Translating dialects is a monumental challenge for a language professional. Dialects often intersect with languages of different sorts in a linguistic continuum. It is essential to have a firm grasp of what this means for translation.
Let’s take a look at dialects and what we call niche languages (minority languages, indigenous languages, constructed languages) and especially at the work of translators who must work with them.
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This post was updated in June 2021
What is a Dialect?
A dialect’s distinguishing characteristics are its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. When we talk about dialects we may be referring to different types of phenomena.
The first is to talk about a dialect as a characteristic of a group of speakers of a particular language. Dialects in such a situation would be mutually intelligible because they are based primarily on a language which the different groups of speakers share. Some examples of this would be regional dialects or a dialect shared by a particular social class.
The second definition of a dialect is a language that is not quite related to the main language. In other words, it is not a dialect that is born from the language, like in the previous examples, but rather a distinct, independent, but closely related language. In this case, the status of dialect is mostly due to sociopolitical reasons. An example of this is the long list of dialects in the Italian peninsula, which never became the official language of unified Italy.
Accents vs. Dialects
If distinctions with the main language in the area may only be drawn in terms of pronunciation, the term ‘accent’ is used, instead of ‘dialect’. This is the case of Cockney, ‘New Yorkese’ and Yorkshire, amongst many others.
Languages vs. Dialects
What is the difference between a language and a dialect? When are we talking about translating dialects or translating languages? There is no consensus and thus no easy answer.
An important difference is standardization. Languages usually have a standard form, in both the spoken and written forms. Dialects, on the other hand, seldom have a standardized written system.
Perhaps the famous Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, said it best: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” Such a maxim is able to express a key problem in linguistics: the political factors surrounding the definition of what a language is that a dialect is not. What we consider Italian today, for instance, was obviously descended from Latin. But, most importantly, it evolved from a dialect specifically spoken in Florence. Since Florence was such a cultural powerhouse at the time, their dialect was adopted as the language of a unified Italy. In many ways, languages could be considered complex dialects that got lucky.
Examples of Dialects
The Arab world is an interesting example of the relation between a language and different regional variations and the need for using a standard language to avoid translating dialects constantly.
There is, for instance, Moroccan Arabic or Egyptian Arabic. Indeed, there are many versions of Arabic, depending on the country and region. These are considered dialects. There is one, however, lingua franca for the whole Arab world. That is Modern Standard Arabic, the language of Arabic preferred in academia, the media and government communications.
Italy is a country with a surprising history. Its situation is very illuminating of the curious relation between dialects and languages.
Most of the regional languages spoken throughout the Italian peninsula are referred to as dialects. This is surprising, since most of them evolved from Latin independently from each other. What we know as Italian is based on the Florentine dialect of Tuscan.
The use of Italian nationally seems to owe heavily to sociopolitical factors and political convenience. The losing languages, so to speak, are considered dialects or, if their worthy history is taken into account, minority languages (meaning that they are languages but used by a minority of the population).
What is an Indigenous Language?
An indigenous language is a language spoken by indigenous communities in a specific location. Indigenous languages have also been called autochthonous languages, heritage languages, ethnic languages or treasure languages.
Occasionally, an indigenous language may be extensively used and thus become an official language in a country. Such is the case in Bolivia. In many cases though, an indigenous language may slowly succumb to a competing majority language. Such a phenomenon has been described as ‘linguicide’, meaning the killing of a language.
Indigenous languages may disappear for any number of reasons: natural disasters, genocide, communities which age and die or government stipulations designed to implant a different official language.
The United Nations works towards the protection of indigenous languages. It proclaimed 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages’.
Examples of Indigenous Languages
Australia is a fascinating example of indigenous languages. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were around 250 Aboriginal languages, but at the start of the 21st century, there remained less than 150 in use.
There is bilingual education (including English) in certain communities, like in the north-east Arnhem Land, with the Yolnu languages.
What is a Constructed Language?
A constructed language is a language with phonology, grammar, and vocabulary which did not develop naturally but were consciously planned and created.
There are many reasons why a language would be created. Amongst these are: allowing communication between disparate cultures and peoples, providing a work of fiction with more detail and nuance, experimentation, etc.
It is important to note that as soon as a constructed language acquires a community of speakers it will begin to evolve and eventually lose its status as a constructed language.
Examples of Constructed Languages
Bordurian & Syldavian
Fans of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ will remember the countries of Borduria and Syldavia. Located in the Balkans, these two countries have a fierce rivalry with each other as well as their own traditions and languages.
