Apr 302017

I recently came across an article in a magazine that discussed an academic who grew up in France, moved to Israel, and thence to the United States where he lectures at a leading university. He has written two books of memoirs, both originally in French. The first was professionally translated into English, but he decided to translate the most recent book himself. Being a university professor, he considers himself to be omniscient so he thinks that – even though English is not his first language – he is able to translate into English. The result is terrible! Standard translations of place names are mistranslated (as with so many French-speakers, he cannot distinguish between “town” and “city”) and there are many other gaffes. It is typical of academics to over-estimate their abilities in this respect. Even famous authors who wrote in languages that were not their mother tongue, such as Conrad and Nabokov, had their work heavily edited and corrected by other people.

The truth is that there is no such thing as true bilingualism. However fluent one is in another language, the culture and thought processes of one’s mother tongue will always prevail. This is particularly true of languages such as English, French and German whose grammar and syntax are so complex and sophisticated that it is impossible for people who are not mother tongue to write in them correctly. As someone who was educated at a French school in London, where many of the pupils were “virtually” bilingual, I have observed this phenomenon at first hand. It could be argued that in the case of a language with which one has grown up, or if one lived in a bilingual household, this does not apply. It may be true, indeed, in the case of Hebrew and Yiddish. In the case of Yiddish, no one is monolingual in Yiddish and few ever were, Jews had to learn the language of the host country, like it or not. The same, to some extent, is true of Hebrew. Israel’s national poets, Bialik and Tchernikovsky were not mother-tongue Hebrew. This is a unique situation, however, and does not apply to many people who consider themselves to be “bilingual”.

Another point to make in this respect is that having a good accent in the foreign language is no indication of fluency and accuracy in it. A schoolmate of mine did very badly in the French oral GCSE examination because she spoke French exactly as if it were English with a terrible accent. In fact, she had grown up in France (her father was a British diplomat stationed there) and her essays in French were extremely good. On the other hand, one hears many fluent English-speakers, with good English accents and pronunciation, on radio and television but if one analyses what they are saying one finds all kinds of classic mistakes (such as “arrive to” instead of “arrive at”, etc.).

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