Bilingual or multilingual professions in the workplace: Vraiment? ¡Qué va!

Résumé en français : Des professions bilingues et multilingues au travail : Really? Not at all!

De nos jours, il est fréquent de constater la quantité d’offres d’emploi qui exigent le bilinguisme ou multilinguisme complet des langagiers au travail. Pourquoi les employeurs veulent-ils des langagiers bilingues et multilingues à tout prix ? Quels en sont les avantages et les inconvénients?  Avec des réalités et exemples concrets, le lecteur finira par savoir que la qualité du travail souffrira beaucoup si les langagiers se voient dans l’obligation de traduire, rédiger et réviser dans une langue autre que la leur. En ce qui concerne les traducteurs, ceux qui traduisent à partir de leur langue maternelle vers une autre langue étrangère verront les conséquences graves de leur produit final : les textes risquent d’être truffés de contresens, faux sens, voire des non-sens. Il ne faut pas oublier non plus la grande probabilité d’échec lors des examens d’agrément… Bref, travailler dans sa langue exige beaucoup de temps ; avec l’évolution linguistique constante, il est impossible de consacrer beaucoup de temps à travailler dans plusieurs langues à la fois. Afin d’éviter des ennuis avec les langagiers, il est suggéré que les entreprises et agences n’embauchent que des langagiers spécialisés dans la traduction vers leur langue dominante, à l’instar des organisations internationales telles l’UNESCO, les Nations Unies et la Commission européenne.

Resumen en español: Las profesiones bilingües y multilingües al trabajo: ¿En serio? Pas du tout! Not at all!

Hoy en día, nos damos cuenta de la cantidad de ofertas de trabajo que exigen el bilingüismo o multilingüismo completo de la parte de los profesionales lingüísticos en los puestos de trabajo. ¿Por qué los profesionales bilingües y multilingües a toda costa? ¿Cuáles son las ventajas e inconvenientes? Gracias a las realidades y ejemplos concretos, el lector, al final, entenderá que la calidad de trabajo va a sufrir mucho si los profesionales lingüísticos deben traducir, redactar y revisar en una lengua que no es la suya. Con respecto a los traductores, si traducen desde la lengua materna hasta otra lengua extranjera, hay consecuencias graves en la traducción final: los textos serán llenos de contrasentidos, falsos sentidos y sinsentidos. No olviden tampoco el fracaso probable cuando hacen un examen de certificación. En resumen, trabajar en su lengua propia es exigente y con la evolución lingüística constante, es imposible que los profesionales dediquen mucho tiempo a trabajar en varias lenguas a la vez. Para evitar las molestias con los profesionales lingüísticos, es preferible que las empresas y agencias empleen sólo los profesionales que se especializan en la traducción hacia su lengua dominante, como lo hacen unas organizaciones internacionales como el UNESCO, las Naciones Unidas y la Comisión Europea.

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Inspired by a LinkedIn group dedicated to Quebec writers and editors, and a recent article that appeared on the Canadian government’s Language Portal, I decided to dedicate this blog entry to an issue that language professionals know all too well: bilingual or multilingual occupations within agencies and companies.

How many of you have seen these types of job advertisements in newspapers, on websites, or on billboards in employment centres?

BILINGUAL SENIOR COPYWRITER[1] – This person is a highly creative storyteller who knows how to bring ideas to life … The ideal candidate is a phenomenal writer in English and Spanish and has experience in both consumer advertising and business to business writing…This candidate understands the entire spectrum of the Hispanic consumer: from the Spanish dominant to the English dominant…  (My underlining)

BILINGUAL TRANSLATOR[2] – undertake all in house or 3rd party communications for translation of internal and external documents from French to English and English to French. (My underlining)

Do you see anything wrong with this picture? What do businesses and agencies gain from hiring language professionals who are able-bodied to work in two or more languages? The main question is, can we, as language professionals, live up to the expectation of producing quality work in a language other than our own?

The short answer is no. Since working in the translation industry, every professor, colleague, and certified translator has repeated the same mantra to me over and over again: it is advisable to translate only into your mother tongue. The reason is simple: you are able to better master linguistic and cultural subtleties, as well as grammatical and typographical rules. In addition, translations prepared in one’s mother tongue sound more natural, more idiomatic. Remember, you are aiming for optimal linguistic quality. If you translate from your mother tongue into one or several languages, chances are the translations will be ridden with interferences from the source language(s), resulting in a text that will lack naturalness; the texts may also glare with several mistranslations, thus making the overall document unclear or resulting in texts that make no sense at all. Sadly, many agencies and businesses do not understand this reality. The result: overall written quality of external and internal communication will greatly suffer. And if translations are egregious, resulting in some type of damage to a client, translators will not only lose their jobs but also lose their credibility. Employers, if you believe you’re gaining something by asking translators to work in two or several directions, you ought to think again.

