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Simply Being Bilingual Is Not Enough in Translation Essay

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Updated: Apr 8th, 2022


According to Chriss, bilingual is the ability to speak two languages with the proficiency of a native speaker while translation is the ability to render spoken or written message into another language (14, 19). But does being bilingual qualify one to be a translator? Using examples, this paper explores the thesis that translation is more than just being simply bilingual.

Theoretical Concepts

Specialization and Competency

Translation has undergone a lot of transformations in the last three decades. A translator is no longer stuck in the office, but is free to travel the world as a bilingual dictionary. Accordingly, translators are now viewed as active re-creators of meaning. Translation has moved a notch higher and evolved into specializations such as mediators, interpreters and cross-cultural communication experts (Katan 112). While translation was traditionally associated with literature where translators were considered creators, translators now occupy more visible managerial positions.

In highlighting the level of competency required in translation, Pym states that:

Translation competence has been viewed as at least

  1. a mode of bilingualism, open to linguistic analysis,
  2. a question of market demands, given to extreme historical and social change,
  3. a multicomponent competence, involving sets of skills that are linguistic, cultural, technological and professional, and
  4. a “super competence” that would somehow stand above the rest. (481)

This posits that translation competence cannot be compared with other professional qualifications. Consequently, educationists ought to adequately equip students for the job market. A translator has to be competent in the two languages he/she is dealing with and, above all, have listening, speaking, reading and writing skills (485).

For example, translating Arabic to English requires special skills because Arabic language contains long ambiguous sentences with few punctuation marks and complex syntax. Just having knowledge of those two languages is thus not enough. Therefore, translation is much more than simply being bilingual as it requires some level of specialization and competence.

Further, Shreve states that the notion of translation being a well-defined task indicates that it is an extremely complex subject that requires an intersection of several sub competences, such as reading and writing, to help in different translation sub-tasks (30). A translator has to be competent in all the sub-tasks to be able to adequately translate a text.

For this reason, Shreve suggests that a translator should make a deliberate effort to win the expertise approval in the field, but also warns that this will require a critical mass of experience (28). To address these difficulties, a translator has to make superior choices when faced with linguistic and semantic among other challenges such as deadlines and unclear commissions (31). A translator is thus considered an expert in the field and should be able to overcome such difficulties more effectively.

For a translator to grow in his job, he/she has to receive informative feedback from other more knowledgeable translators involved in the process. A new translator can only get to know through feedback that Arabic to English translation requires the use of Buckwalter transliteration system where every letter mark is assigned an ASCII English sign. Feedback helps in setting performance goals as well as in identifying and correcting errors that might have made in the previous attempts.

Culture and Translation

Translators strive to not only render meaning of messages being conveyed, but also to create understanding of the cultures involved. According to Katan, translators should not create understanding through disassociation mediation, but should instead take care of these imbalances and become agents of social change (113). For example, Arabic language uses long ambiguous sentences. This means that Arabic culture is full of ambiguity. Therefore, translating Arabic to English will require the translator to take care of the ambiguous words and make them concrete.

Though having its roots in linguistics, translation has developed into an independent academic field with attention shifted towards the target culture. Nevertheless, linguistic approaches are still being used in translation since it involves language and the shift has remained constant over the years, simply dealing with divergences between the source and target text (Cyrus 88, 103).

Besides, speakers of a certain language view the world based on the structure of the language hence the different values and cultures. Translation should not try to transfer these values and cultures, but should instead naturalize them for the text to be accepted by the recipient culture (Inaba par. 1). However, this might make translated text look slightly different from the original text. Translation is the most recognizable form of rewriting that affects most of the dissemination of the image of original writer’s message beyond cultural boundaries.


Chaume states that translation has advanced to even involve audio visual materials, which requires a multidisciplinary approach to rigorously analyze the object of study (Chaume 12). To succeed, therefore, translators have to incorporate translation theory and discourse analysis to effectively translate audio visual texts.

