Multilinguals as translators

So far we have been looking at examples of individuals who recognise themselves as translators. However, in our increasingly multilingual and globalised world there are many people who write, think and speak in more than one language but would not see themselves as translators (professional or non-professional).

Although the terminology used to discuss translation leads us to divide the world along linguistic and national lines, between source and target cultures, source and target language speakers, the reality of contemporary society (and of most societies historically-speaking too) is that languages often co-exist within the same geographical space, the same community.

For example, large parts of contemporary Italy are characterised by situations of bi- or multilingualism, where standard Italian is accompanied by different regional varieties and dialects some of which are grammatically and lexically more distant from standard Italian than French or Spanish (both the Sardinian and the Friulano dialects are recognised as separate languages in the same way that Catalan and Basque are).

In a post-colonial context, such as contemporary India, being multilingual, and navigating life through multiple languages is as much a fact of life as it is a manifestation of political history. Most contemporary Indians would speak English, Hindi or Tamil and one or more regional languages. They would often mix some of them in one sentence, which is called code-switching.

The prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie describes post-colonial subjects and migrants as ‘translated men’, individuals who are forced (or perhaps blessed – depending on your perspective) to live a life ‘in-between’ in the constant negotiation between different languages, conceptualisations of the world and cultural traditions.

Being a migrant, an exile, a traveller, makes you aware not only of the multiplicity of linguistic landscapes that surround us but also of the often very concrete examples of the impossibility of translation, when words/concepts and feelings exist in one of your languages and not the other. As Slovak-American translation scholar (and second-generation migrant) Maria Tymoczko aptly puts it:

‘Growing up in a multilingual environment taught me that languages have their own palpable meanings, their own conditions of appropriateness, their own cultural underpinnings, and their own rankings in political hierarchies. I spoke an English saturated with Slovak words and concepts that had no English equivalents’ (Tymoczko, 2007: 3)

In the next steps, there are two videos exploring two very different examples of how multilinguals act as translators: in the context of a Christian mission to Africa in the late 19th Century and in the world of pop music in Wales today. As you listen to both accounts, consider:

  1. Whether you agree that multilinguals are translators;
  2. Which of the types of translation (discussed in Week 1) applies best to what they do. Is it ‘interlingual’, ‘intralingual’, ‘translation between sign systems’, ‘cultural translation’ or a mixture of all of them?

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This article is from the free online course:

Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

Cardiff University