Translation associations alike discourage translators from translating from their mother tongue into other languages. Quebec’s association of certified translators, terminologists, and interpreters, or OTTIAQ[3], makes the following statement on its website: “Translators generally translate from their second or third language, into their mother tongue.”[4] European translation associations follow the same line of thought, and so does the American Translators Association (ATA). Whenever translators want to obtain ATA certification, they must sit an exam. To give translators an idea of what a certification exam may look like, the ATA offers potential candidates the opportunity to write a practice test – ideally in their mother tongue. If candidates choose not to translate into their own language, the results are disastrous. Of all the reasons why people fail practice tests – and actual certification exams, for that matter –, here is the main one: candidates translate from their mother tongue into a foreign language. This, according to the ATA, is responsible for “a high percentage of failures.”[5] Again, what message should employers take from these warnings? Simply put, translating from a mother tongue into one or other languages is impractical. Additionally, if we want to apply for certification with any translation association, we had better translate into our mother tongue, lest we get burned – and very badly!

Before moving on, I should confess: in the past, I have translated texts from English into Spanish and French; I have also translated from French into Spanish and vice-versa. But I should point out that I worked into these languages solely for educational purposes. Indeed, I learned a number of concepts that will aid me in reverse translation (I made reference to some of these in my last blog entry), but I will certainly not translate into French or Spanish in my professional practice.

Contrary to public belief, being bilingual or multilingual alone does not guarantee good translation abilities.  As many translators will tell you (myself included), translation requires the transfer of ideas and concepts from one language to another and transmission of these in a text that is not only grammatically correct but also readable. To carry out translation effectively, translators must have an excellent command of the source language(s) and their target language(s) – the latter are usually the translators’ mother tongue. Unless aspiring translators have been fully immersed in bilingual or multilingual environments —school, family upbringing, sociolinguistic circles, and so on —it is virtually impossible, in our professional responsibilities, to ground ourselves entirely in languages that are not our own; it is also impossible for translators to translate from their mother tongue into several directions. Employers, I hope you’re taking note!

Translators are not the only language professionals that need to face the wrath of bilingual or multilingual responsibilities in the workplace. As the first advertisement showed at the beginning, writers, editors, and copyeditors can also be confronted with this harsh reality. No, just because these professionals master a second or third language does not mean that they are capable to write or edit texts in these languages.

Each writers’ and editors’ association lays out its own rules with regard to writing and editing. The Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC)[6], for example, has published the Professional Editorial Standards, a guide that shows editors the responsibilities they must bear when editing. To obtain certification, candidates must write tests that evaluate their proofreading, stylistic and structural editing, and copy editing skills[7]. As we soon learn, not everyone who writes the EAC exams is guaranteed a passing grade, including candidates whose first language is English.

Quebec’s association of professional writing, or SQRP[8], requires their candidates to have a good command of French when they decide to obtain a certified writer status. English-language writers can be assured that they may sit the certification exam in English. Like French-language applicants, English writers must be proficient in their own language.

Finally, the American Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) offers potential and existing editors a plethora of writing resources ranging from the general to specialized fields. The site also provides a list of various writing and editing organizations in the United States, Canada, and overseas. It goes without saying that a great knowledge of English is required.

Like translators, writers and editors need time to hone written skills in their own language. Because languages constantly evolve, these language professionals need to remain up-to-date with trends and practices on a regular basis. Given this reality, it is not possible for writers and editors to spend time learning and updating written skills in multiple languages.

As effective as it might seem, hiring bilingual or multilingual language professionals is not the way to go to ensure linguistic quality. Unfortunately, as EAC’s Jacqueline Dinsmore rightly points out, many bad translations and badly written texts plague our society, and proving that we can function in several languages will not improve each text or translation. Consequently, it will be impossible to satisfy the requirement of working in multiple languages.

If employers don’t get much out of this text, Ms. Dinsmore has an easy solution to help them improve their hiring habits: “Hire two people, one in each language.”[9] I couldn’t agree any more. I’d also add this: if your office works with several languages, be sure to select language professionals who work only in their mother tongue (or dominant language). If international organizations such as UNESCO, the United Nations, and the European Commission can do it, why can’t small, medium, or large North American businesses and agencies do the same?


[1] To preserve confidentiality and protect innocent souls, names of companies have not been mentioned.

[2] Jacqueline Dinsmore, “Bilingual occupations – Mais non!Language Portal of Canada [http://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/collaborateurs-contributors/articles/biling-occ-pro-eng.html], written 2 April 2013; accessed 8 April 2013.  Vous pouvez avoir accès au même article en français : http://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/collaborateurs-contributors/articles/biling-occ-pro-fra.html

[3] The official title of this association is the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec.

[4] Dinsmore, “Bilingual occupations – Mais non!

[5] “ATA Certification Program: Practice Test for the ATA Certification Exam” American Translators Association [https://www.atanet.org/certification/aboutpractice_test.php], accessed 10 April 2013.

[6] Le site est également disponible en français sous le nom de l’Association des réviseurs du Canada. L’adresse électronique est le http://www.reviseurs.ca.

[7] Dinsmore, “Bilingual occupations – Mais non!

[8] The official French title is the Société québécoise de la rédaction professionnelle.

[9] Dinsmore, “Bilingual occupations – Mais non!

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