Thursday, May 10, 2012

Natural Translators and Musicians

When I look for other phenomena in human mental development that show some similarity to translation, music comes to mind.

Music is universal; translating is almost so.

If one admits that culturally different 'musics' (Western European, Chinese, classical and jazz, etc.) are different musical 'languages', then it's possible to be multi-musical as well as multilingual, and even both at the same time.

Both musical and translating ability start so young that one is driven to suspect there is something inherited which facilitates them.
"Babies love the patterns and rhythms of songs. And even young babies can recognize specific melodies once they've heard them...
Young children's developing brains are equipped to learn music. Most four- and five-lyear-olds enjoy making music and can learn the basics of some instruments”
Young children’s developing brains are likewise equipped to learn two or more languages. Once they’ve done that, they can translate between them and most of them enjoy doing so.

Children who learn an instrument, at least in Western societies, soon start to read music; that is to say, they learn to convert between sounds and graphemes. Indeed written instrumental music has its own internal form of transcoding, called ‘transposing’, when the notes aren’t played or sung as they are written.

Children who have learnt to read and write can convert from language graphemes to sounds and vice versa and can translate between both forms.

At the opposite, most developed end of the scale, there are the Experts: opera singers, orchestra players, etc. The Experts may be, but aren’t necessarily, Professionals. My old Ottawa colleague Louis Kelly is an Expert Translator; he’s also an Expert flautist - but not a professional. He’s happy to perform in the large community of ‘amateur musicians’.

And in between there’s a great mass of Native Musicians: people, adults as well as children, who ‘pick up’ music without instruction. In fact most people can sing songs just from having heard them; and my friend Les plays the organ 'from ear' without ever having been taught the keyboard. Like the Native Translators who provide the Language Brokers, for instance.

Admittedly the comparison mustn’t be pushed too far. It would also be possible to draw up a list of the differences between the two. Nevertheless, there’s a progression in both of them from the spontaneous and untrained - the Natural - to the Expert and the Professional, with many Natives in between.

My conclusion is that translating is not so special. Its development is typical of many superficially unrelated human abilities and competences. Football would be another. I only reached Beginner Native Player level at it, but I enjoyed playing along with the Advanced Native Players at school; and I once translated a multimillion-euro contract for the transfer of a Professional Expert.

Diana Bales. Building Baby's Brain: The Role of Music. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, 1998. Click here for a summary.

Children playing violin at Suzuki Institute, Ithaca NY.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Forlì Conference

First International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation
17-19 May 2012 at Forlì, near Bologna, Italy.

The full programme is now online. This blog features in it.
To see it, click here.