Two Hands = Violinist?

Today we'd like to discuss one of our favorite topics -- why the simple fact that being bilingual doesn't automatically make anyone either a translator or an interpreter. There's significant training involved, but oftentimes outsiders to the profession equate bilingualism with professional translation and interpretation because writing and speaking is something we already know and do, so they don't perceive it as a learned skill. We've spent a few years trying to collect some convincing analogies, and depending on who we are talking to, we select from this list. Some might be more direct analogies than others, while others might be funnier. As always, take some of these with a grain of salt.

In addition, we like to add that just because you like to do something, it doesn't mean you do it well or that others would pay you to do it. For instance, just because you like to crochet doesn't mean that it's good enough that anyone wants to buy your work. Just because you like to dance doesn't mean that event planners will hire you as entertainment for their events. Passionate chess players might very well not be good enough to play payed exhibition matches -- but the professionals are. Enjoying something doesn't necessarily mean you are good enough that others will pay you for it, or, in other words, that it will have value in the marketplace. However, oddly enough, this is what the general public usually incorrectly assumes about languages skills and translation or interpretation. We rarely hear anyone say that they like numbers, ergo they are an accountant, perhaps because there are significant barrier to entry to becoming an accountant, but we digress.

We've written about this many times before, but we'll state it again: being bilingual is the minimum requirement for this job, just like having two hands is the minimum requirement for being a violinist. But having two hands doesn't automatically make you a violinist. And being bilingual doesn't automatically make you an interpreter or a translator, but all interpreters and translators are bilingual.

Now, without further delay, here are our analogies. Some might be better than others, and we look forward to hearing which ones you like!

Being bilingual doesn't make you a translator just like.....
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you a journalist.
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you an advertising copywriter.
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you a public relations professional.
  • being able to type doesn't make you a court reporter.
  • enjoying cooking doesn't make you a professional chef.
  • driving every day doesn't make you a race car driver.
  • being tall doesn't make you a basketball player.

Being bilingual doesn't make you an interpreter just like...
  • speaking English doesn't make you an actor.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a TV anchor.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a professional comedian.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a voice-over talent.
  • liking to argue doesn't make you a lawyer.


Anonymous said...

You just hit the mark!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 27, 2014 at 11:10 AM said...

@millingva: Many thanks. Happy to hear that you like this post!

Sophie Depons on August 28, 2014 at 7:15 AM said...

Hi Judy and Dagmar, I just discovered your great blog! I am a french tutor and I have been looking for online courses to study and get a certificate in translation (french). Do you have any recommendations? thank you !

Natalia Eydelman on August 28, 2014 at 2:34 PM said...

Thanks for the post! Your list of analogies is great! It is surprising indeed that there is a rather common belief among those who do not know foreign languages about those who do that this is not a skill, that you just know them, that's it, and this is not something that deserves to be paid highly for if done at a high professional level.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 3, 2014 at 4:17 AM said...

@Sophie: Thanks for your message! We have not done any research into translation certificates for French (but full degrees are readily available in Europe), and unfortunately, you did not tell us where you live. However, we know that NYU in the US has a certificate for French, but we think you have to go there in person once in a while. It's worth investigating, though!

@Natalia: Our pleasure. We have been thinking about these analogies for years now.

EP on September 6, 2014 at 11:33 AM said...

I liked "speaking English doesn't make you a voice-over talent." All true!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 12, 2014 at 1:33 AM said...

@EP: Thanks -- happy to hear you like that one. We'd been collecting them for quite a bit and would also love to add to this list.

Esther Verweij said...

Thank you so much for this incredible post. Since I decided to become a translator people have been telling me I could do that easily as I speak English (Dutch is my native tongue). However, as I did a translation module before during my undergrad I discovered early on that that is not true. That is why I have done an MA in Translation Studies. You don't want to know how many times people have thought that to be a waste of money... And how many people have said they want to start translating as well ("I can do that because I speak another language."). Next time I will use one of your wonderful similes!

Veronica Diquez on August 2, 2016 at 4:29 PM said...

Right on point!
I am a newbie interpreter, and I decided to put people on the spot every time they tell me that they could also do this job because they are bilingual. I tell them that they are most likely right, and that they might even be better than me! Then, I proceed to tell them to interpret my own speech for five minutes, without stopping, and I start talking. No one has lasted more than about 45 seconds. It is a learned skill, and some people definitely have a gift for it, but those people still need to acquire the necessary skills in order to become a great interpreter.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 3, 2016 at 8:43 AM said...

@Veronica: Glad you like--thanks for your lovely comment. Great example here; we also like to have people try their luck just at shadowing--repeating everything in the same language, and just like you said: no one lasts very long, and it usually drives home the point. Here's to interpreting and to the skills it takes to be an interpreter. :)

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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