The importance of translation cannot be overstated. Many people mistakenly think that translation is only important when communication occurs across international boundaries, but this is not the case. Of course, translation is important for international communication, but multilingualism is part of the make-up of many individual countries these days.
Of course, the existence of more than one language in a single country is nothing new. Countries have often been created through a natural process of the federation, or through conquest or colonial occupation. Many national borders are artificial. The fact that there are communities within those borders that speak different languages may have been of little consequence when the borders were created.
Here are a Few Examples of Multilingualism.
- Papua New Guinea (PNG) is probably an extreme example of multilingualism. As a country, it has only really been in existence for 40 years. Until the present landmass and islands were occupied firstly by the British and Germans, later by Australians, it was made up by hundreds of different communities, each of which was defined by a separate language. The pidgin English term for ‘relative’ in PNG is wantok, literally ‘one talk.’
There are thought to be over 700 different languages within the current national boundaries of PNG. There are three official languages: English, Tok Pisin (Pidgin English) and Motu, itself an original lingua franca used in the region around Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. In addition to these three languages, all primary-school-age children receive their first 2 to 3 years education in their own ples tok, their own native language. It doesn’t take too much imagination to consider that modern PNG relies on extensive translation as it is simply impossible for every PNG citizen to learn 700 different languages!
- Switzerland is typical of a nation-state that has had a successful history of embracing multilingualism for a very long time. There are three official languages in Switzerland: German, French and Italian, although Romansch, spoken in the canton of Graubünden, is also a national language. Swiss-German is actually the most widely spoken language, but generally, most people know their own language best and there has been a more recent tendency for English to be a language of communication between Swiss who speak different languages rather than one of the other four languages. Translators are an absolute necessity in Switzerland to ensure that all Swiss are kept informed and educated equally.
- The U.S.A. is typical of many affluent western nations that have absorbed huge numbers of migrants from all around the world. The majority of these migrants have arrived because of economic disadvantage within their own native country and the possibility of becoming wealthier in their adopted nation. In addition, there have been waves of migrants who have fled their own native country because of war, political persecution and religious intolerance and have been accepted as refugees. To absorb and accommodate all these new arrivals there is a huge demand for translation services. In the U.S., Spanish has become such an important language in those places where Latin American migrants have settled that it is practically the most important languages there. While at one time, it might have been expected that migrants assimilate and learn to use the official language (in the case of the U.S., English of course), it can fairly be said that this country has become a truly multilingual nation.
This article has stressed the importance of translation and translators not just in providing effective communication across international borders, but addressing the varied existence of multilingualism within national borders, whether they exist through a historical anomaly as is the case with Switzerland, colonialism as with PNG or recent migration as is the case with the U.S.