Borduria is essentially a dictatorship, perhaps located in what in real life is Serbia and Bulgaria. The Bordurian language is depicted in small fragments. Experts suggest that it is based on the Dutch Brussels dialect Marols, using the Latin alphabet.
Syldavia, on the other hand, is a monarchy, bordering Borduria. Its language is also apparently based on Marols, though written in Cyrillic. It has a complex grammar, resembling that of certain Central European languages, with a rich assortment of sounds.
Translating Dialects and Niche Languages
Translating dialects and niche languages is a challenge for a professional. There are some essential steps in such a process.
First of all, translators must define exactly what they are dealing with and ask themselves certain questions.
1. Is this a Dialect?
A dialect, as we have seen, is a very specific linguistic phenomenon, often occurring alongside a dominant language. A translator’s work is typically to translate a dialect of a very specific area to the dominant language in the area and vice-versa. Such a situation would happen, for instance, when a person who only speaks Moroccan Arabic dialect, must communicate with medical professionals who know little of such dialect and mostly communicate in Modern Standard Arabic.
2. Is this Simply an Accent?
Occasionally, a translator will be confronted only with an accent, which may perhaps not qualify as a dialect as such. In such cases a translator will often not be needed. Consider the case of a Colombian from the north coast who goes to seek medical treatment in the capital. There are occasions, however, when an accent will be heavier and the use of a translator may be useful. Imagine the case of a Chilean patient in a Mexican hospital. Although communication between such a patient and medical professionals is possible, a translator may help. We must remember, however, that accents are not dialects and it is not quite accurate to be speaking of a Chilean dialect vs. a Mexican dialect in this particular case.
3. Is this an Indigenous Language?
There are native languages in some places which will benefit from a translator. This is the case of many Indigenous languages. In Latin America, for example, some Indigenous languages like Guarani may require the presence of a translator to help with communication to Spanish.
4. Is this a Constructed Language?
Constructed languages are invented languages. Seldom will there be a situation where someone only speaks a constructed language. This could very well be an idea for a mystery-thriller film though!
5. Is this a Minority Language?
Minority languages are basically languages spoken by a minority of the population. Such is the case of Galician or Kurdish. In this case, a translator will be needed, to translate between such a minority language and the official language of the country or region.
Areas of Work
Having ascertained exactly what they are confronted with, professionals translating dialects and niche languages may get to work. There are two basic areas of work which such a professional should master: translation of text and interpretation of speech. A range of skills is needed to achieve success.
To succeed in translating dialects and niche languages some skills are necessary.
- Excellent knowledge of the source language and target language. In this case, someone translating dialects and niche languages will most likely be a person who grew up in the dialect or niche language and acquired the official national language alongside it.
- Familiarity with the subject matter of the translation or interpretation. Medical terminology, for example, is always a tremendous challenge for a translator.
- Broad knowledge of both the culture of the official language and of the niche language or dialect.
- A finely tuned linguistic instinct, which is able to decide when to keep a literal translation or interpretation and when to take the license necessary for less literal precision and more naturalness.
The Problem of Certification
Dialects seldom have certifying entities which attest proficiency. Even niche languages have this problem, except minority languages which are spoken by a solid amount of people in other countries.
What this means is that someone translating dialects and niche languages will probably need to provide proof of experience. Such experience may replace certifications and academic titles in the process of choosing the best translator for a particular job.
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Likewise, training is problematic for a person interested in translating dialects and niche languages. Again, the aspiring translator is confronted with a situation in which there is too little material to learn a dialect or indigenous language.
People who grew up in a certain dialect or niche language often learn the majority language and thus are able to become translators. If someone wants to learn a dialect or niche language, time living in the language is probably the best idea.
Work opportunities are ample for someone who knows the official language and a key dialogue or niche language.
Translators of dialects and niche languages are often employed in the medical world, where patients may need language assistance. Legal proceedings often demand translators who can interpret between an official language and a dialect or niche language.
What is a Dialect and what is a Language?
Perhaps the famous linguist Max Weinreich, said it best: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”
Minority languages, in turn, are just that: languages as such but spoken by a minority population.
Accents: If distinctions with the main language in the area are drawn only in pronunciation, the term ‘accent’ is used, instead of ‘dialect’.
Indigenous languages: An indigenous language is a language spoken by indigenous communities in a specific place.
Constructed languages: A constructed language is a language with a phonology, grammar, and vocabulary which did not develop naturally but were consciously created.
The Translator’s Job: Translating dialects and niche languages is complex. There are several job opportunities and a skill set needed to achieve excellence. The lack of proper certification and training in dialects and niche languages is a recurring situation. Experience is thus a good indicator of proficiency.