This is so because audio visual translation requires the object to be analyzed in a more systematic manner that involves describing it in a way that the recipient is able to understand and get the intended meaning (16). Translation in this context would require that the translator first analyses the text based on its source and identifies problems he/she is likely to face while translating (19). Translation will thus involve decoding the text into the target language while also addressing the identified problems.

According to Chaume, audio visual translation process is only considered complete when it involves the conclusive utilization of translation theory, discourse analysis, film studies and communication studies, which together make the linguistic code (24). The code has to be complete for the meaning to be correctly transferred from one language to another. Hence, a linguist with no such level of competence cannot deliver a complete translation.

Ideology and Ethical Considerations

According to Chesterman, there are four models of translation ethics that must be followed for the text to be accepted by the users of the target language. These are:

  1. ethics of representation, which expects the translator to be the faithful interpreter who does not change the intention or add anything to the original text;
  2. ethics of service, which means that the translator translates according to what his client wants;
  3. ethics of communication, which means that the translator’s main role is to communicate with others and;
  4. norm based ethics whereby the translator has to follow the norms of translation studies, which state how translation products should be like and how they vary depending on the culture that the translator is dealing with (139-141).

Chesterman notes that the current ethical problems in translation studies emanates from the lack of compatibility in these models as each model expects the translator to conform to particular norms, which might conflict others (142). He adds that the models also differ in terms of scope and limitations of application as some are more suited to biblical and not technical translations (142).

In Arabic, it would be very difficult to take care of these ethics due to the long ambiguous sentences. When translating to English, a translator will often find himself/herself removing the ambiguous and unnecessary words, which might eventually lead to the change of meaning of the original text.

All the translation theories that have been in existence promote different ideologies. According to Karoubi, translations must be accurate, adhering to source text and form, but also reflect the intention of the source text (178). A translator, therefore, trespasses the exclusive realm of the original writer and tries to share his/her power instead.

Ethically, translation is viewed as plagiarism since the translator gets credit under the disguise of the original text. But again this leads to the debate between morally acceptable translation and successful translation (181). A good translation goes beyond the realm of the original writer to produce new text that is slightly different from the original in the target language, but this is considered ethically wrong. Hence, translation has to undergo a certain procedure to ensure that the concerns in each of the two sides of the debate are taken into consideration.

According to Zakhir, translation begins with transliteration where the names of the first language are translated into the second language (par. 2). This is then followed by translating the sentences and clauses. This can be done using various approaches. A translator can decide to use borrowing in which a sentence/word in the first language is used as it is in the second language, but in a more naturalized form according to the rules of grammar of the second language (par. 3).

The second option is calque, also known as thorough translation. In this approach, a translator copies the structure of the first language, but is free to introduce a strange structure to the target language (par. 5). Closely related to calque is transposition, which refers to grammatical change that occurs in translation. In this approach, the translator shifts the grammatical structure of the first language to come up with a completely different structure in the target language.

Once the grammatical structure is decided, the translator moves on to add his/her point of view through a process known as modulation. Modulation allows translators to express the same thing differently hence bringing out the true meaning of translation (par. 13). The final step involves subjection of the original texts to reduction and expansion, adaptation and additions to be able to translate them to the target language for the translation process to be considered complete (par. 18-21).

According to Zakhir, the whole of this step-by-step procedure has to be followed for the translation to be effective. A translator will have to start by understanding the morphological tools and the morphology followed by the syntax of Arabic language to successfully translate Arabic text to English.


Example 1: The morphological tools

These are the tools that work at the word level and include: morpheme, which is the smallest meaningful unit of language and; lemma, which is all surface forms that represent the same word, e.g. goes, go, went and going are lexemes of the lemma go. However, this is easy in English language contrary to the Arabic language. For example, wld in Arabic can mean walada, meaning to give birth or wala-da, meaning to generate. Similarly, sometimes the word ‘the’ (shada) is not properly used in the sentence.

