This ‘Translation into’ blog is written by Carolina, giving a non-native English speaker’s perspective on translation into English.
I was only 6 years old when I started learning English. My first memories of English involve learning about colours, and numbers, and playing “Simon says”, and singing songs about food. Of course that, as a true 90’s gal, I also remember listening to the Spice Girls non-stop. 6 year old me was sure Mel B rapped something along the lines of “so ter mi warawa, wara rili rili wa”. At least I got the “zig-a-zig-ah” part right. My friend Marta went one step further and swore she could hold a whole conversation in English with her older brother. She couldn’t. But that’s how important English was to her.
To me, it was only when I was about 12 that English started to be interesting and, much to my surprise, I discovered that I hadn’t been singing the right lyrics to a lot of songs! My, oh my, was I proud of myself a few years later when I was able to make some sense of Alex Turner’s accent and hasty lyrics.
But apart from school and songs, movies and TV shows were also a pretty big source of English. In fact, my translations into English began while watching TV. Since we use subtitles in Portugal, I’d often read them before the actors said their lines and tried to guess what they were going to say based only on the subtitles. Yup, I’m a geek.
This is to say that English has been part of my daily life for quite some time. And most of my friends’ lives, and the lives of a countless number of people from around the world. English has now more non-native than native speakers, at a ratio of 3 to 1 according to David Crystal. And this was in 2003 so it’s likely the difference has increased even further by now.
English can be traced back to Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, when Germanic invaders and settlers overtook the Celts and their languages. It developed into Old English with influences from Old Norse, especially in the northern and eastern parts of England, due to the Scandinavian invasions (Vikings fans anywhere?). It even used their runic alphabet, the futhorc, until the 9th century.
Another invasion (the Norman Conquest) made Anglo-Norman and French the languages of the court and government. Their influences resulted in Middle English, which was spoken by the common people but was still very different from the language we know today.
English began making its way into government and court, and by the 15th century it was the official language for all documents. Modern English came about around this time, with the Great Vowel Shift introducing major pronunciation changes, and the rapid dissemination of the press allowing the standardisation of the language.
After all the invasions they’d been subject to, I guess the British decided it was their turn to be in control, thus beginning the British Empire. At its height, it covered one quarter of the Earth’s surface, commencing the use of English as a lingua franca in many areas. More recently, the rise of the USA as a superpower after the Second World War played an enormous role on the dissemination of English. It remains the main language for commerce, science, diplomacy, technology, and many other fields, it is the official language for all sky and maritime communications around the world, and one of the two languages (together with Russian) spoken in the International Space Station.
Influence from other languages
Having into account all the languages it was subject to during its earlier stages, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of English words are actually borrowed from other languages, with Latin, French and Germanic languages, such as Old Norse or German, being the main contributors. Interestingly, it is estimated that only about 20% to 33% of words are native to English (i.e., derived from Old English). Words as common as husband, cake, joy, average and music all derive from other languages. Today, however, English tends to be more a lender than a borrower, exporting words such as computer, business or internet. Still, a new word is added to the dictionary every two hours!
Nowadays, I can say I’m a full time Portuguese into English translator and interpreter, even if it’s only of my own thoughts. After all these years of learning English, I still mishear lyrics. Though most times I choose to believe the writers failed to choose the best alternative. By the way, someone should tell The Eurythmics that sweet dreams are made of cheese.