"Whoever is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of their own."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As a native English speaker, and one with a keen interest in language-learning and linguistics, I had never doubted my understanding of my mother tongue. I had never doubted it until I began translating that is. For a good twenty years I was confident that there was nothing else that I could possibly learn about the language that I had spent over 7,300 days speaking. After all, if you don’t understand your own language, what do you understand?
However, it then became apparent that the whole English language thing was a lot more foreign to me than I had previously imagined, with it’s complicated set of phrasal verbs, its 12 vowel sounds and its thousands of irregular verbs.
I suppose it really hit me when I began studying translation and interpreting at a French university, exclusively between French and Spanish. Translating and interpreting between two foreign languages, neither of which are your mother tongue is a challenge to say the least, however it is also extremely insightful in terms of discovering how complicated English is. Whereas English often requires complete restructuring of a sentence, using constructions that are confusing and illogical, I found that many grammatical structures and etymological choices could be more or less directly transferred between French and Spanish. For example, ‘j’ai étieint la lumière’ translates neatly to ‘apagué la luz’. In english, we are forced to use a clumsy phrasal verb, which often involves completely re-ordering the sentence. And sentences that work perfectly well in both French and Spanish turn into a translator’s nightmare in English. Take ‘all the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life’ for example. Yes that really is grammatically correct…
In general, translation has really forced me to question the English language, encouraging a metalinguistic approach towards my mother tongue and therefore allowing me to gain a far deeper understanding of it. Aspects of the language that I previously accepted without questioning now play on my mind and lead me to delve deeper and deeper into the ins and outs of English. An example that I come across regularly in literary translations, which was also a burning question during my time spent as an au pair in Girona, teaching two Catalonian girls English, is the true meaning of ‘do’ and ‘don’t.’.
‘Do you want a drink?’
‘Yes, I do’
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m doing some work’
In the first line ‘do’ acts as an auxiliary verb. However, in the second line, it is merely emphatic. Yet in the third and fourth lines, it is a directly transitive verb. But what exactly does this small, yet so very significant component mean? Strictly speaking, in the first two examples, it has no meaning - only a grammatical function. But, in the last example it has the semantic meaning of ‘to do’, as in ‘faire/hacer/fer/fare’ etc etc…
Aspects of the English language, such as this, can make my life as a translator rather tricky. Interesting, but nonetheless tricky. Particularly amongst literary translation, where style and formal aspects are a priority, we translators are constantly confronted with the resistance of our mother tongue.
However, despite the difficulties my mother tongue poses, I look forward to learning about everything I am yet to discover. I would also really love to hear about your experiences with English, whether it is your native language or otherwise so please do comment below!
Have a great day everyone!