Linguistics and Translation How a degree in linguistics has helped in translation.

Greater than 2 minutes, my friend!

If you’re a translation agency and you’ve gotten a CV and cover letter from me, then I have probably told you that I have a BA in linguistics which gives me a keen understanding of the fundamental mechanics of language. But how does knowing the mechanics of language help me (or anyone else) in translation?

First of all, what is linguistics? Linguistics is essentially the science and study of language, which encompasses phonetics (how sounds are made), phonology (how phonetic sounds interact with one another), morphology (the smallest elements of a word with meaning), syntax (how words are put together to make a sentence), semantics (meanings of words and sentences) and pragmatics (what’s appropriate in the context). It’s not the study of one particular language but how languages compare and contrast with each other. I’ve always considered this study of language to be like taking a tape recorder apart to see how it works, with all the mechanics and operations that one never really thinks about but are indispensable to its functioning. But again, how does understanding all these things help a person in translation?

Studying linguistics has exposed me to a wide variety of languages, not just in the Indo-European family, but in language families from all over the world: Afro-Asiatic (Hebrew, Arabic), Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian) and other smaller families. I became acquainted with different varieties of syntax, such Subject-Verb-Object and Subject-Object-Verb. I even learned from Old Irish that sometimes, a letter exists only to change the pronunciation of the preceding one. For example,  in French, you have  je mange, which means “I eat”. The “g” here is soft because it comes in before a front vowel. But in the first person plural, nous mang-ons, the “g” comes in front of a back vowel which would ordinarily make the “g” hard. In this case, an extra ‘e’ is there to maintain the soft ‘g’ in front of a back vowel, so it becomes nous mangeons.

It has also taught me that there is sometimes no one-to-one correspondence between words of different languages, that is to say, one language may take two or three words to say what can be said in one word in another language. And even though words have similar meanings, they are not necessarily interchangeable. I also learned that a language can give a person insight into its culture and vice versa (called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). For example, in languages with grammatical gender, inanimate feminine nouns will sometimes be described using “feminine” terms, such as “pretty” or “lovely” and inanimate masculine nouns described using “masculine” terms, such as “handsome” or “strong”.  If nothing else, I learned how to write and do research from writing lots (and lots) of papers.

But I think one of the biggest advantages studying linguistics has provided is the ability to break down sentences into their constituent parts. If I come across a particularly complicated phrase or sentence, I can simplify it by mentally eliminating any modifiers until a more basic sentence remains and then reattach the modifiers afterward. I can also reduce confusion and ambiguity by recognizing what qualifiers belong to what word by looking at various markers for tense, number, gender, etc. And there may be even more benefits that I haven’t even considered yet.

Studying linguistics has given me, as I’ve often said, a “keen understanding of the fundamental mechanics of language”, an inside look at how language functions (both in theory and in practice) and how they interact with each other. I firmly believe that studying linguistics has given me a special set of tools to be a truly exceptional translator.

Ronnie J Rigdon

About Ronnie J Rigdon

Highly qualified French to English translator. Saxophone and piano player. Time Lord in training.

4 thoughts on “Linguistics and Translation How a degree in linguistics has helped in translation.

  1. Thank you M. Ronnie for sharing your thought with us. Indeed, linguistics help a lot in segmenting, restructuring and playing with sentences’ layout. Nonetheless, knowing the target culture and customs is crucial as well. that is to say, literature is as essential as linguistics in the world of translation, otherwise you’ll find yourself translating the French expression “tomber dans les pommes” as “falling on apples” (which is grammatically correct by the way) instead of “falling unconscious”.

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    1. You are absolutely right in that knowing the target culture is key in producing superior translations and you do learn that in linguistics programs, usually under titles like “Language and Culture” or “Linguistic Anthropology”. Idioms can be mentally segmented as fixed expressions and the equivalent used rather than a literal translation.

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