Bilinguals: Lost in translation

October 14, 2015

By: Marius Boatca

Professional interpreting and translation require more than just being bilingual.

A bilingual person does not have the requisite skills, and cannot perform simultaneous interpretation.

For instance, speaking Chinese does not qualify you as a certified translator.


People who grew up speaking different languages do not necessarily have the written skills for translating one language to another. They possess oral but not written fluency.

Requisite Skills for Translators

Being bilingual doesn’t imply that a person is familiar with functional vocabulary for specific industries.

While bilingualism is clearly an invaluable foundation and even a prerequisite for being an interpreter, the skills for interpreters exceed the basic knowledge of two or more languages.

The minimum skills a professional translator must have include:

  • Immediate understanding of both languages
  • Specialization and subject area expertise
  • Culturally and professionally awareness
  • Knowledge of appropriate conduct
  • Excellent writing skills
  • Self motivation, discipline and organization

Using obscure terminology can lead to misrepresentation or confusion of just how skilled an individual is in a language.

Defining Language Proficiency Levels

Language proficiency levels are challenging to establish. Translators, interpreters and linguists define distinct levels of language skills with a variety of terms, including native speaker, fluent, proficient and bilingual.

Differentiating between the different terms is tricky, particularly because the variations can be minimal. In fact, the similarity of these terms makes the need for more concrete definitions essential to avoid confusion or misrepresenting a translator’s linguistic capabilities.

Professional translators ordinarily agree on working definitions for the various levels of language proficiency. Some commonly used language proficiency labels include:

  • Native speaker. This refers to an interpreter’s first language. Native speakers are more than fluent. They can correctly and easily use their first language.
  • Fluent. Attaining fluency through extended study and living in full linguistic immersion is tough to achieve but possible. More conscious concentration may be required when speaking, and the same spontaneity as a native speaker may not be as natural with idioms and similar phrases and terms.
  • Proficient. Proficiency refers to a speaker who is highly skilled in the use of a language, including using it with less familiarity and greater formality than a fluent or native speaker.
  • Bilingual. Bilingualism refers to speaking or able to use two languages interchangeably with equal fluency and strength.

Although fluency in two or more languages is required for translators, bilingualism by itself is insufficient to ensure that the individual has the precise skills required for translating between the two languages.

At a minimum, language proficiency requires knowledge of grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

The untrained translator can sometimes lose track of what was said because they have to stop and think of the equivalent word or phrase before the conversation moves on to another topic.

Translation has extensive layers of intricacy and complexity for the translator, in part due to globalization and localization. It takes the individual away from listening to what is being said because the translator must rephrase the idea into another language.

Translation involves grammar, cultural knowledge, vocabulary expertise and familiarity with all aspects of the source and target languages.

A good translator will make explicit that which is implicit in the source language without destroying the meaning.

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