Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Bilingual occupations – Mais non!

Jacqueline Dinsmore
Editors’ Association of Canada
(The Editors’ Association of Canada began using the name Editors Canada on July 1, 2015.)


The ad reads: BILINGUAL EDITOR WANTED1 – edit texts, correct proofs, research and write short texts in English and French . . .

Then there's another: BILINGUAL TRANSLATOR – undertake all in house or 3rd party communications for translation of internal and external documents from French to English and English to French.

Bilingual editors? With the ability to produce top notch professional work in both languages? Bilingual translators? With the skill to translate both to and from two languages at the same high level?

In the last year or so, there seems to have been an upsurge in the number of businesses looking for "bilingual" translators and, even worse, "bilingual" editors. The number of government agencies alone looking for bilingual translators and editors is worrisome. Of course, the reason is obvious: the bottom line. Employers feel they will be getting a twofer if they hire a bilingual communicator. Unfortunately, the reality is that their communications and messaging will pay the price.

Bilingual translation

The translation industry has one main commandment: "Thou shalt translate into none but thy mother tongue." Budding translators learn this lesson their first year in Translation 101 and continue to hear it in seminars and from colleagues and agencies throughout their careers. OTTIAQ (www) English Hyperlink Notice (Quebec association of certified translators, terminologists and interpreters) states, "Translators generally translate from their second or third language, into their mother tongue." In Europe, the French translators' association, SFT (www) English Hyperlink Notice, runs a big red heading on its website: "Un traducteur professionnel travaille vers sa langue maternelle" (A professional translator translates only into his or her mother tongue), with the warning, "[TRANS] . . . always use a translator whose first language corresponds to the target language [because a native speaker] will have a better understanding of cultural and linguistic subtleties and adhere to typographical conventions." Translators who stray from this rule will, they declare, run the risk of overlooking criteria essential to a translation's quality.

Simply being bilingual, or even simultaneously bilingual (www) English Hyperlink Notice, does not guarantee good translation skills. Translation consists in transferring ideas and information from one language to another and reproducing them in a grammatical and easily read text. There are very few people bilingual enough to deliver high quality work in both languages, certainly nowhere near enough to fill all the positions we see advertised almost daily. Unless translators receive all their primary and secondary education in a bilingual environment, go on to take full degrees in both languages, continue with professional development in both languages and orchestrate their lives to be immersed in two cultural realities, they are not going to be able to translate in both directions.

Bilingual editing

But surely an excellent command of English, even if it is your second language, is adequate to edit English texts?

Not according to the Editors' Association of Canada (EAC). EAC has published the bible of Canadian editing, Professional Editorial Standards, which lays out what editors need to do at the various stages of editing. EAC also runs a certification program (www) English Hyperlink Notice to officially recognize excellent editing knowledge and skills. Preparation for the three-hour certification tests in each of the various aspects of editing (stylistic and structural editing, copy editing and proofreading) is extensive: Experienced unilingual editors study for months using Meeting Professional Editorial Standards (www) English Hyperlink Notice, a four-volume series that "covers the core editorial skills you will need to work as an editor."

And not all the English-speaking certification candidates, who work in only one language, pass the tests.

What does that tell us? It tells us that professional editors have to work hard to keep up their skills and stay abreast of current language practices in one language. It would be nearly impossible to consecrate the same amount of time and effort to updating and learning new skills in two languages.

The upshot is that when employers hire bilingual communicators, one of the languages will usually suffer, and a communications professional in that language will be out of a job, despite being more skilled. Our country is full of badly translated and poorly edited text in both languages; logic dictates that we are not acting as very good stewards of our bilingual heritage and should perhaps be a little more stringent in our hiring practices when it comes to language professionals.

The solution is simple: Hire two people, one in each language.


Back to the note1 The ads are real, but information has been changed to protect the innocent.