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August 30, 2009 / ICL

Translation “Sacred Cows” Series (Part 3): Truly Balanced Linguistic Competence | Serie “vacas sagradas” de la traducción (parte 3): competencia lingüística realmente equilibrada

© Diane Whitehead
[© of the above image by Diane Whitehead | © de la imagen superior de Diane Whitehead]
As a translator and a student of foreign languages (German being the latest one I have learned/am learning), I have always found the concept of linguistic competence both intriguing and puzzling.Furthermore, I find even more fascinating the fact that, on the one hand, just by learning through repetition we are able to speak more or less correctly a language, without necessarily knowing its grammar and its language structure in general, and yet, on the other hand, we are also able to translate a foreign language without necessarily having speaking fluency.

On top of that, if you have ever taught a foreign language (in my case English), you know that both “extremes” I have just described have actually been the basis for different methods of teaching foreign languages.

If you just take a quick/superficial look at some of the theories about language, all I say in my previous paragraph has been duly theorized.

Ferdinand Saussure’s name immediately comes to mind, whose book “Course in General Linguistics” is widely known, though it was not written by him directly, but compiled from notes from his lectures at the University of Geneva. As per the Wikipedia, he says that:

language […] is “a system of signs that express ideas,” and suggests that it may be divided into two components: langue, referring to the abstract system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, and parole, the individual acts of speech and the “putting into practice of language”.

Thanks to George Steiner’s famous “After Babel” book (again, as per the Wikipedia) we also learn that:

all human communication within and between languages is translation.

And of course another big name in linguistics is without a doubt Noam Chomsky, who theorized about the concept of “generative grammar“:

The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, studies grammar as a body of knowledge possessed by language users. Since the 1960s, Chomsky has maintained that much of this knowledge is innate, implying that children need only learn certain parochial features of their native languages.[…] The innate body of linguistic knowledge is often termed Universal Grammar. From Chomsky’s perspective, the strongest evidence for the existence of Universal Grammar is simply the fact that children successfully acquire their native languages in so little time. Furthermore, he argues that there is an enormous gap between the linguistic stimuli to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic knowledge which they attain (the “poverty of the stimulus” argument). The knowledge of Universal Grammar would serve to bridge that gap.

Chomsky also gives a clear definition of “linguistic competence” (from the Wikipedia, too):

Linguistic competence was defined in 1965 by Noam Chomsky as a speaker’s underlying ability to produce grammatically correct expressions.

Therefore, as we see, all these theories provide an academic rationalization of all those intriguing/puzzling realities we notice when either learning or translating a foreign language and, by association, with the idea of linguistic competence.

Since this article is about a series of “irrational beliefs” (“sacred cows”) of what I personally feel is indispensable to be a good translator, I titled it “truly balanced linguistic competence” because I think that if you wish to translate with enough ease and speed in order to be able to produce work that will generate a minimum daily income as a professional translator, you need to have a truly deep knowledge of both the original and the target language at a bilingual level. It doesn’t matter whether you have acquired that through more of a speaking fluency or more of a writing/reading fluency, but this will help you develop language “reflexes” about both vocabulary and grammatical structures, in order to avoid having to spend too much time on translation per se.

I personally find it best when translators are able to write excellent texts not only in their target language, but also of a similar or almost similar quality in their original language, because this shows the kind of linguistic “reflexes” I am referring to. In a way, I am actually applying the same principle that works in language interpretation, because interpreters are usually the best example of truly balanced linguistic competence, as they normally work/interpret in both directions (from/to the original/target language).

Finally, assuming that you have achieved this kind of “truly balanced linguistic competence”, you need to maintain it. Living in a country where either language is spoken is no guarantee that you will necessarily achieve this “balance”, because obviously the one language spoken may produce an “imbalance” in regard to the other working language. You need to maintain both languages at the already mentioned “bilingual” level, which is mostly achieved through reading, but also through the many technological/multimedia options available today.

