What does it mean to be a linguist?
— “So how many languages do you speak?” — “Oh, so, you just translate only into one language?”
— “What do you do?” — “I’m a translator.” — “You mean like, Google Translate? You’re the person behind Google Translate? When someone presses ‘translate’ you do that?”
Yes, I’ve heard it all and I can tell you this: if you want to make a linguist angry, just ask them the above questions. In this case, however, the volcano won’t erupt. I peacefully accept the challenge and I seize the opportunity to write one more blog post explaining this time, what it means to be a linguist.
You see, it really isn’t about how many languages we speak. Linguists love languages, but that doesn’t mean that we learn them or that we have mastered every single language we attempted to learn. We are more intrigued by how languages evolve, or how they are acquired, how the brain learns them, or how geography or society impacts on language, or even how language impacts on our perception and thoughts.
We’re interested in where languages come from, how they are constructed, how and why they are related to each other and how they are used. Of course, knowing about languages may make learning them easier as linguists are familiar with linguistic structures and language learning techniques. By linguistic structures I mean all those components a language consists of: sounds, grammar, syntax, writing systems etc.
Speaking a language is different to understanding it and writing it. The function of language is located in multiple brain areas. One area is responsible for processing and comprehending language (Wernicke’s area), and another for language production (Broca’s area). So when someone is really good at understanding language, but they are not as good in producing language, this might mean that one area is more trained than the other. It could denote other things too, such as a potential cognitive impairment, but I won’t go into depth here.
Then being a translator, means that you translate from one language into another. To do that, you need to have mastered both languages. This simply means that you can’t start translating from and into languages you don’t know very well. To put it simply, I know how to order in Italian in a restaurant in Italy. I understand Italian newspaper articles when I read them. But, there’s no way I can translate into Italian something that will read really well.
A text might be simple or overly complex. There are idioms, phrases and words that are so embedded in the culture in which the language lives and breathes, that eventually, translation becomes a far more advanced skill and an ability that goes beyond language. Translators translate meaning, ideas, systems, brands and values among other things.
Translation is rarely about the words. It’s about what the words are about.
When translating, one is required to be two different personalities, live in two different countries and think in two different languages, all at the same time. A translator’s brain is constantly occupied by the following two questions:
1. But what does it really mean? And
2. How do we say x in x language?
Equivalency is achievable, however, often, is nearly impossible.
Not every linguist becomes a translator. Some linguists work with psychologists, some analyse cognitive functions, others study children and how they acquire languages, others become speech therapists while others work for intelligence, or act as culture insight consultants for international organisations.
Then, there are field linguists who work together with communities to record endangered languages in an effort to develop solutions ensuring languages do not die. And, of course, there are academic linguists who teach at universities.
This blog post alone will not do justice to an entire profession, but I hope that it provides a small insight into the world of linguists and what it means to be one.
So next time someone introduces themselves to you as a translator or as a linguist, please don’t ask them how many languages they speak.
Ask them what they specialise in.
Ask them what was the latest project they worked on.
Ask them about their linguistic journey.
Ask them what technologies they use.
Ask them why they are a linguist.
Ask them what they like the most about their job.
Ask them what training they attended to become a linguist.
Ask them how they help individuals or businesses.
Ask them how they add value to the world.
Vasiliki is a translator, interpreter, transcreator, blogger, consultant and director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd. She works with English and Greek and specialises in legal, creative, and psychometrics. She is a Chartered Linguist, member of CIoL, ITI and PEM and she is registered with the Greek Consulate as a certified translator and interpreter. She holds a BA in English and Masters in Business Translation and Interpreting. She is a Steering Group Member of the CIOL Translating Division and CIOL Business, Professions and Government Division. She is an Associate Lecturer in Legal Translation at London Metropolitan University, a public speaker and writer for industry magazines. Her mission is to help you achieve your goals through the power of words. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.