On balancing source and target language development

People are often surprised when I tell them I visit home often not only to visit my family but to keep my English sounding natural and not like a hybrid of English with the languages I work in and speak. Those who speak only one language probably can’t imagine that it’s possible to forget your mother tongue. Although I don’t feel I’m at risk of losing my native language, I think most translators would agree that working on your native language is as important as working on your source languages, but it can be difficult to find a balance.

When I first started as a freelance translator, I was more eager to polish up my source languages than to work on my native language. I spent a lot of time reading in Spanish and Portuguese, speaking with Spanish and Portuguese speakers at any opportunity, and gaining knowledge and skills in my specialisations using resources in those languages. At the time, I lived in the UK and although I had some Spanish friends, I didn’t worry so much about my English turning into Spanglish because I lived most of my life in English. I had my family nearby who I spent time with, local television was in English, my daily interactions were in English, and I had easy access to reading material in English, so I wasn’t concerned.

Two years later, living in Spain has made it necessary for me to make more effort to connect with the English language and culture on a regular basis. I’ve never forgotten my native language, but around this time last year, after a few months of speaking almost exclusively in Spanish or Catalan, I visited my family in Manchester and felt a slight culture shock. I can’t remember exactly what I had said but at one point my sister asked why I was talking like that. When I thought about it she was right and that made me wonder how this might also be reflected in my work. That was a scary thought. So far, my clients were all happy with my work but, of course, I didn’t want to wait until that was no longer the case. Since then I’ve tried to achieve a balance between the languages I use in my day-to-day activities (aside from work) and I am working towards this goal by making the following changes:

  1. Leisure reading

Although I was reading in English often before, most of what I was reading for leisure was in Spanish or Catalan, as it’s much easier to find books in these languages living here. I haven’t stopped reading for leisure in other languages, but I now try to vary. For example, I’m currently reading “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in English so the next book I choose will be a Spanish or Portuguese book.

  1. Active study

When I thought about it, I realised that at that time I hadn’t really studied English grammar since I had left university the year before. Although I didn’t feel like my grammar or spelling was suffering, I felt it wise to revisit this. When we learn, we don’t retain that skill or knowledge forever, so I decided to revise this regularly by doing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) or using books or online guides about the point I’m unsure about. I also sought out and now regularly read a few online magazines and websites in English aimed at writers and authors, such as Writer’s Digest and Writers Online.

  1. Social and family life

As I mentioned, I’ve made more effort to actively plan to visit my family in England more regularly. Of course, this is mainly for personal reasons but every little helps!

  1. Writing more frequently in English

To be a good translator, you need to be a good writer in your target language. It took me a while to feel confident about my own writing, it can be quite daunting to put your thoughts online for all the world to see, however, I’ve noticed a steady improvement in how confident I feel in my translation work since I started to write more often. Writing and editing my own work has helped me to identify the type of mistakes I make more frequently and points to improve, which has, in turn, had made it easier when planning Continued Professional Development (CPD) activities. It has also been very rewarding on a personal level because I’ve developed a real interest in creative writing. While I don’t expect to be a best-selling author, writing short stories and poetry of my own has helped me not only to express my own thoughts and ideas but also to express those of the authors I translate into English.

These are the steps I’ve taken to ensure that my native language doesn’t descend into an incomprehensible jumble of languages. I have also been taking similar steps to polish up my Portuguese recently. As previously mentioned, I live in Spain which means that I have contact with the culture and language every day. Of course, I still read in Spanish, I still do CPD in Spanish, but the little day-to-day efforts are already a part of my life.

This is not the case with Portuguese. Having not lived in a Portuguese-speaking country for 4 years now, I have started to notice that I need to reconnect with the language and culture somehow. I’ve always kept on top of the written language, but cultures change and grow, and so does the way they use their language. I’ve been thinking about visiting Portugal for an intensive Portuguese course or going for an extended period of time to reconnect. If only there were a way to install an update, to bring my 2014 Portuguese into the present day. In the meantime, I continue with my regular CPD activities: reading journals, novels, the news and other resources, listening to podcasts and watching videos in online courses.

Have you had a similar experience with finding a balance between your working languages? What do you do to keep your skills up-to-date? Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear about your own CPD plans!

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