Como traductora y estudiante de idiomas extranjeros (alemán es el último que he aprendido/aprendo), el concepto de competencia lingüística siempre me ha resultado tanto fascinante, como desconcertante. Es más, me parece todavía más fascinante que, por un lado, gracias al aprendizaje mediante la repetición podamos hablar más o menos correctamente un idioma, sin tener que necesariamente saber su gramática y su estructura lingüística en general. Asimismo, por otro lado, también somos capaces de traducir un idioma extranjero sin tener que necesariamente hablarlo con fluidez.

Pero a esto hay que añadir que si alguna vez se ha enseñado un idioma extranjero (en mi caso el inglés), ha de saberse que ambos “extremos” que acabo de describir son en realidad la base de diferentes métodos de enseñanza de los idiomas extranjeros.

Si echamos un rápido/superficial vistazo a algunas de las teorías sobre la lengua, todo lo que comento en mi anterior párrafo ya ha sido debidamente teorizado.

Inmediatamente viene a la mente el nombre de Ferdinand Saussure, cuyo libro Curso de lingüística general es de sobra conocido, si bien no fue escrito por él directamente, ya que está basado en notas sobre sus clases en la Universidad de Ginebra. Según la Wikipedia:

el lenguaje […] es “un sistema de signos que expresan ideas,” [y Saussure] sugiere que es posible dividirlo en dos componentes: lengua, que se refiere al sistema abstracto de lenguaje que internaliza una comunidad con un habla determinado, y palabra, los actos individuales de habla y de “poner en práctica el lenguaje”.

Gracias al famoso libro Después de Babel de George Steiner también aprendemos que (nuevamente según la Wikipedia):

toda comunicación humana en [un idioma] o entre idiomas es traducción.

Y por supuesto otro de los grandes nombres de la lingüística es Noam Chomsky, quien teorizó sobre el concepto de “gramática generativa” (referencia de la Wikipedia):

El enfoque de Chomsky sobre la sintaxis, denominada gramática generativa, consiste en el estudio de la gramática como conjunto de conocimientos que poseen los usuarios del lenguaje. Desde la década de 1960, Chomsky ha mantenido que gran parte de este conocimiento es innato, lo cual implica que los niños solamente necesitan aprender ciertos aspectos de su lengua materna en la escuela primaria.[…] El conjunto innato de conocimientos lingüísticos a menudo se denomina gramática universal. Desde la perspectiva de Chomsky, la prueba más clara de la existencia de dicha gramática es el simple hecho de que los niños aprenden su lengua materna en tan poco tiempo. Es más, argumenta que existe una enorme brecha entre los estímulos lingüísticos a los cuales se exponen los niños y el rico conocimiento lingüístico que logran alcanzar (el argumento de la “pobreza de estímulos”). El conocimiento de la gramática universal serviría para reducir dicha brecha.

Chomsky también ofrece una clara definición sobre “competencia lingüística” (referencia de la Wikipedia también):

La competencia lingüística fue definida en 1965 por Noam Chomsky como la capacidad innata de un hablante de producir expresiones correctas desde el punto de vista de la gramática.

Por tanto, como vemos, todas estas teorías ofrecen una racionalización académica de todas esas realidades fascinantes y desconcertantes que observamos al aprender o traducir un idioma extranjero y, por asociación, con la idea de competencia lingüística.

Dado que este artículo forma parte de una serie de “creencias irracionales” (“vacas sagradas”) sobre lo que yo personalmente considero indispensable para ser un buen traductor, le puse como título “competencia lingüística realmente equilibrada” porque pienso que si una persona desea traducir con suficiente facilidad y rapidez para así producir trabajo que genere un mínimo de remuneración diaria como traductor profesional, es necesario tener un verdadero conocimiento profundo tanto de la lengua original, como terminal a nivel bilingüe. No importa cómo se haya adquirido dicha fluidez, ya sea de forma hablada o escrita, pero esto ayudará al traductor a desarrollar “reflejos” lingüísticos sobre el vocabulario y las estructuras gramaticales, a fin de evitar tener que dedicar mucho tiempo a la traducción per se.

