Being a translator is an exciting job. It’s all about bringing cultures together, helping them understand each other. Letting people exchange ideas when the language barrier would otherwise make it impossible. It’s not an easy profession to break into: you have to have real skill with two (or more) languages, a gift for writing, and an in-depth understanding of the subject matter you’re working with. In other words, a good translator is an expert in both their specialist subjects and in the overall culture of both their source and target languages. You have to know what you’re talking about.
One basic requirement, of course, is native-level proficiency in your target language – the language you work into. So a Russian-to-Polish translator, for example, is likely to have grown up in Poland. If you work in the technology industry, you might have heard of the verb “to grok” – a word originally invented by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, which roughly means “to understand something so intuitively, you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you”. In tech, developers or bloggers or others will talk about “grokking” a big, complex idea (like a workflow or a chunk of code) once they feel like they understand it fully and don’t have to keep checking the reference material every five minutes. And when it comes to language services, good translators grok their target language.
But what about the source language, the language of the text you’re translating? How do you develop the skills necessary to fully decode and transform a document that was originally written for a completely different culture? The path to this kind of skill varies a little more. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who get brought up in a bilingual household: taking the example of our Russian-to-Polish translator, maybe she had a Russian mother and a Polish father. Maybe you took the study route, picking up the language at school and developing it through to a qualification like a bachelor’s degree. Maybe your family moved around the world while you were young; maybe you travelled under your own steam and learned a new language later in life. Everyone has their own story.
However translators first develop their source-language skills, though, one common factor tends to unite them. Translators who have spent some extended period of time in the country of their source language will know that there’s nothing like it for honing your skills. If everyone around you is speaking a foreign language, you’d better pick it up fast if you want to get by. Textbooks and classrooms can take you some of the way to learning a second language, but total immersion in a real-world environment lets you get up to speed with how it’s really used.
Naturally, living in a foreign country is also great for building up your store of cultural knowledge. What are the folk tales everyone knows here? Who are the biggest celebrities? What’s the country’s historical background? You end up assembling huge amounts of information that can sometimes seem like mindless trivia, but can turn out to be invaluable later on when you need to decipher a tricky turn of phrase or an obscure reference.
So that’s how you develop the skills. How do you keep them sharp? Here’s where opinions differ a little bit. Because so many translators – especially freelancers – work remotely these days, they have a remarkable amount of freedom to choose where they want to live. Of course there are many factors that go into choosing the country or the town or the street where you live, but the language spoken will have a big impact on both your personal and your professional life.
So professional skills aren’t the only reason to choose one country over another as your home, but they can be a factor – and here’s where we get to the tricky part. There’s an ongoing debate over whether, as a translator, it’s better in the long run to settle down in your source or target country. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll avoid the issue of translators who speak more than two languages. As you might imagine, that gets even more complicated.)
The key phrase to think about here is “continuing professional development”: the need to keep sharpening your skills, rather than sitting and letting them stagnate or even decay. Some translators say they get the best results from living in the country of their source language. They argue that their native language takes much less work to maintain, and that they prefer to stay immersed in the second language in order to remain as fluent as possible. It’s easy to fall behind on your pop culture references and the ever-shifting linguistic landscape, they argue, so why not stay close to the point of origin?
Others, however, insist that a translator should live in the country of their target language – surrounded by the culture of the audience they’re writing for. The argument goes that, as important as it is to understand and keep up with new developments in your source language, it’s just as easy to become disconnected from your native culture if you stay away too long. The key thing, they say, is to be the best you possibly can be at writing in your target language.
Nobody’s arguing that you should entirely abandon one country for the other, of course. Any translator will make an effort to travel, to stay in touch with speakers of both languages, and to keep an eye on news and culture in both parts of the world. The rise of the internet has made this easier than ever, since we can now make international video calls for free and read foreign newspapers and magazines online. And if you work for a translation agency, you’re also likely to find yourself in a very multicultural environment on a day-to-day basis – which offers the best of both worlds.
It’s hard to find a conclusive answer to the question. Perhaps the most important thing of all is to be aware of how you’re getting on with both languages, and do what you have to in order to brush up on each of them. If your client or project manager offers feedback, take it on board and make use of it. Make friends from both cultures. Read the news, watch TV, keep an eye on the music charts. It’s all useful.
And… oh, all right, go on then. Book that luxury holiday that you’ve been thinking about. Tell your family it’s for linguistic research. Don’t even feel guilty about it – it could make all the difference to your professional skill set.