“Does English exist?” the linguistics professor asked, and suggested this might be a useful question to think about in our daily practice as translators.

Well – yes and no. Imagine you are negotiating a contract with a translation agency or another prospective client who wants a large document translated into English, and you say, “Hmmm … actually, I’m not sure whether English even exists.” Not a good idea.

On the other hand, we do need to remind ourselves (and others) occasionally that translators are more than walking dictionaries, that translation is not just a matter of replacing each word of the source text with a target-language equivalent. Unlike Google Translate or Babel Fish, we may not be able to translate hundreds of words in the blink of an eye (or, as we say in German, im Handumdrehen, “in the turn of a hand”) – but unlike Google Translate or Babel Fish, we are all too aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of language. Good translators take nothing for granted – not even the existence of English -, trust neither the dictionary nor their instincts, and double-check everything. Did I say double? Make that triple-check.

Of course, when working to tight deadlines and fielding calls from impatient editors or project managers, we can’t usually afford the luxury of contemplating the larger issues like “Does English exist?” For all practical purposes, let’s just assume that it does, and get on with it. But remember that silly joke about Descartes: There he was, pottering around in his front garden one morning, minding his own business, when the milkman came by. The milkman asks, “Would you like a bottle of silver-top today?”(or whatever they used to pour on their cornflakes in 17th century Netherlands). Descartes says, “I think not” – and vanishes into thin air. (There you have it: Never stop thinking.)

However, there’s a more serious answer to the question posed above, one which might even satisfy a linguistics professor. English does exist as it is being spoken (and the same is true of French, Suaheli or Madarin, of course). By using English, we bring it into being; its existence is our particular responsibility as language professionals. Consider it a kind of symbiosis if you like: We need the language to make a living as much as it needs us to survive.

by Silke on 18th Oct 2010