television have “… long been cited by learners as a useful input to out-of-class learning” 4 and are therefore important for a translator. A professional translator often watches television, reads books, listens to music, surfs the web, talks on the phone, attends social events, and even has their online account settings in different languages. These activities are also recommended by academics so that translators can expand and maintain their intercultural and linguistic knowledge.
A professional translator develops a deeper understanding of cultural differences
Over the course of their time abroad, a translator’s day-to-day life allows them to learn about cultural differences. For example, the level of formality can highly differ from one culture to another and having experienced this in real life, enables a professional translator to set the right tone in their work.
A formal tone in one language doesn’t necessarily imply a formal tone in another. For example, in Spanish and French there are two ways to say you (the second-person singular pronoun), one is formal and the other is informal, but in the two cultures their uses differ. The French culture is generally more formal than the Spanish culture (from Spain) and tends to use the formal you much more frequently. In French, when addressing someone you don’t know for the first time, it is important to use the formal pronoun for you, whereas in Spain this is a custom that is dying out and being left to extremely limited situations. A good French to Spanish professional translator knows in which situations these levels of formality differ and experience abroad strengthens knowledge on this topic.
A professional translator is able to translate the untranslatable
“Overly literal translations, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense.”
― Ken Liu, The Three-Body Problem
When reviewing a professional translator’s work, if you translate it literally, you may not understand why they translated the way they did. Some expressions just can’t be translated, so sentences and paragraphs have to be completely reformulated. This is something a professional translator knows from experience.
In Spain they call coffee with a splash of milk a manchado which literally means stained because, before the milk changes the color of the coffee, you see a white mark in the brown liquid. So don’t panic if you see that a professional translator wrote the equivalent of the word for stained to talk about the coffee a character ordered in your novel.
Bon appétit is another more common example of an expression that can’t be translated into a language such as English. The non-literal translation is enjoy your meal while the literal one, which is never used, is good appetite. It’s one thing to speak a language fluently and another to have been immersed in another culture and understand cultural differences. These are reasons why it’s important to keep in mind a professional translator‘s experience abroad since their translation decisions are made thanks to intercultural contact.
A professional translator with experience abroad is valuable because of their; in depth understanding of different cultures, ability to pick up on subtle cultural differences, and because of their knowledge of non-literal linguistic equivalents.
Could living abroad also be beneficial in your profession? Tell us how in the comments.
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3 Morahan, M. The Use of Students’ First Language (L1) in the Second Language (L2) Classroom. http://www.labschool.pdx.edu/PD_Mini_Modules/images/8/81/MorahanL2inL1class.pdf
4 Nunan, D. and Richards, J. (n.d.). Language learning beyond the classroom. 2015