Volume 16, No. 2 
April 2012

Dr. Samuel Kolawole

  Translation Journal

Language & Communication

Is every bilingual a translator?

by Dr. Samuel Oladipo Kolawole
Department of French, University of Ado-Ekiti, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria


All over the world, translation has become a universal activity. Bilingualism as a concept is based On the field of psycholinguistics with different scholars having divergent views about its role in the theory of translation. What is translation activity? What is bilingualism? Is there any peculiar relationship between these two concepts? What are the specific functions of bilingualism in the general theory of translation? These are the questions to which this paper provides answers. The paper also considers the relationship between innateness of translating skills and bilingualism. Terms such as natural translation, social bilingualism, professional bilingualism and native translation are examined. Is there any need for translator training? What is the role of metalinguistic knowledge in the translation activity of a bilingual? All these form the nucleus of our discussions in this paper.


here are a number of languages spoken throughout the world. Every person knows at least one language, which he learns in his childhood and which is routinely uses for speaking and writing. However, many people choose or are forced to learn one or more additional languages. There are numerous benefits of being bilingual, such as an improvement in linguistic and metalinguistic abilities, as well as betterment of cognitive flexibility such as divergent thinking, concept formation, verbal abilities and general reasoning.

Bilingualism is necessary, but not sufficient for translation proficiency and efficiency.
Many people have the capacity to learn a second language. It may be another language in the same country or a totally different language of another country. Nowadays, several institutes and schools offering foreign language courses are popping up throughout the world. Many colleges and universities have included some foreign language courses in their regular academic syllabus, too. When learning another language, you need to understand its basic grammar and learn its vocabulary. Being bilingual offers greater sensitivity to language, more flexibility in thinking and a better ear for listening. It also improves a person’s understanding for the native language. It opens the door to other cultures. Moreover, the knowledge of other languages increases the career opportunities, offering several job options.

The term bilingualism derives from 'bi' and 'lingua' which means two languages. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines bilingual as having, speaking, or writing in two languages. Complete mastery of two languages is designated as bilingualism. Normally, people acquire a single language initially, that is, their first language or mother tongue. Subsequent languages are learned to different degrees of competence under various conditions. Speakers of these learnt languages grow up as bilinguals, but ordinarily the learning, to any extent, of a second or other language is an activity superimposed on the prior mastery of one’s first language and it is a different process intellectually. Bilingualism is a deliberate activity whenb undertaken after adolescence, when one has already or nearly or fully acquired the basic structure and vocabulary of one’s first language. It is only in getting in contact with a second language that one realizes how complex language is and how much effort must be devoted to acquiring one.

One can generally distinguish two types of bilingualism according to whether the two languages were acquired from the simultaneous experience of the use of both languages in the same setting and circumstances or whether they were acquired from exposure to each language in different settings. In Thierry’s (1978) is saying in his work 'True Bilingualism and second language learning' when he states that the term 'perfect bilingual' suggest two things.

  1. One speaks both languages equally well
  2. One has two mother languages

An example of the first scenario, English children living in India during the period of British dominance learned English from their parents and learned an Indian language from their nurses or family maids. This may not be considered a general case of bilingualism because it may be difficult if not totally impossible to measure whether or not a person can speak two languages equally well. This is so because; no criterion for comparison has ever been put in place. In the case of the second type of perfect bilingualism, one may want to consider what is actually meant by mother tongue and even how languages are acquired.

Thiery (1978:146) defines mother tongue as 'the language or languages which the child has acquired by immersion, that is, by the natural reaction to the sounds made by its environment in order to communicate with it. So, mother tongue can be considered as not taught via another language. If one accepts this definition, a person cannot be considered a true bilingual if he has 'learnt it by tuition, regardless how well he speaks it. Acquired bilingualism leads to mutual interference between the two languages involved. Interference may take place in pronunciation, in grammar, and even in the meanings of words. Bilinguals often speak their two languages each with ‘an accent’ because they carry certain pronunciation features from one language to the other. So, a true bilingual, according to Thiery, is someone who is accepted by both language communities of the same social and cultural level. Translation is ideally a matter of bilingualism because it has to do with two languages. Bilingualism is indeed the ability of an individual to speak two languages at the same level of competence. It has to do with the acquisition and knowledge of the two languages and this necessitates bringing the knowledge of the two to the same level. Bell Rogers classifies bilinguals into Compound and Coordinate. Lambert (1978:137-138) agrees with this classification and, according to him,

A compound bilingual is defined as the one who has learnt two languages simultaneously (from infancy) and with interlocutors who used the two languages equally well and often interchangeably. This is also known as the true or perfect bilingualism. For compound bilinguals, words and phrases in different languages are the same concepts. That means that 'chien' and 'dog' are two words for the same concept for a French-English speaker of this type. These speakers are usually fluent in both languages.