This confusion can only be solved by someone with experience in the translation practice and through the guidance of a more experienced person. In this case, the translator has to understand the context in which the word is used to get the right meaning and translate it correctly. Besides knowing Arabic’s parts of speech, a translator has to have deep understanding of the language to the level of native speakers. Hence, the translator in this case has to be “super competent.”

Example 2: morphological analysis

This is the analysis of a language’s words by keenly scrutinizing the internal structure. For example in Arabic, the Arabic word wldy can mean ‘my son’, ‘son’, ‘and with me’ or ‘with/by’ depending on where the stress of the word is. This is not the case with English language where a phrase like ‘my son’ means just that. Therefore, an Arabic to English translator will have to be very knowledgeable in Arabic morphological analysis and not just simply being bilingual.

Example 3: syntax tools

Syntax tools deals with the structure of the sentence. As already mentioned, Arabic sentences are long and often ambiguous. This makes their syntax complex. Therefore, when translating from Arabic to English, a translator has to take care of the ambiguous parts and make them concrete. This can, however, either lead to loss of the original meaning of the text or creation of other ambiguous sentences in English.


Having analyzed the theories and contextualize them, I can conclusively state that the translation process has to follow a certain method. The methodologies may have certain weaknesses, but still a translator cannot do without them as they are used to justify the process. However, justification may credit one method, which may not necessarily be the best, and discredit the others (Göpferich and Jääskeläinen 170).

The discussion in this paper has also revealed that translation needs some level of competency, which is acquired over time. There is more to translation than just knowledge of the two languages involved. There has to be cultural knowledge, experience, problem solving, and the translator must take time to edit and revise the work for it to be effective. Translation has thus become a rich area of research. Scholars have been researching on ways to help translators move out of the challenging linguistic and literally paradigms. However, there is slow progress in this area.

Nevertheless, translation has become a factor of change that helps a product and the producer gain a major role in both the original and target texts. Translators and translations act as creators of literary works as well as producers, circulators and exhibitionists of culture and literature (Torresi 228).

However, the difficulties that arise from ethical models cannot be overlooked. Translation seems to place more emphasis on what the translator should do and not what he/she should expect to receive. A translator is considered an expert and is expected to operate within certain ethical and professional standards. Hence, being linguist is not enough for one to succeed in this field.

Works Cited

Chaume, Frederic. “Film Studies and Translation Studies: Two Disciplines at Stake in Audiovisual Translation.” Meta: Translators’ Journal 49.1(2004): 12-24. Print.

Chesterman, Andrew. “Proposal for a Hieronymus Oath.” The Chriss, Roger. Translation as a Profession. North Caroloina: Lulu. 2006. Print.

Cyrus, Lea. “Old Concepts, New Ideas: Approaches to Translation Shifts.” MonTI 1 (2009): 87-106. Print.

Göpferich, Susanne and Jääskeläinen, Riitta. “Process Research into the Development of Translation Competence: Where are we, and where do We Need to go?” Across Languages and Culture 10.2 (2009): 169–191. Print.

Inaba, Tomoko. “Is Translation a Rewriting of an Original Text?” Translation Journal 13.2 (2009). Translation Journal Online. Web.

Karoubi, Behrouz. (2007). “Beyond Translation Theories.” Translation 26.4 (2007): 178-182. Print.

Katan, David. “Translation Theory and Professional Practice: A Global Survey of the Great Divide.” Hermes- Journal of Language and Communication Studies 42 (2009): 111-154. Print.

Pym, Anthony. “Redefining Translation Competence in an Electronic Age: In Defense of a Minimalist Approach.” Meta: Translators’ Journal 48.4 (2003): 481-497. Print.

Shreve, Gregory. “The Deliberate Practice: Translation and Expertise”. Journal of Translation Studies 9.1 (2006): 27–42.

Torresi, Ira. (2013). “The Polysystem and the Postcolonial: The Wondrous Adventures of James Joyce and His Ulysses across Book Markets. Translation Studies 6.2, 217-231. Print.

Translator 7.2 (2001): 139-154. Print.

Zakhir, Marouane. Translation Procedures. 2008. Web.

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