When people discover that I am a Translations Project Manager, they become curious about the types of materials I translate.
In response, I delve into the scope of my work. I explain that I coordinate the translation of legal and financial documents as well as marketing collateral such as newsletters, websites and advertisements.
And whilst this answer explains the physical outcome of what I do for a living, it doesn’t truly get to the bottom of why we translate from one language to another, and why it is so important.
Language Reveals Something About All of Us
Instead of discussing the types of documents I work with, I much prefer to delve into which languages I work with (aka: which languages I translate from, and which ones I translate into).
This subject carries more weight. It sparks an interesting conversation about the variability in language structures and their different roles in society.
And while everyone has different interests, I have a feeling that you might be interested in this topic as well. Why? Because you, and your relationship to the world, has undoubtedly been shaped by language. Afterall, language mirrors the social and political scapes around us.
This makes for some very interesting revelations. So, without further ado, lets peer into that mirror.
Protecting Language Diversity
The Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, which is one of the best linguistic resources, currently lists 7,099 living languages. That number is constantly in flux, because we’re learning more about the world’s languages every day. And beyond that, the languages themselves are in flux. They’re living and dynamic, spoken by communities whose lives are shaped by our rapidly changing world.
Yet, this is a fragile time with roughly a third of languages now considered endangered, often with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Meanwhile, just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population.
As someone with a passion for bridging cultures, I strive to create a fairer playing field and endeavour to do my part to keep languages and dialects “alive”. The true beauty of translation is that it keeps the value of diversity alive.
Do You Speak A Language Or A Dialect?
Speaking of dialects, have you ever pondered how it differs from a language? Well, I have, and I discovered something that is worth our concern.
Basically, both are linguistic codes which enable a group of people to communicate. However, only the most prevalent codes are officially recognised as a “language”. This is troubling, as languages receive a higher legal recognition (and protection) than dialects.
Okay, so what does all this mean? It’s simple: the luckiest people will be able to read, study and speak their native language. Others (such as those who speak a dialect) will need to adapt, and start using a more prominent language. This is one of the reasons why so many languages are lost and forgotten, while others dominate.
Language Death & The Loss of Cultural Code
UNESCO estimates that around 60,000 dialects are currently at risk of being lost forever. The loss of a dialect carries heavy cultural and political weight. Unfortunately, the significance of this issue is often underestimated. Why is this? Because those who speak a minority language represent a smaller percentage of society. This means that the vulnerability of their dialect goes unrecognised.
Let’s take a closer look at the sociopolitical consequences of language loss.
Language Loss and Colonisation
A culture doesn’t simply “lose” a language overnight. That is to say, language loss stems from sociopolitical forces bestowed upon that community. To further explain, I would like to refer to an excerpt from “English in The World” by Philip Seargeant and Joan Swann.
“Language-related concerns are often closely linked to the process of colonisation.” Typically, the community is impacted by the following forces:
– Displacement, where the pre-colonial population, and therefore their language, is forcibly moved from their local region.
– Subjection, or “indirect rule”, where the pre-colonial population is subjected to sparser colonial settlement, or
– Replacement, where a precolonial population is completed replaced by the colonising population.
By looking at the historical and political background of language loss, we can understand that it often points to “the social, economic and political inequalities which privileged the colonial language”.
So, continuing to ignore minority languages furthers this inequality, and extends the privileges held by those who speak a dominant language.
Language and Culture
The relationship between language and culture is a complex one. According to Professor David Elmes, this is largely due to “the great difficulty in understanding people’s cognitive processes when they communicate.” In fact, some suggest that language even influences the way people think.
Confused? To simplify, I’ll draw on the words of Professor Claire Kramsch: “Language is the principal means whereby we conduct our social lives… In other words, language expresses cultural reality.” So, language is a means of interpreting and conceptualising the world around us.
What’s more, we know that language serves as a vehicle to share this “cultural reality”, and pass the worldview onto younger generations. With this in mind, there’s little wonder why language loss goes hand-in-hand with a loss of cultural belonging.
Ethnobotanist & anthropologist, Wade Davis, beautifully captured the poignancy of this issue in a TED Talk titled “Dreams from endangered cultures“.
“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence…
to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors?
And yet … every two weeks, some elder dies
and carries with him… an ancient tongue.”
My Role As A Translator
When speaking about my career, I am able to proudly state that, “We translate into more than 140 languages and dialects.”
By translating into every kind of linguistic code, we contribute to a world without discrimination, without barriers. And by converting meaning from one language into another, the text’s meaning is no longer restricted to a certain culture or community. It becomes available to a wider audience. And this is precisely why my career is so rewarding.
Let’s stop trying to restrict the diverse range of languages, and start protecting them.