A coordinate bilingual is that one who has different acquisition settings for each language, that is different times of acquisition (the second language learned after infancy) and socio-cultural context, one language at home and the other outside the home (at school or in the neighborhood. this can also be called ' la bilingual d'expression' which means mastering a second language as a working language but without competently speaking it. For example, speaking good French but managing to speak English. For coordinate bilinguals, words and phrases in the speaker's mind are all related to their own unique concepts. Thus a bilingual speaker of this type has different associations for 'chien' and for 'dog'. In these individuals, one language, usually the first language, is dominant, and it may interfere in thinking in the second language. These speakers are known to use very different intonation and pronunciation features, and sometimes to assert the feeling of having different personalities attached to each of their languages.

The distinction between compound and coordinate bilingualism has come under scrutiny. In studies done on multilinguals, most are found to show an intermediate behavior between compound and coordinate bilingualism. Some authors have suggested that the distinction should be made only at the level of grammar rather than vocabulary, others use "coordinate bilingual" as a synonym for one who has learned two languages from birth, and others have proposed dropping the distinction altogether.

In bilingualism, there are always the issues of balanced bilingualism, the idea of language dominance, because one cannot talk of perfect bilingualism, so it is difficult to evaluate equivalence as far as translation is concerned. One only has to measure the dominance of one language over the other.

 At the level of cognitive competency, those bilinguals who are highly proficient in two or more languages, such as compound and coordinate bilinguals, are reported to have a higher cognitive proficiency, and are found to be better language learners (third, fourth, etc.) at a later age, than monolinguals. The early discovery that concepts of the world can be labeled in more than one fashion gives those bilinguals an advantage.

 A continuous link between two mutually incomprehensible tongues and one that does not lead either to suppression or extension of either is translation. And as soon as two speakers of different languages need to converse, translation is necessary either through a third party or directly. Paul Kholer (1973) discusses the relationship between bilingualism and translation giving real examples as case studies by considering the lexical levels of translation and the role bilingualism plays. Kholer also goes further to say that there is no satisfactory machine translation for the simple reason that language structure is complex and words have more than one interpretation depending on the context in which they are used. Machine translation cannot make a distinction between the different meanings of words.

Translation is a practical application of the theory of meaning. This meaning can be analyzed at different levels and for different units, that is, from word to phrase to sentence to text. The importance of meaning in translation can be observed in the statements credited to Peter Newmark (1982) who defines translation as “rendering the meaning of a text into another language in the way that the author intended the text.” Eugene Nida also defines translation as “reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source language message first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.” From the above definitions, we observe that meaning must be given priority in any translation activity because it is meaning that is constant and must be held as such; the form can change depending on the style of the translator or the text.

Translation as Catford (1965:20) puts it simply implies the “substitution or replacement of textual materials in one language by equivalent textual material in another language.” The concept of equivalence however poses some problems because it can be interpreted in different ways. In equivalence, it is not only the word that is taken into consideration but the context is also considered.

Is translation synonymous with bilingualism?

It is one of the general misconceptions in translation practice that translation is bilingualism and that every bilingual individual is automatically a translator. But is this really so? Can every bilingual be or become a translator? Before one can effectively answer this question, one has to have an understanding of who a bilingual is and what a translator actually does. It is also very essential to understand the relationship between bilingualism and translation. The understanding of the above will help the reader know that translation is not synonymous with bilingualism, although one can complement the other.

The different types of bilingualism such as social, professional and native will be discussed here.

Relationship between bilingualism and translation

Bilingualism, according to Kholer (1973), helps us to examine some general questions in the use of language and to learn more about how the human mind handles different kinds of reformation. Since translation is a practical application of the theory of meaning, the translator’s understanding of meaning in a text can be analyzed at different levels and for different units.

Bilingual people interpret words in a way that is different from the dictionary translations of the same words, and this has a psychological explanation. To the bilingual, words are commonly used in context, in situations that are defined both by their physical characteristics and by their habits, attitudes, dispositions, and intentions towards the words. These cognitive and emotional conditions affect the way words are interpreted when heard or seen (Kholer, 1973:283) and the meanings given to them.

