Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Natural Translation Has No Age Limit

The other evening we went to a dinner party held for a friend’s birthday in a local restaurant.

We were nine at table:
Eight could speak English
Of the eight, five could only speak English
Three could speak English and Spanish
One could only speak Spanish.
It was obvious and inevitable that the conversation would be conducted overwhelmingly in English; and that the ninth person, the unilingual Spanish speaker – let’s call him Jorge – would be isolated for most of the meal unless we did something about it. So I sat down next to him, expecting to interpret.

I needn’t have bothered. Seated opposite Jorge was a bilingual Spanish lady. She interpreted for him everything that was said in English, sometimes in full and sometimes in summary. She said it out loud, she didn’t whisper it; but there’s always so much noise in Spanish restaurants – and especially Valencian ones – that nobody was disturbed by her. She also translated into English things that she had first said herself to Jorge in Spanish. I noticed that sometimes she produced translations of items on the menu faster than I could think of them myself: clóchinas/small mussels and costillas adobadas/marinated spareribs for example. I ended up doing barely a few words of interpretation throughout the four hours.

Now, I happen to know something about that lady’s background. She was born and brought up in Spain and left school at age 14. She had no higher education. At 16 she went to England as an au pair girl (a young foreign woman who helps out with household chores and childcare in exchange for board and lodging). There she married a unilingual Englishman and stayed in England for some 50 years. So her English became fluent, though she still has a heavy accent which leaves you in no doubt that she isn’t a native speaker. She returned to live in Spain 12 years ago. She had no training in translation, not even an English language course.

She therefore conformed to the two basic elements in the definition of a Natural Translator:
* No training in translation
* Translating in everyday circumstances.
She must have had some exposure to translation, and have done quite a lot of it spontaneously as at this dinner. But still I would say that she comes close to being a Natural Translator.

She’s now in her late seventies. Natural Translation has no age limit.

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