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Desperately Seeking a Final Translation

On the difficulties of translating

Post written by François Grosjean.

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair has riveted the media's attention since it started on May 14 of this year at the Sofitel Hotel in New York. It has gone through repeated twists and turns, including one that concerns the translation between two languages, Fulani (also known as Fula) and English.

It is reported that on May 15, the hotel housekeeper spoke on the phone to a man in an Arizona jail in Fulani, their native language. Supposedly, certain things were said that the prosecutor's office believes raise questions about her credibility. The housekeeper's lawyer stated that his client did not agree with the translation presented in the form of a digest of the conversation.

In addition, it would appear that there have been interpreting issues during interview sessions with prosecutors to the extent that the housekeeper said at one point that the translation was incorrect because the interpreter was not competent in the dialect of Fulani that she herself spoke.

As a final translation is awaited of the May 15 phone call, it is worth stepping back a bit to reflect on the art of translation and its link to bilingualism.

There is a long standing myth that bilinguals are born translators. In fact, apart from everyday language, bilinguals are not particularly good translators. Why is that? One reason is that they acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people (see here).

Unless they have domains of life covered with two languages, or they acquired the language they are translating into (the target language) in a manner that puts the emphasis on translation equivalents, they may be missing the required vocabulary.

Bilinguals may also not be sufficiently fluent in one of the languages involved and may not have the stylistic varieties and the expressions needed for a quality translation. In addition, they may lack the cultural knowledge linked to a language that would facilitate, for example, their understanding of the original text or message.

Translators must have a complete set of translation equivalents in the other language (at least in the domains concerned). They must also know the two languages (or dialects!) fluently, at all linguistic levels, and they must avoid all the usual translation traps such as false friends and literal translations. Set expressions can be a nightmare to translate for those who are not careful enough. Thus, if the French expression, "Je me raconte des histoires", is translated literally into English as, "I'm telling myself stories", the French meaning is not conveyed; it should have been translated as, "I'm kidding myself."

Translators must express in one language, in as faithful a way as possible, the meaning and the style of the text in another language. This entails fully understanding the original text in the "source language" and having the necessary transfer skills, as well as the linguistic, stylistic and cultural skills in the target language to produce a correct translation.

Very little room is left for the translator's own intuition or creativity. He or she must follow the original text as closely as possible and render it in correct prose in the target language.

Translators are very much "special bilinguals", and translation is definitely a difficult bilingual skill. It is no wonder then that there are specialized schools where students learn to translate professionally such as the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

One of the requirements for entry to these schools is to have excellent language skills in two or more languages. Lengthy training then transforms the "regular" bilingual into a certified translator. Another extended training period is needed to form a professional interpreter, a topic that will be discussed in a future post.


Grosjean, François. Special bilinguals. Chapter 13 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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