Friday, July 31, 2009


In interpreting, directionality means whether the translation is done from a first language to a second language (from an A language to a B language, in interpreters’ jargon) or vice versa.

I have just received a lengthy, well-designed survey questionnaire addressed to Professional Expert Conference Interpreters and seeking their views and feelings about directionality. There are English, French, German and Spanish versions. It comes from Jan-Hendrik Opdenhoff of the GRETI research group at the University of Granada, Spain. If you would like to participate, contact Jan-Hendrik at

The survey in itself doesn’t concern us here, but it reminded me that there is directionality in Natural Translation. When I declared, following Ludskanov, that all bilinguals can translate, I didn’t think to add “in both directions”, but I could have. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that natural translators translate with the same results, or even in the same manner, in both directions. Research needed, but most likely their target language production will be affected by whether they are completely ‘balanced’ bilinguals, that is to say with equal proficiency in both their languages. Their understanding of the source discourse may likewise be affected. Yet I believe it must be quite exceptional to find someone who can translate in one direction and not at all in the other direction.

Nevertheless, I heard such an exception described in the early 1990s by Michel Paradis, an expert on bilingual aphasia and more recently author of the book A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. The aphasic patient in the case study was a nursing nun treated in Paris but born and living in Morocco. She spoke French at home and with colleagues but had learnt Arabic at work and with patients. (Morocco is a thoroughly bilingual country.) She was suffering from antagonistic bilingual aphasia. That is to say, on one day she could speak French but could not find the simplest words of Arabic to express herself although she could understand it; and yet on the following day she would be able to speak Arabic without much difficulty but could no longer speak French. In addition, she exhibited paradoxical translation behaviour (Paradis’ term for it), which took the form that on days she could speak French but could not spontaneously speak Arabic she could nonetheless translate from French to Arabic, even utterances involving complex structural differences between the two languages. And to make the phenomenon even more complex and surprising, she could not translate the other way from Arabic to French. On days she could not speak French, the paradoxical translation phenomenon would be reversed – in other words, she could only translate into her deficient language!

Paradis also described similar cases involving other language pairs (French and English, Farsi and German) and in other countries (Canada, etc.), so the phenomenon may be rare but it's widespread. How is it possible to have these different patterns? They raise questions about the mechanisms for translation in the brain, over and above the preliminary question of whether representation, processing and storage of language differ in bilinguals from in unilinguals. About these things we still know tantalisingly little – or rather, in the case of translation, virtually nothing.

The paradoxical translation described by Paradis was pathological; but then natural translation, like all things natural, is foredoomed to have pathologies.

(Source: Michel Paradis, 'Two languages in one brain: neurolinguistic aspects of bilingualism', lecture at the University of Ottawa, Canada, 18 January 1991.)


  1. I am bilingual myself and can translate fairly well both ways. The exceptional case of the nun was very interesting to read about. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for writing. Glad you enjoyed reading it. The case of the nun remains puzzling.