Personalmente considero que lo mejor es que los traductores sean capaces de redactar textos de calidad excelente no solamente en su lengua materna, sino además de calidad similar o casi similar en la lengua original de la que traducen, ya que esto demuestra los “reflejos” a los que me refiero. En cierta forma, en realidad aplico el mismo principio que rige en la interpretación de idiomas, ya que los intérpretes generalmente son el mejor ejemplo de competencia lingüística equilibrada, ya que suelen trabajar en ambas direcciones (desde/hacia la lengua original/terminal).

Por último, suponiendo que un traductor ha logrado dicha “competencia lingüística realmente equilibrada”, es necesario mantenerla. Vivir en un país en que cualquiera de las lenguas de trabajo del traductor se habla no necesariamente garantiza dicho “equilibrio”, ya que evidentemente la lengua que se hable en el país puede producir un “desequilibrio” en relación con la otra lengua de trabajo. Es necesario mantener ambas lenguas al nivel “bilingüe” previamente mencionado, lo cual se logra sobre todo mediante la lectura, pero también a través de las numerosas ofertas tecnológicas/multimedia disponibles hoy en día.

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6 Comments

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  1. Kevin Lossner / Aug 30 2009 14:09

    Multimedia options? I prefer the human ones, Ivette. Only people will give me the broad exposure to situations and expressions that I need to understand a wide range of text of “flawed” texts containing common mistakes or dialect expressions. One can, of course, achieve a high level of competence through reading, listening to radio (an option highly favored by Max Mangold), watching television (less favored for reasons I can’t remember) and diddling around on the Internet (a combination of the previous points with a dash of potential RSI added). But these still leave a great deal of linguistic ground uncovered, and they fail to meet a basic human need for real, personal interaction.

    As attractive as I find the concept of “truly balanced linguistic competence” for the versatility it gives a translator, I have to say that there are too many contradictory examples of successful translation where the translators knowledge of the source language is not at all close to the level of competence in the target language. In some domains this simply doesn’t matter much; what matters is that the scope of knowledge matches the scope of the source material, of course. If a translator has a good specialty and is aware of his or her limits and sticks to them, I think the result would be quite viable.

  2. iveclop / Aug 30 2009 14:25

    Hallo Herr Kevin,

    Insightful reply, as usual. :-)

    What I meant by “multimedia” options is all the original and/or target language media you nowadays have available in order to “maintain” your knowledge of both languages in “good shape”. I mean, of course, the Internet, with a range of multimedia options such as videclips (of movies), interactive contents (such as these blogs themselves), podcasts, etc., as well as the more “traditional” media such as the TV or films.

    In regard to the rather contradictory linguistic “imbalance” you referred to, yes, there are indeed many examples of this, just as there are many examples of cases where this imbalance produces dreadful results. I think it is obviously better to “play it safer”, so the more (bilingual) knowledge you have of both languages, the better, IMO.

    I will get into your preferred “sacred cow”, specialization, probably in a future article of this series.

    Gotta run (leaving on vacation, hooray!!!).

    Take care,

    Ivette

  3. iveclop / Aug 30 2009 14:40

    P.S., Kevin: sorry, I realized after posting that I also meant to say, in regard to your reply about multimedia options, that they can also give you, in a way, the kind of exposure to situations and expressions that you may need to translate. Of course human interaction is better, especially if you think in terms of the “reflexes” I mentioned, but I really think the array of multimedia choices available nowadays is really not such a bad “substitute” or at least helpful resource in most cases.

  4. Certified Translation Services / Mar 17 2010 20:03

    I have read some posts and i am going to add this blog to my RSS feed reader.

  5. Carmen Ruz / Mar 20 2012 23:49

    I have read your Sacred Cows” Series and I am amazed to see that I share my own views on translation with you!

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