Translation as a career
Translation as a career

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Translation as a career

3.1 Your language proficiency

In order to be a translator, you have to be highly proficient in two languages: the language you translate from, and the language you translate to. Usually, translators translate into their main language, and the language they translate from is their foreign language. But what sort of level of language proficiency do you need in order to be a translator? For The Open University MA in Translation, we recommend that students have a level C1 in one of their languages, and C2 in the other.

These levels are mapped out in the CERF, the Common European Framework for Reference, a document that was produced by language experts at the Language Policy Unit of the Council of Europe to provide a ‘transparent, coherent and comprehensive’ framework for those working in language teaching and learning, and to also provide a common way to describe language proficiency. Although it was originally developed for the European context, versions of the framework have been created in 40 languages, including, for instance, non-European languages such as Chinese and Arabic.

So what do levels C1 and C2 mean?

In the language proficiency scales, the CEFR describes six levels of language proficiency: A1 and A2, B1 and B2, C1 and C2. The A levels indicate basic proficiency, the B levels describe independent users, and the C levels correspond to a proficient user.

The six proficiency levels can be summarised as follows:

Table 1 Common Reference Levels, Global scale

Proficient UserC2Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.
C1Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
Independent UserB2Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
B1Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics, which are familiar, or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Basic UserA2Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
A1Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
(CEFR, 2002, p. 5)

You will notice that at the lower levels, the learner has to be able to communicate in familiar, everyday settings and routine context. As a learner moves up the scale and becomes more proficient, they also become more able to communicate in a variety of contexts, so that at level C they can communicate in a wide variety of social, academic and professional contexts.

Activity 3

As a learner progresses through the different levels of proficiency, they acquire more complex grammar and vocabulary. But what other elements do you think make up language proficiency? Make a note of the different areas you can think of before revealing the comment below.

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You might have suggested things like pronunciation and fluency, writing skills, or the ability to read texts of increasing variety, difficulty, and length.

Lexical, phonological and syntactical knowledge and skills are probably the first thing most people think of when they think of language competence, and they all relate to linguistic competence. However, sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence are also integral parts of communicative language competence. The CEFR defines them as follows:

Sociolinguistic competences refer to the sociocultural conditions of language use. Through its sensitivity to social conventions (rules of politeness, norms governing relations between generations, sexes, classes and social groups, linguistic codification of certain fundamental rituals in the functioning of a community), the sociolinguistic component strictly affects all language communication between representatives of different cultures, even though participants may often be unaware of its influence.

Pragmatic competences are concerned with the functional use of linguistic resources (production of language functions, speech acts), drawing on scenarios or scripts of interactional exchanges. It also concerns the mastery of discourse, cohesion and coherence, the identification of text types and forms, irony, and parody. For this component even more than the linguistic component, it is hardly necessary to stress the major impact of interactions and cultural environments in which such abilities are constructed.

(CEFR, 2002, p. 13)

A highly developed linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence, both in their first and second languages, are essential for translators. It is true, however, that translators usually translate from their second (or ‘passive’) language into their main (or ‘active’) language, so they will not have the same level of proficiency in all skills in both languages.


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