Top rank universities and language schools all over the world are doing their best to teach proper English which, broadly speaking, means perfectly intelligible, grammatically correct and fluent English. Courses of English for academic purposes are meant to teach more than everyday conversational English; they are preparing students for a wide range of office jobs in which ‘jargon’ must be assimilated together with the complex notions that define a certain field of activity. Foreign language acquisition does not imply knowing the entire ‘gobbledegook’ that contemporary specialised dictionaries have added to their pages in the past couple of decades alone. A bilingual specialist in a certain field will thankfully know his ‘slice’ and be able to prove his language skills efficiently whenever necessary.
What about a professional translator?
The average translator is expected to know at least a bit of everything in terms of general knowledge. However, it is not easy to turn yourself into a walking dictionary of words that do not even belong to the commonly used vocabulary section. The human mind has its limits and no one can produce a flawless translation without doing some research along the way. Besides, it is far wiser to look things up than to beat about the bush and waste precious time ‘groping’ for a scientific term. In his everyday job, a translator makes use of the ‘core’ language knowledge – grammar, basic vocabulary, correct collocations, which he is supposed to have learnt proficiently at university – without any difficulty at all. The hard part begins when he is assigned a piece of work from a completely unknown field. That is the moment when he will have to turn to specialised dictionaries and glossaries as well as to try to understand the material before being able to translate it. Experienced and knowledgeable as a translator may be, there are always things that he has never tackled before and need special attention.
Things one learns at school and develops through practice
Studying a foreign language in an academic environment does not prepare you for the real world. If you decide to work as a translator you have a better chance to use most of what they taught you at school but if you would rather become an interpreter you will definitely need more ‘everyday’ or conversational language, according to the type of individuals you are likely to get in contact with. An interpreter for the UK Visas and Immigration will not have the same ‘clients’ as a tour guide for a top-notch travel agency, or someone working for the European Parliament. The choice of grammar structures, register and tone depends on the very work environment you are in. Your ability to switch from one kind of language to another will be perfected through months or years of practice and highly depend on your individual malleability.
Of the many ‘Englishes’ spoken, which one is the best to know?
Well, in spite of the many different kinds of English that are more or less widely spoken around the world, the two main English variants are still British English and American English. A learner’s choice depends more on geography than on his or her taste. This is why more people from Latin America get to learn American English than European students, who usually prefer to further their education closer to their home country, at a UK university.
To be honest and call a spade a spade, since the establishment of English as a global language, national pride in terms of the language spoken has ceased to be a barrier between nations. There is some kind of mutual understanding and tolerance between people which excludes judging each other’s language skills in terms of their English choice. As long as they can communicate fruitfully, everything is accepted. Even the most conservative speakers of British English take much delight in sprinkling their everyday conversation with new ‘imports’ from the States. Speaking strictly of language, G.B. Shaw‘s opinion that ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’ is rather out-of-date. Both Brits and Americans can now ‘digest’ each other’s peculiarities and things are far easier nowadays with the help of hundreds of online dictionaries which the common man or woman can ‘surf to’ whenever they need enlightenment.
An extra meaning of ‘proper English’ among professional translators
Irrespective of the language centre where you studied to become a translator, you must have some knowledge of both main English variants. There are special courses in school which teach you the basic differences between British and American English. You may have considered these classes unnecessary if you already knew which kind of English you were after but, believe it or not, you know more than you would consciously admit to.
The media can influence us a lot in terms of foreign language vocabulary, especially English. Most films we get to watch on terrestrial channels or digital TV are in English – actually in more than the two already mentioned variants of English. Vocabulary acquisition sometimes happens without us making an effort towards that goal. We simply remember certain words that our brain has decided for us to remember and may try hard to assimilate other words which we might consider of utmost importance in the global village we inhabit.
It is a fact that any English translator has a very good idea of what BE vs. Am E means and is quite capable of recognising the spelling, word order, vocabulary peculiarities of either English. Yet, when it comes to business – namely doing work for a client who needs a text translated into English – sensing the difference between the two is not enough. You must be able to do the project to the client’s specifications. Moreover, you must make sure that the client states his preference before you start work. The text must be translated in such a way as to appeal to the very audience or readership that the client intends to grab the attention of or to impress. No text will have maximum impact if the language is wrongly chosen, let alone the confusion that ‘false friends’ or vocabulary differences may create. If, by any chance, the language choice is not mentioned in the general requirements from the client, it is your duty to pose the question and find this last ingredient of ‘proper’ English.