Parents of different nationalities who are raising their children to be bilingual are often met with comments that their children will grow up to be translators. This begs the question though of whether being bilingual is enough.
Whilst a child may grow up to be able to speak two languages, if they have been immersed mainly in only one culture, they will not necessarily be bicultural.
Here lies the question: does a translator need to be bicultural as well as bilingual?
Bilingual vs. Bicultural
Looking at The Oxford Dictionary for the definitions of bilingual and bicultural, we find the following:
- Bilingual: Speaking two languages fluently
- Bicultural: Having or combining the cultural attitudes and customs of two nations, peoples, or ethnic groups
Being bicultural is a lot more involved than being bilingual. Many people can become bilingual: university graduates, people who use a second language in their job, children of parents with different nationalities, and basically anyone who is willing to put in the hard work it takes to be able to use more than one language proficiently.
Becoming bicultural is not as straightforward as, generally speaking, it means somebody has to have lived within a certain community, experienced everyday life, eaten with them, taken part in traditional celebrations. Basically, they need to have lived and breathed the culture in the same way they have their native culture.
Why is Being Bicultural Important as a Translator?
Turning to the Oxford dictionary again, the definition of translation is ‘the process of translating words or text from one language into another’. Surely being bilingual should be enough if we take this definition literally, so why is it important for a translator to be bicultural too?
In reality, a translator needs to understand so much more than just the words and grammar of a language to be able to produce a true and accurate translation. Being bicultural as well as bilingual means that amongst many other aspects, the nuances, allusions and idiomaticity of a language and culture are understood; basically the information that a dictionary cannot always convey. Without this, a translation risks being stilted and awkward.
Bilingual is a Gateway to Bicultural
It is believed by some that being bilingual is a gateway to being bicultural. A person can be bilingual without being bicultural, but it would be very hard to be bicultural without being bilingual. Without language, it would be very difficult to enter into a community with enough depth to gain sufficient understanding and knowledge and meaning to be counted as bicultural.