When I meet people who don’t work in translation & interpretation and tell them that I am a translator, they tend to make one of two assumptions. Either A: they think I’m an interpreter or B: they assume I speak several languages. As for the latter, when I tell them, “Actually, no. Just English and Spanish,” they usually seem disappointed.

What can I say? English and Spanish have kept me busy. Sure, I would love to be able to speak more than just two languages. I studied French briefly in high school and university and would consider myself at an “intermediate” level (whatever that means). Still, I am not nearly as comfortable with nor confident in my French skills as I am my English and Spanish skills. I would like to maybe one day improve upon my French to reach a point where it could be one of my working languages along with Spanish and English. But that won’t be for a long time if and when that happens.

Although by now this whole “polyglot” trend seems to have come and gone, I think there is something to be said about sticking to learning just one foreign language at a time. Heck, I am still learning new Spanish words every day as a thirty-year-old man who works as a translator and has been studying Spanish (formally and informally) over the past twenty years. 

Speaking from my own personal experience, there are simply not enough hours in the day to pursue mastering a third language. Sure, I am very passionate about language in general and learning about different cultures. But I have other interests outside of language as well. And while this may be an unpopular opinion (especially on the Internet), I would consider myself a Duolingo naysayer. There are much more effective ways of learning a foreign language than looking at a cartoon green owl on your phone, most of which involve a significant financial commitment. Such as pursuing more formal education or embarking upon international travel.

Not to stir the pot or create unneeded drama or controversy, but, from my perspective, I would rather be excellent in two languages than “good enough” in three or more languages. Which is likely what would happen were I to start seriously studying French. I am confident that, at this point in my life and my career, were I to do that, it would take away from my Spanish skills, which I have already worked so hard on and am still building to this day.

However, as a disclaimer, this blog post is not meant to undermine the merit or skills of those in the profession who do work in more than two languages. In fact, to be an interpreter for the UN, a linguist must possess an extremely high-level proficiency in at least three of the six UN official languages. I get the feeling (although I don’t have any evidence) that many of these linguists had the advantage of having grown up in a multilingual house, which wasn’t the case for me. But outside of this environment, there are not many situations which call for someone who needs to be fluent in more than two languages that couldn't be better handled by hiring an additional linguist for each language. Especially since we are talking translation, not interpretation.

So no. A translator does not need to speak more than two languages. In fact, and again, not to create any controversy or drama, I would be wary of working with a translator who claims to work in an absurd amount of languages, especially if they are languages from distant and/or unrelated language families. Languages, generally speaking, are incredibly complex and take years upon years to become even slightly proficient in, especially when we take culture into consideration. While there is a James Bond movie titled The World is Not Enough, I would argue that the opposite is true. I would argue that each language occupies its own world (with overlap, of course, which is where we as translators enter the picture), and that trying to explore multiple worlds at a time is inadvisable.