At Home or Abroad

For translators who principally work from one foreign language – with which they are very familiar – into their mother tongue – with which they are even more familiar – deciding where to physically carry out their professional activity is a difficult balancing act: is it more advantageous to be based in your own country, continuously surrounded by your active (target) language, or in a foreign country, completely immersed in your passive (source) language? As a means of bringing this dilemma to life, I invite you to visualise two opposing scenarios. First, imagine that you are pouring lemonade through a very tight bottleneck, which then gives way to a voluminous bottle underneath. Next, imagine that you are pouring, with great ease, lemonade into a spacious funnel which then leads down into that same tricky bottleneck, so difficult to navigate.

In the first case, you are a translator living in your home country, having invested all your efforts into polishing and expanding your mastery of your native language. Your understanding of the information you receive is partially limited because your contact with the source language is intermittent; however, this is compensated by your rich, copious resources to transform this information into an accurate, eloquent target-language product. The second case is the exact opposite. You live abroad, in a country where your passive language is officially spoken, and your daily life is focussed on ‘living in your source language’; consequently, you can recognise and decipher practically everything that you encounter in a source text but, in exchange, your expressive skills in your own language may begin to suffer, again due to lack of contact. Of course, in an ideal world, full-time B > A translators would divide their time equally between two linguistic spheres, would choose an officially bilingual country as their home and, in their daily lives, for every hour spent diligently improving their foreign language, they would dedicate another to diligently improving their mother tongue. However, this is unlikely to be fully realistic or possible for the vast majority of translators: life gets in the way and, eventually, we almost always have to opt for either ‘here’ or ‘there’.

There is a significantly-sized group of translators who pride themselves on (and even define themselves as) specifically being ‘in-country’ professionals, with all the benefits that this entails. To give a fictitious example, Laura is an English-to-native-Spanish translator living in Spain, continually exposed to and stimulated by her own language and culture: television programmes, newspapers, music, films, informal and formal conversations and their corresponding registers, etc. This situation allows Laura to witness first-hand and on a daily basis, whether consciously or unconsciously, the organic evolution of European Spanish over time: new expressions which appear out of nowhere and catch on, terms whose connotations, nuances or even entire meaning gradually change, words which fall into disuse and begin to be considered outdated and old-fashioned… Untainted by external, foreign influences, and fully at the forefront of the latest advances in Spanish linguistic reality, Laura could – perhaps – boast of the ‘purity’ of her translated output.

In contrast, to give a second fictitious example, Miguel is also an English-to-native-Spanish translator but has lived in London for a number of years. He is likely to be frozen in a type of linguistic time capsule, as his active contact with his mother tongue is limited to one or two phone calls home a week, a daily glance through El País online and periodic, short trips to Spain. In other words, whilst the Spanish language is perpetually developing and transforming, Miguel is not physically present to match the pace of this process. If you have lived abroad and, especially, if you have ‘lived’ in a foreign language for a sustained period time, you will know that visiting your home country after long bouts away can sometimes leave you feeling like a linguistic and cultural alien. I will never forget coming home from Spain one Christmas, being asked to take a selfie and wondering why I was suddenly being offered shellfish for no apparent reason… Largely isolated in my Spanish bubble, this new English linguistic feature had passed me by.

It goes without saying, however, that all of the above can also be applied the other way round. On the one hand, Laura may have an excellent passive understanding of English, acquired at university and/or a spate living in an English-speaking country; on the other, however, the longer she lives in her native Spain, immersed in her mother tongue and largely unexposed to Anglophone culture and influences, the more often unfamiliar linguistic elements, or terms which have changed in meaning in English without her being aware, will creep into source texts and could catch her out. Because, of course, our passive languages (indeed, all languages) are, also continuously evolving. In this context, and from the point of view of pure source text comprehension, by living in London and immersing himself in English seven days a week, Miguel would be significantly better-positioned than Laura.

Nevertheless, precisely for this same reason, the risk of Miguel falling into the most common translator traps is much higher; whether he likes it or not, his constant exposure to English will undoubtedly influence his translations into Spanish, calling the ‘purity’ of his output into question in exactly the same way as Laura’s could be applauded. Years living abroad predominantly speaking a foreign tongue inevitably tinge your spoken and written production of your native language, from subtle, barely-detectable details to hugely incongruous gaffes: unnatural-sounding syntax, inappropriate register, unusual verb forms, a noun used instead of a verb, for instance. One of the worst translation ‘sins’ are calques. In Miguel’s case, this could relate to the structure of a phrase (make a decision literally translated into Spanish as hacer una decisión, where the more natural, native-sounding tomar una decisión would be required) or to terminology (a clearly Anglophone-influenced translation of apply for a job as aplicar para un trabajo, instead of the standard solicitar un trabajo). It is incredible how quickly the human brain enters into ‘foreign mode’, peppering with external influences a language which has accompanied you since birth. Although this phenomenon, in itself, is not necessarily a problem – indeed, many would argue that it is an enriching linguistic and cultural experience – translators must be careful to keep it under reasonable control.

In conclusion, there appears to be no perfect solution to this issue; this is a classic case of swings and roundabouts, in which whenever you gain in one sense, you lose in the other. Clearly, the key here is balance: translators living in-country should be sure to maintain contact with their source language as best they can, through books, music, newspapers and television if frequent travel abroad is not a viable option; similarly, translators living abroad should make at least this same effort with their mother tongue. I say ‘at least’ because it is widely accepted that translators’ command of their native language is actually more important than their mastery of a foreign language, for two main reasons. Firstly, it is easier to passively receive and decipher a language than to actively produce one (even if it is your own). Secondly, translators’ mother tongues are their principal linguistic vehicle, upon which they are professionally judged and for which they are paid. In my opinion, this is a critical point for us as translators to bear in mind at all times, irrespective of where we call home.

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