Words denoting ethnical or political ideas or emotions usually have different meanings in different languages and cultures. Although these words exist in other cultures and languages, the meanings attributed to them differ from culture to culture and this explains the difficulty in translating culturally distant languages and why translations of bilinguals sometimes differ from dictionary translations because they adjust the meanings to the other culture as they switch between languages. The above is possible because being bilingual also implies being bicultural.

Learning to do one thing in one language does not guarantee that one will be able to do so in the other language. Unlike natural sciences or pure arts, languages have different characteristics that affect translation activity making it more difficult. For instance, if one has to do a word-for-word or phrase for-phrase translation, it will yield a result very similar to what machine translation would provide; this is because a word-for-word translation would create an equivalent product, but even closely related languages have some differences in idiomatic expressions or syntax (Malakoff and Hakuta, 1991).

A bilingual who does not practice his native language or near-native language may have difficulty in thinking in his own language and may find it easier to express ideas in his second language.

Translators are considered (Lambert, 1978) special people because of the seriousness applied in capturing every detail of the speaker’s message and conveying it in another language without omitting anything. According to Lambert, translators' bilingualism has the effect of providing them with special forms of intelligence, sensitivity, and skills at finding out what is meant and what is implied.

Translation can generally be considered an innate skill, which can be developed through guidance just like any other skill. This is called natural translation, which Harris and Sherwood (1978:155) defined as 'the translating done in everyday circumstances by people who have no special training for it.' This idea is supported by the fact that almost all bilingual children can translate or interpret for adults in various situations such as medical, legal or administrative cases. Harris and Sherwood believe that although the ability is something natural, yet, there are stages that a natural translator goes through and according to him, translating is coextensive with bilingualism, that is, they have a relation that is similar to the one between speaking a language and the ability to communicate.

Toury (1995), however, is of the opinion that, although the predisposition for translating is coextensive with bilingualism, the unfolding of the translator's skill depends on interlingualism, that is the ability to establish a relation between the similarities and differences between languages.

A natural translator according to Harris and Sherwood (1978:165-166) has to go through stages, which include:

-        The first stage is the pretranslation stage where the translator uses mostly single words. This is because the child, being a monolingual, is still at the stage of one-word sentence.

-        The second stage is called auto translation stage whereby the translator translates to others what he has said or written himself. This is also known as intrapersonal translation. But when the subject's own words are translated to other people, this is known as interpersonal translation.

-        The last stage is known as transduction whereby the translator acts as an intermediary between two other people.

According to Harris, age is a major factor contributing to the innate skill in translation, but we feel there are other factors. Age is simply a biological factor whereas there are other factors such as linguistic and social factors. Limiting the argument on bilingualism to age is limiting the validity of the argument. Although children can and do translate without receiving special training in the field of translation, that type of translation would not take care of the cultural implications of the message and may create barriers to communication. The translation may even be less functionally redundant and spontaneous.

From the above, it can be concluded that translation is generally identified with bilingualism. In fact, Shannon (1987:115) writes that translating is coextensive to bilingualism, that is, they have a relationship that is similar to that between speaking a language and the ability to communicate. In what could be termed as a response to this assertion, Toury (1995) believes that even though translating is related to bilingualism, one's translating skills actually depend on the ability to establish a relationship between the similarities and the differences between languages Not all translators can translate in the same way because it is the personal characteristic of each translator or his /her knowledge of the two languages that determines the success or failure of the translation work done.

However, it is acknowledged that competence may have some relationship with age since there could be an increase in linguistic proficiency as one’s age increases. it is also necessary to say that the difference in people’s translation of the same work is due to the fact that the capacity to transfer from one language to another is different from one individual to another. Everything depends on each person's interlingual capacity.

Implications of bilingual innateness on translation

Psycholinguistically, the word innate in linguistics means an inherited language skill, which enables a child to speak sooner and more grammatically than can be accounted for by its contact with the environment. It also means a specialized predisposition in children to learn how to speak the language they hear in their environment.

