Re: Translation ability of "natural" bilinguals [itit] Digest Number 154
- A great deal of work has been done on this question in various branches of
Linguistics since the 1970s. I presume that when you write "natural
bilinguals," you are referring to people whose parents spoke two languages
to them when they were infants, before they had acquired any single
I remember taking a course on the "Linguistics of Language Acquisition" at
McGill University in 1983. Dr. Michel Paradis had been comparing populations
of monolinguals and bilinguals with polyglots. Studies of bilingual children
showed that they acquired various cognitive skills at rates different from
that of monolingual children. Their vocabulary in each language tended to be
smaller than that of monolingual children, although their total
vocabulary--measured across languages--tended, of course, to be larger.
Bilingual children also had an advantage: they grasped abstract concepts
earlier, and did not retain the notion that the connection between a word
and the object it designated was a fixed relation, a cognitive fallacy not
uncommon among adult monolinguals isolated from contact with other
Bilingual children were not a homogeneous group, however: children who had
been addressed in only one language until the age of four had an advantage
over children who had been forced to learn language as a general concept
(ages 1-4) while acquiring two different languages. They had a much easier
time keeping the languages separate.
It was not important how many languages the children heard in their
environment: children apparently do not acquire active competence in a
language unless they are addressed, and expected to answer, in that
language. That is why, Dr. Paradis explained, television had proved a fairly
useless tool for teaching children active competence in a language.
Bilingual parents who spoke only one language to their children, reserving
another language for private conversation between adults, were found to be
bringing up children with strong passive competence in the second language:
the children quickly learned to understand what their parents were saying,
but rarely learned to make the cognitive leap from understanding to
speaking. (This may have been Gregory Rabassa's situation: see his article
in The Craft of Translation.)
Neurolinguistic research on aphasia in bilinguals and polyglots showed
clearly that translation and the active production of language do not occur
in the same part of the brain.
Bilinguals who had sustained head injuries and temporarily lost their
capacity to speak (aphasia) were nonetheless still able to translate. Dr.
Paradis illustrated this with an anecdote: he would ask the bilingual
patient to translate "door," and get the unhesitating equivalent "porte."
Then he would ask them what those words meant. The patient would shrug, and
convey by pointing that it was probably something in the room.
The design of any research done on populations of interpreters would
probably benefit from a thorough perusal of neurolinguistic research
involving bilinguals and polyglots. Please see the Web sites below.
It is quite possibly an oversimplification to say that "natural" bilinguals
always "make bad translators."
If one mark of the "good translator" is the ability to keep the two
languages cognitively separate, producing speech or writing that would sound
"natural" to a monolingual in one language, all the while comprehending with
a (literate) monolingual's capacity in the source language, then it may well
be true that,
au contraire, "natural bilinguals" whose parents had the discipline to teach
them one language first, before adding another to their repertoire, will
prove as adults to have a cognitive advantage over all other translators.
In venturing to describe the cognitive processes of the "good" translator I
am of course treading on the turf of those (pace Toury!) far better placed
to discuss the norms of translation.
--Donna A. Williams
Ph.D student (ABD), Translation
University of Ottawa
C. tran., ATIO