How well do you need to speak a language to translate from it?
French is one of my working languages and I’ve written before, in an early blog post, about how that came to be. Please don’t ask me to speak it, though. As I was reminded once again on holiday in France this summer, my French may be good enough to order a meal in a restaurant or buy what I need in a shop, but I find it very difficult if not impossible to hold a proper conversation.
Some would say this disqualifies me from translating from French; that without spoken fluency I should stop offering it as one of my source languages. I disagree. I’m confident that my reading and understanding of French is sufficient for me to be able to produce good translations and I have the satisfied customers to prove it. I would go even further. The fact that I realise my limitations in French means I am even more likely to check, to look up words and expressions and to ask others rather than simply assuming I know the right translation. And that’s an advantage, as good translation from French is very tricky for English-speakers because there are so many traps and false friends.
There was some controversy last week when Judy Jenner wrote: “#translation has nothing to do with how well you speak a second language, but rather how well you write in your native language.” Some translators understood her as claiming that source language competence wasn’t important for translators, something I would strongly disagree with. But, accepting that “speak” really means “speak” and is not shorthand for “understand”, then I would be able to go along with her, because I know it’s perfectly possible to understand a language, particularly when reading, and not to be able to speak it very well at all.
Then there’s the question of the standard of the French-English translations that actually appear in my specialist areas, such as wine and tourism. An active holiday visiting castles, museums and other attractions made it absolutely clear to me that I can do a better job than the majority of translators working in the sector. So should I really hold back just because of difficulties that have nothing to do with my understanding of the texts I’m being asked to translate?
And the fact is, the French part of my business is growing, and having more work to do in the combination is helping me to improve my translations still further. I have some clients in French-speaking countries, but a good part of my work from French comes from Spain, where French-English is a surprisingly sought-after combination. As my rates have gone up, agency clients are increasingly reluctant to pay what I ask for Spanish-English and even Catalan-English translations. But they will pay my prices for French-English, presumably because of a shortage of options in that combination.
So being where I am means I’m getting more texts to translate in French, although in fact it’s also the reason why I find it so difficult to speak the language. Inter-language interference is the problem. At one time I could speak French reasonably well, but ever since I’ve learned Spanish and Catalan – languages I use every day – it has become very difficult for me. Every time I need to say something I have to look for the word in my head and, before I open my mouth, double check that it really is French and isn’t from one of the other languages, which both show similarities with it. It’s a slow, complicated process and it makes my spoken French anything but fluent, although I’m much better at communicating in writing.
Where I admit that this does handicap me is in selling myself to clients, because I accept that successful salesmanship depends on using the customer’s own language. To take an example, when I was in France this summer we stayed in the wine region of Gaillac and visited the town’s summer wine fair, a very pleasant event. Considering that wine is among my specialist areas, it might have been a chance to sell my services to potential clients had my spoken French been up to the job. As it was, I had to settle for enjoying a few glasses of wine. A missed opportunity? Probably. But there was simply no way I was going to be able to speak well enough to convince clients of my competence.
Could I do something about my shortcomings? Of course I could. But to really improve, the only alternative I see is going to live in France for a period of months, maybe a year. And that, realistically, isn’t going to happen as I have a wife working and a son going to school in Catalonia. It remains a possibility should I ever really need to change the focus of my business, but at the moment it’s out of the question. For the foreseeable future, if you want me to communicate with you in French I’d be delighted if you’d send me an e-mail!