The linguistics of parenting

The linguistics of parenting

In truth, every parent is inherently a translator. Even those who have nothing to do with the language industry. I’ll tell you why: as soon as the baby performs that first kick inside the womb, a parent starts to translate all the cues and signals the baby gives. The parent starts to learn what the infant’s grimaces and excited gestures mean, how to recognize hunger cues, and what on earth the words invented by the child at the start of their speech development might mean. It is quite a challenge sometimes! They are linguistic enigmas! It might be worth considering adding “Baby-English” as an additional language pair to your LinkedIn profile (obviously, you can replace English with any human language spoken by grown-ups here).

And then there is us: those who translate more than infant cues, I mean who translate in a more conventional language pair during their working hours. (Does the term “working hours” even make sense in a freelance translator context?) Because there is a point in the life of the language professional when they become able to let translation jobs enter the time gaps between child rearing and parenting tasks. You could easily feel trapped in a Pomodoro Technique loop, though. It would be really nice to work longer at one sitting, but frankly, with an in-house baby or toddler, we probably pray for 20 or 25 straight minutes of focused work. When it’s over, a small human is definitely going to distract us for (at least!) 5 or 10 minutes by chatting, with drawings and towers of bricks, or just child needs in general. Maybe it just seems much more productive if we label it as Pomodoro Technique. Or it becomes more acceptable as it has a fancy name and hype, and others do it voluntarily. There’s also a chance that it feels like a proper failure, and we end up giving undivided attention to minors during the day, and undivided attention to the translatables during the night. Has anyone ever tried to register with LSPs as someone living in a totally different time zone?

Busy father working laptop

What is the benefit of being a parent AND a translator? The superpower of being flexible and resilient. Yes, it sounds a bit corny. But have you ever considered the similarities of a linguistic project and an ordinary day with a toddler? Just like raising a toddler, preparing a translation also has its tried and tested procedures. On an average day/in the case of an average project, we just follow our proven routines, and we thrive. But when an unexpected thing happens/there is a challenging text to translate, everything gets messed up… In a situation like this, we turn to creativity, apply new solutions, or do some research, even improvise. Still no resolution? We just sit down on the floor, cuddle the kid, and hold the space for them. Later we might call a friend or a counsellor to vent. When we are in a translation project, and all hope seems lost, why not sit on the floor and spend some time there in desperation? But sooner rather than later it’s a good thing to call someone, message a translator community, or the PM to discuss the issue and ask for assistance. In no time, this problem-solving procedure becomes second nature – life is evidently a rollercoaster.

As our kids grow, we can master interesting new fields of specialization. As a concerned mom or dad, after spending several hours thoroughly reading (and in multiple languages) the current literature on infant feeding, childhood diseases, responsive parenting, or night-time (not) sleeping, we suddenly recognize that we have learnt a decent amount of new terminology. We are familiar with the latest trends and terms. We are well aware that formula is not for Maths, and that it is not only websites that are responsive. We know the characters’ names in the popular cartoons, and in our next audiovisual project we recall them flawlessly and with ease. At the same time, we add new specializations to our portfolio. Later, we enter the era of contemporary pop culture, and gain insights into such niches the existence of which we would be otherwise totally unaware of if we didn’t have kids. Really cool parent-translators attempt to learn the anglicisms of current teenage slang… then translate subtitles full of slang, and recklessly show the outcome to the “local” target audience to test it. This might easily be the point when that adolescent quite unexpectedly laughs in our faces, and returns to their room for another half day with a pitiful shake of their head.

Still, chances are you realize that, along the way, you have become accustomed to this lifestyle and fond of it. If you are a freelancer, you spend an extremely high amount of time around your kids. You bump into each other quite often during the day, and your life together is built of small episodes and interactions like mosaic pieces.

Adult work personal life

And then there comes a day when you do your best to make excuses to your child, who is just learning to read and write, and seems horrified by the fact that your job is nothing but reading and writing. Even their homework exhausts them, and there you go: you are obliged to do this all day… You would really like them to realize the beauty and joy of your profession, but they are not yet ready for this. As the years go by, all they see is your odd muttering with indignation during family movies nights (subtitled or dubbed movie, it makes no difference). OK, sometimes you make small jubilant noises, too. They aren’t even surprised by you searching for words like they were an odd sock. As your kids grow, and become tech-savvy, you might try to impress them by telling them about your industry having fancy job titles like “language engineer”. But, at that moment, they are not impressed. Still, this whole linguist thing gets under their skin: terms like segment or “weighted word count” do not raise an eyebrow, they know a good deal of idioms (direct benefit of your muttering with indignation, right?). And they are aware that if they see a description that is hard to understand, it is possible that it’s not due to their lack of comprehension. It might easily be a mistranslation.

Finally, there is a difference that fundamentally separates parenting and translation. Let’s take translation: a huge amount of work is involved in the birth of a target language text, and the fear of delivery is overwhelming. Then the text is “born”, and we let it go. Quite naturally, sometimes we might be provided some insight into its “life” after us (say hello to proofreader’s feedback, LQAs and reviewer’s notes…), but texts basically do “leave the nest” early. When a child is about to be born, the notion of birth is equally (or even more) frightening. But indeed, the real fun starts after delivery.

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