Should I only translate into my native language?

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.

16 thoughts on “Should I only translate into my native language?

  1. Great points on a topic that’s not often addressed without prejudice. I have struggled with this question myself in the past. I grew up in Germany with German parents but went to college in the USA, studying journalism and marketing while working as a newspaper reporter/writer. Most of my adult writing was in English, and all of my professional knowledge in the area I specialize in (marketing/PR/journalism) has been acquired in English. I live in the USA, speak 95% English every day, think in English, dream in English – it doesn’t make sense to me to say I shouldn’t translate into English just because I am not a native English speaker. Personally, I have not noticed that it is easier one way or the other, whether I translate into English or German. Therefore, I stand by my decision to translate in both directions, and so far, my clients in both countries have been very satisfied.

    • Thanks for your comment! It is definitely a decision every one of us has to take on a very individual basis. We all have very different backgrounds, experience and skills which means that norms and sweeping generalisations really don’t work. And people trying to apply them just show their ignorance! People need to decide for themselves and stick to their guns just like you are doing!

    • Well, in your case you’ve obviously reached the level where English is no longer foreign to you :). You are effectively bilingual. Therefore the question raised in Karen’s post isn’t really applicable to you. But then it also confirms the point that Karen makes below, i.e. that the whole native speaker principle is just too general by definition. If “native” is to be understood as “first language only”, then it’s controversial at best or, at worst, discriminatory as it then appears to totally disregard the notion of “native-like competence”.

  2. If only native English speakers were allowed to translate from foreign languages to English, almost nothing would be translated given that 99% of them are fluent in only one language.
    When it comes to English, translation by us non-native speakers of the language is simply a necessity.
    That’s just how it is.

    • I agree with you there. The lack of native English speakers fluent in (or even with basic knowledge) of a foreign language is declining further and further. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future. I heard that the EU has had to relax its rules for English native speaking candidates applying to work as translators at the EU. They used to have to be able to translate from a minimum of two other EU languages into English, now they are accepting one.

  3. I understood your use of “native” as meaning “native-level.” That would “allow” bilingual individuals like the first commenter to translate to English. However, what about everyone else who speaks English at a lower level? In my opinion (and yours, if my assumption was correct!) they can still be effective translators.

    I’m curious what you think might be the reason why native speakers are more likely to distort the meaning of what they’re translating. I wonder if non-native speakers are more careful with their choice of phrasing in English, which might more than make up for a slight lack of fluency.

    • I’m not really thinking about choice of phrasing but more the depth of understanding of complex source texts, like those in my specialist field which is law. I think often, particularly in English-speaking countries, the fact that the translator should be a native speaker of the target language means that other criteria are completely ignored. Is a translator who is a native speaker of the target language but has no background in law or experience translating legal texts really the best choice for a translation of a complex legal document? No. Of course ideally the translator would be a native speaker of the target language, a near-native speaker of the source language and have all the relevant subject-field knowledge but in practice this is often simply asking too much. So if you had to choose, would you go with a native speaker of the target language who doesn’t really understand the subject-matter or with a native speaker of the source language, who is an expert in his/her subject-field but who may make a few fluency errors because English is not his/her native language?

    • At this point it may be useful for us to remember that we are talking about translation, i.e. writing in other languages. Speaking languages has nothing to do with translation or translation skills.

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    • Yes. Make sure that you ensure that the quality of the translation you can provide fits with the client’s needs and the purpose of the translation. If a perfectly fluent native-speaker standard translation is required, make sure you have a network of colleagues who are happy to proofread for you and don’t forget to factor this additional expense into your quote.
      Also, make sure you point out the advantages of you translating out of your native language to the client. If you are an expert in the subject field, for instance, then this might be more important to the client than you being a native speaker of the target language.

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  7. I find it rather amusing that the vast majority of people who are against the “golden rule” are non-natives. The way I look at it is that if the translator has “near-native” bilingual competence there shouldn’t be any problem translating into an L2, as long as they have the support of someone equally competent (and native) to proofread and check the translation.

    However, I am active on several language and translation-related websites, and I draw the line at helping inferior non-native translators trying to tackle texts which I see as falling within my remit. In other words, although I’ve lived in my source language country for almost 3 decades and can write pretty well in that language, I would never dream of trying to translate important texts, for example legal or medical, into anything but my own native English. I’m not even keen on doing US English, although I can at a pinch, and even then usually with someone from the US to check my work.

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