I’m from the UK and in English-speaking countries there’s this golden rule that translators should only translate into their native language. This is known as the native speaker principle. In the UK translators are only actually taught to translate out of the foreign language and into their native language – even at Masters level. In Germany the situation is different. Translators regularly translate into and out of their native language and translation degree programmes teach them to do so. In Germany, to a certain extent, there is also an expectation that translators will translate in both directions. There is no option of becoming a court-appointed sworn translator for only one language direction, for example. There are therefore two theories and two co-existing practices and as a British-born translator living and working in Germany I’ve always been fascinated by this situation. When I decided to embark on an MA in Legal Translation back in 2010 I therefore seized the opportunity to research this phenomenon further for my dissertation project.
Without going into too much detail in this post (you will find a more detailed article I published on this subject here, pages 12 and 13), my personal view is that it very much depends on the area in which you specialise and, of course, the purpose of the translation you are producing. A native speaker of the target language will in the vast majority of cases produce the more fluent translation. However, my study revealed that native speakers of the target language sometimes (if they do not have solid knowledge of the subject-area) distort the message of the source text. This can be a huge problem if the translation is for information purposes, the translation reads perfectly fluently and yet the message has not been properly transmitted. If the final user of the translation has no recourse to the original text or does not have the language skills to check, major problems can arise.
So what should I do?
Ultimately I think everyone should make their own decision based on what is right for their own business and their customers and that there should be less sweeping options about what one should and shouldn’t do. As an entrepreneur you will need to work out who your customers are, what they want and need and how you can find your niche within the industry in which you wish to work. We are service providers and if want to be successful we need to provide the services that our customers want and need in a professional manner. However, each and every one of us needs to work out the best way to ensure that we can provide a professional standard of service and in order to do that we all need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. If you can translate into a foreign language to a standard acceptable for your customers, go ahead. If you know that you make the odd stylistic or grammatical error when translating into the foreign language, then perhaps you might decide to work with a proofreader in order to be able to provide an acceptable standard of service to your customers. This wouldn’t necessarily be seen by your customer as a negative. On the contrary, you could use the fact that all translations are worked on by a native speaker of the source language and a native speaker of the target language as a marketing tool. And this isn’t only something which translators translating into the foreign language could consider. On the other hand, if your customer is looking for a translation for information purposes only, perhaps the proofreading will be unnecessary. I think the point here is that, as entrepreneurs, we need to move away from alleged ideals, find out what our customers want and make sure we find a way of giving them exactly that.
However, there are other reasons why we might decide to only translate in one language direction. These will be the topic of tomorrow’s post: Niche and efficiency.