Often when people find out I majored in Spanish they say something like, "Oh you speak Spanish too? That's so cool. So you usually translate Spanish?" The answer is yes... and no.
A translator's language skills are typically considered to be in large part very high-level foreign language reading and native language writing skills. However, those two elements are not the alpha and omega of being a talented translator. Translators are creative, adaptable, problem-solving linguistic wizards. There is an unspoken requirement for translators to be constant learners; if you are not excited about the research that goes into translating that one obscure term, or the process of finding the perfect equivalent for a traditional saying, and so on, then you are probably not fit for the job.
This is where I come to my general Spanish skills versus my ability to translate from Spanish. I have manage to maintain a decent level of fluency despite having the opportunity to use my skills in person approximately twice a year. Even then, I find my ability to produce language is not that it used to be. I find myself second-guessing, spending time looking up words I already know, and feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of Spanish dialects. I also have not spent nearly enough time living in a Spanish-dominant country. (Yes, you hear Spanish often in the US, but how many people who I do not already know would expect this white-as-snow gringa to actually use it? Not many.) So, while I can confidently read a Spanish text, how much of its context am I really getting? What do I understand of the culture from which it was created? This is why the only translations I have agreed to do from Spanish have been extremely general in content and limited in use. They are letters, emails, and product descriptions. I refuse to do anything too broad or creative, and anything from a dialect I am unfamiliar with, that would require a deeper understanding of the wider culture. Well, for pay at least. It seems that for this calendar year, I have been avoiding paid Spanish-English work entirely. (I have done some work as a volunteer.)
I know that if I had more time (and more money), I could work harder on maintaining my Spanish skills. If I have time, I will continue the translation program I began a few years back that worked from Spanish texts. After nearly a decade in Korea, I know how important it is to be immersed. In the language, yes, but also in its culture. There are intricacies to language that are hard to detect, and even harder to define if not given plenty of context. There is space as well to keep Spanish as a language that I use and enjoy without forcing it into a professional context. For now, I am happy to be able to read Spanish-language literature and watch Mexican soap operas. I am content with being the kind of person my friends can speak their native language with, even if for now I mix Korean and English in with my responses.
On the contrary, I have come to realize that my former B language is not the only language in trouble. Even my native language, English, has gotten rusty. Many of us feel this when we look back at old college essays. Not using language causes it to fall back into the recesses of memory, making it harder to do tasks such as writing at an expert level. When I am translating general documents, the English I need to use is a breeze. It gets harder when I am doing academic abstracts or literary style writing.
How do I solve this problem as a translator? I simply spend a lot of time reading! I cater to my interests as this is the best way to develop great translation skills. I read fiction, academic journals, book reviews, translation theory, and beauty blogs. I read the labels of my favorite wines, the back of my L'Oréal shampoo, the Starbucks nutrition information, and anything else that seems interesting. I do not read constantly only because it's fun. I read because it is my duty to produce the best translations that I can, whether I am being paid or simply doing hobby projects for this blog. The best way to improve is to practice, study, and never give up.