It is quite obvious that translators and interpreters have a unique relationship with language. We do make our living by using them, after all.
Every day, every single person in the world uses language to communicate. However, translators and interpreters are not only expert communicators, in one or multiple languages, but they also shape the way language is used to bridge cultures and peoples.
It’s not always an easy task and naturally, a unique connection with language is at the root.
My personal relationship with language evolved. First, it was simply a passion; my analytical mind enjoyed decoding foreign language and foreign scripts into structures that over time, began to have meaning and significance.
Then I realized that traveling with command of local languages increased the quality and connection I felt in my trips tenfold. My travels were far more enriching and connected, and far less neurotic and out of touch.
It wasn’t until I began translating, and quite meticulously, that I realized I stumbled upon a powerful skill set, that could provide real value.
I instantly set my goal to complete my translation studies, create my own business, and of course, being who I am, the ultimate goal of learning 7 languages before I die. But that’s a different story.
Now, back to the matter at hand.
No matter the journey or the number of languages a translator or interpreter uses in their profession, their relationship with language is rooted in something unique, and I want to show you 5 ways that make it so.
5 Unique Ways Translators and Interpreters View Language
1. It’s a tool, the sharper the better
While most people use language to communicate and at best learn to say <hello> in the local language of their travel destination, translators and interpreters are busy sharpening the rough edges of their terminology, verb conjugations, and idiomatic expressions, on the daily.
Translators and interpreters view their languages as tools that are to be refined, and most importantly, actively used. Language isn’t simply something we speak to have fun or to impress at a bar, it’s a serious skill-set that many of us have refined through very hard work.
What hard work exactly? Working and living abroad, foreign study, or looking stupid during many work presentations in our foreign language(s).
Why do we do these silly things? To make our tools razor sharp and on-point. Or at least sharp enough to extrapolate meaning in a foreign language and make sense of it in our main language and cultural context.
Source languages are not simply picked up, we breathe and interacted with them on a daily basis.
Similar to tools, completing a translation or interpretation project is like building a house or hotel.
The more refined our tools in our toolbox, the more stars go on our finished product.
2. The harder, the better
Since most translators and interpreters are highly analytical, they love cracking codes, especially the code of foreign languages.
And for the really intense ones, the more difficult the code, the better.
When I decided that I wanted to refine my Farsi and learn Arabic (finally), many said those languages, especially Arabic, were impossible to master.
Guess what I did? I went to Iran and forced myself to speak exclusively in Farsi for two months and upon my return, signed up for Arabic classes.
The new grammar structure, cultural perspective, and the excitement I feel when I translate small simple snippets from my textbooks are well worth the added challenge.
Translators and interpreters specializing in these “harder the better” language profiles include those with combinations that make most shake their heads and say “how?”
You know, those with “Japanese – English” “French-Chinese-Arabic” “English-Arabic-Hindi” or my favorite, “Japanese, Dutch, Hindi, Urdu – English”.
These are the linguists that enjoy an authentic challenge. Understanding their language combination is challenging for most linguists, let alone those outside of the language industry.
The conclusion here is, the more difficult the language, the more fulfilling the puzzle of piecing it all together.
3. Humbly à la perfection
Serious translators and interpreters tend to be very humble about their foreign language skill level.
They never seem to claim or accept how good they really are.
I have met translators and interpreters who have lived and worked in their second language for 10+ years, spoke extremely elegantly (better than 90% of native speakers), and were humble enough to say that they were still learning.
Translators, more specifically, interpreters, who use their languages actively out-loud, put their language learning goals very, very high.
How high? As in, every verb conjugation, word choice, and accent must be on-point.
Some can be so on-point that people will often mistake them for locals in countries that speak their working languages.
One of my close German > Spanish translator colleagues had fun with this one, creating a whole German identity for curious individuals, including the names of his German high school and family, only to surprise Berliners later laughingly saying “I am actually from a small town in Southern Mexico”.
We’ve all done it.
Although most translators and interpreters will learn languages based on their interests and passions, many will base their decision on pure economics.
As in, which combination will get them the most work at the best and most consistent price.
We’ll ask ourselves questions like;
Are German <> English profiles on demand? Where?
How much are Japanese <> English translation clients paying these days?
Or we will (actually) think things like:
I think it’s time I learn Estonian and Latvian.
The business-savvy translator and interpreter will many times pick their languages combinations not on what is trendy or fun, but what is in and on demand in the marketplace, especially with the big institutional employers; the UN and the EU.
In my case, I work with both French and Spanish into English.
But, I grew up speaking Farsi, and Arabic is a natural next step.
Guess what languages are considered exotic and rare for language professionals who work with French and Spanish? Farsi and Arabic.
So although Italian would be an easy fit with my current profile, the market tells me that investing time into my Farsi and Arabic will provide an interesting career path.
5. Sacrifice is essential
The amount of time and energy that professional translators and interpreters invest in learning their languages is incredible. At times, clients, and even translators and interpreters themselves forget or overlook this fact.
This can include anything from living in foreign countries, countless hours of professional language study, and practicing until reaching a commendable command.
Sometimes, this time and energy is a real sacrifice for long-term gain.
For example, one of my teachers moved her family to Chile for 1 year in order to kick up her Spanish interpreting skills.
Another colleague spent 3 years living and working in France to get a particular accent and cultural perspective in French in order to work with clients from Paris.
Another spent 5 years in Japan in order to specialize in patent translations from Japanese to English.
Now that’s dedication, which takes real decision making and, at times, sacrifice, and definitely a step beyond one’s comfort zones.
Of course living abroad can be romantic, but serious translators and interpreters stay on past the 6-month honeymoon mark.
Sometimes we stretch our stays to years on end, or we stay put in our source language countries.
We are also very vocal.
We don’t shy away from speaking the local language, and make a point to master it and use our time wisely; local friends, local activities, getting involved in the political happenings.
Our goal is to blend in and refine our linguistic knowledge to the best of our ability.
But this also takes us away from the securities that many people cling to; family, national identity, comfort zones, and a sense of belonging to a ‘place’.
We sacrifice that for the return on our skills that allow us to be free, both as individuals and business owners.
It may seem like a sacrifice, but serious translators and interpreters know it is all well and worth it.
Why? We get to provide expert services to clients and even watch movies in our foreign languages with no subtitles and no hesitation.
What are some ways you feel about language as a professional translator and/or interpreter?
Your comments and perspectives are welcome.