Linguistician -- Sic transit gloria mundi

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Wed Mar 7 07:47:53 UTC 2001

>On the ADS-L of all places, I'm surprised that no one mentioned the
>wonderful parody by Fred Cassidy "A Model Linguistician". It dates to the
>1960s or earlier, celebrating pre-Chomskyan scientific linguistics.
>The term was tossed about as a solution to the perennial problem of being
>introduced as a "linguist", and being asked "how many languages do you
>speak", and having to explain that you only speak English but analyze half
>a dozen languages the inquirer never heard of, including several dead
>ones. But it was never seriously adopted by anyone, to my knowledge.
>         Rudy

As a translator I hate the question "how many languages do you speak?",
which I'm always asked when I tell people what I do for a living. I
honestly don't know how many languages I speak, because speaking is a
relative thing. I have a satellite dish and like to watch soaps. After a
couple of months of watching a Chinese soap I speak better Chinese than
Portuguese, but after a couple of months of a Brazilian soap, the reverse
is true. (Brazilian and Chinese soaps are amazingly similar, perhaps
because the Chinese used to dub lots of Brazilian soaps.) Most people think
that you have to speak a language to translate from it. Arthur Waley did a
fine job of translating Chinese and Japanese classics although he spoke
neither language. Some people hate his translations, but that's neither
here nor there. I'm a native speaker of Spanish, have read quite a bit in
Spanish over the years, and speak Spanish better than German, but I read
German with far greater ease than Spanish. I also read and write Chinese
better than French, although my spoken French is more fluent than my spoken
Chinese. Language is a messy thing. But who am I telling.
You  linguisticians (just kidding) know all about that. Another pet peeve
shared by most translators is that people tend to be unaware that
interpreters and translators are different animals. Translators make lousy
interpreters. And vice versa. I'm curious, though. Is it helpful for a
linguist to have a good knowledge of one or more foreign languages? By good
knowledge I mean the ability to read, write, or speak a language well, not
the ability to analyze it and decide whether it is agglutinative or
whatnot. Apologies if my question is silly, naive, or both.

Paul Frank
Business, financial and legal translation
 From German, French, Chinese, Spanish,
Italian, Portuguese and Dutch into English
paulfrank at | Thollon, France

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