translator needed for the Tower of Babel

What about the translator?!

Ever since the tower of Babel people find it difficult to communicate and it is not just because they speak different languages. The profession of a translator is told to be one of the oldest professions in the world (next to the other vocation that we shall not mention here).

translator needed for the Tower of BabelHave you ever noticed how monolinguals expect bilinguals to be able to translate spontaneously across languages? And if you fail to translate in well-rounded phrases, using correct verbiage, they criticize your language performance. Why, she can’t even express her thoughts accurately…



So what makes you a good translator?

Interpreter – another word to describe a translator. By definition it is someone who interprets and explains one’s communicative intentions to others. Plain linguistic competence is not enough here. To become a gifted translator you need pragmatic competence, which is the ability to assess people and situations, and the skill of instant adjustment of one’s mode of communication to varying social situations. In other words – a translator needs to possess the knowledge of when to use language, what to say, and how it should be said, according to the communicative convention of each language community, to be able to mediate between speakers of different languages. Krzysztof Lipiński (Vademecum tłumacza 2000) defines translator’s competence as a mix of: cultural competence, sociological competence, knowledge of terminology, professional competence, extensive knowledge of both language communities, linguistic creativity, and appropriate psychophysical features. All that plus experience plus an ability to solve problems are essential ingredients to concoct a proficient translator.

Interpret and mediate

Having to act as an interpreter can be a real hardship. I had a chance to try it myself during my three-month volunteer project in Italy. I worked with an American girl who spoke no Italian, so naturally I became her only contact with the locals. It was a lesson in multitasking.

Let me quote my diary here:

“I have to listen to D and Stefano at the same time. I have to take part in the discussion and, at the same time, listen to the conversation at another table. I have to be an interesting conversational partner and at the same time help D with missing words. I have to know intuitively whether Mattia asks my opinion or expects me to translate his question to D. I have to interpret what Italo, Fabio, Mattia, Stefano… had in mind and translate that in English. I have to explain D’s behavior to others, when she screams that she hates something. I have to translate opinions I don’t agree with. I have to listen to both sides complaining and choose what to translate so that they don’t feel offended by each other. I have to take into consideration the feelings of both sides and choose whose feelings to ignore. I have to live in their shadow – an international mediator, an interpreter. What about me?!”

Translator ‘s responsibility

The limits of translator’s responsibility are also difficult to set. If Khrushchov is pounding his shoe on his delegate-desk, is his translator expected to do the same? If not, how is he to convey the politician’s frustration using just language? How to translate emotions? How to translate what is between the lines? How to translate impressions? It is the way you say it, not so much as what you say, that matters the most.

Dear monolingual friends of ours, it is not that we might miss the right words, we know the words! It is that we are more concerned with the way we should interpret your intentions and the way to communicate them to our unsuspecting friend. It is like you are on the phone with your boyfriend and he says: Tina? Come on, Mark says she reminds him of his aunt, you know, the one with a mole on her nose… and you turn to Tina and say: Jimmy says Mark is busy tonight. He had to go visit his aunt, you know, the one with a mole on her nose…

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