It is a deliberate activity undertaken when one has already nearly or fully acquired the basic structure and vocabulary of one’s first language. Many people, of course, never have a significant mastery of more than their own first language; it is on getting in contact with a second language that one realizes how complex language is and how much effort must be devoted to subsequent acquisition. So, knowing one language is a great obstacle to learning a second one, and one should not believe that one’s proficiency in both will be the same or will be sufficient to be a perfect translator. It is a fact that very normal person masters his mother tongue with unconscious ease, people vary in their conscious ability to learn additional languages, just as they vary in other intellectual abilities; so being a bilingual may not amount to being somebody who could understand the intricacies of the additional language(s) acquired. Acquired bilingualism leads to mutual interference between the two languages, particularly in the meaning of words; grammatical interference, and structural interference.

As we also mentioned above, age is not the only factor to identify translation with bilingualism, there are some other factors such as personality, context, motivation. and environment, which are essential factors to apply the specialized predispositions to translation. Skills develop over time, and this development conflicts with the notion of natural translation associated with age. This is because, with constant practice, the act of translating loses its naturalness.

What is then a natural translation? Translation has been considered a way of communication by many theorists such as Catford(1965), Toury (1995), Nida (1964), and others. Toury (1995:248), for instance, defines it from a socio-cultural perspective as a mode of communicative text production. By this definition, which involves socialization, there is the feedback strategy whereby the translator receives what is known as normative feedback. The norms of society reflect the target language and culture. There is, however, no unique way of doing a translation because there is no such thing as universal criterion of appropriateness. These criteria differ from one societal group to another.

It has to be emphasized that first, a born bilingual often suffers from not truly knowing any language well enough to translate, with some even suffering from what is known as alingualism, a state in which a person lacks full fluent command of any language. Secondly, born bilinguals often don’t know the culture of the target language well enough to provide top-quality translations or cannot recognize what aspects of the source language and its culture need to be treated with particular care. Thirdly, born bilinguals often lack the analytical linguistic skills to work through a difficult text.

On the other hand, the acquired bilingual may not have the same in-depth knowledge of colloquialisms, slang and dialect that the born bilingual has, although bilingualism according to Bell Roger (1976: 132), is biculturalism which in effect means that anybody who would call himself a bilingual must also be familiar with the two cultures involved.

The translator’s gifts display not only a breadth of vision and depth of understanding of human life but also a feature which is extremely important for us—a vital receptiveness to the spiritual makeup of another people, an unusual sensitivity to their psychology, an amazing ability to switch over to the manner of another ethnic group. It is therefore not enough to just speak a language but also to be bilingual and bicultural. Aitmatov’s bilingualism, for instance, is organic to his talent. It reveals an important aspect of his artistic “I”; and therefore in his laboratory the “author’s translation” is not simply a mechanical repetition of an already created text but a new and profoundly thought-through version of it, taking into consideration the ethnicity of the new group of readers

As a translator, acquiring “the compound state of mind with two grammars” as (Cook: 2003) indicates still remains an ideal attained by relatively few individual translators (even in a “bilingual” country like Cameroon), but this does not mean that there are few bilinguals, for this paper holds the view that bilingualism is a continuum ranging from mastery of the official languages to the mastery of two national languages.

It will not suffice to end without remarking that African languages validate all criteria for making any vocal system quality for a language. Since no language serves as a measuring rod for another, denouncing bilingualism involving an African language amounts to unjustified snobbism, for learning any of them requires the same effort as does any European language. Jacobson (1953) Romaine, (1995) writes: “Bilingualism is for me the fundamental problem of linguistics.” It really is, given the linguistic reality that all languages are equal in complexity and difficulty in mastering them.


Just as Kaya (2007) maintained, the question of whether any bilingual can translate obviously has no definite answer. This is simply because it all depends on what is understood by the term translation. I will also conclude with a quotation from A. A. Potebnia, cited in Schäffner, Christina (2001): “A person who speaks two languages shifts the character and direction of his thought as he shifts from one language to the other, and shifts them in such a way that the effort of his will…changes the course of his thought and then affects its subsequent course only indirectly. This effort can be compared with what a switchman does in switching a train over to another track.”

But if we are to speak of switches, rails, routes, and the motive forces of bilingualism and authors’ translations, then continuing Potebnia’s metaphor, I could say that literary translation in general, and an author’s translation in particular, is not when one route is “primary” and the others only “secondary.”

It is an undeniable fact that bilingualism is necessary, but not sufficient for translation proficiency and efficiency. Other requirements include natural ability, training and cultural background. The need for each translation scholar to introduce his own style, terminology, and way to convey meanings actually plays a significant roles in translation activities.


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