Native-Speaking Translator versus Non-Native Speaker: Who Wins?

Native-Speaking Translator versus Non-Native Speaker: Who Wins?

In my translation career, I sometimes encounter the question whether I am a native speaker. For your information, I am Dutch and I translate Dutch into (American) English and English into Dutch. Most of my clients are from The Netherlands and Belgium. In my situation, this question is generally asked by a Dutch person looking for a translation from Dutch into English. This way, they want to determine whether my English is good enough.

‘Native-Speaking Translator versus Non-Native Speaker: Who Wins?’ Are you a native speaker? This question intrigues me. In this blog, I review whether it is important to have a native-speaking translator translate your text. I conclude that it is not a requirement for a good translation. Read the blog at

Are you a native speaker?

The question intrigues me.  It always takes me back to a moment in 2005. I was an exchange student at NAU in Flagstaff, Arizona (in The United States). At the beginning of one of my Humanities classes, the teacher walked up to me with my last week’s paper. He told me he was impressed: this paper was the best one, as it had the best grammar, spelling, and structure. He thought it was sad that the exchange students were better at English than the American students were. He blamed the American school system; according to him, grammar and spelling did not receive enough attention.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I heard that. Other exchange students, who visited the States before me, had told me the exact same thing. At primary school, I had English lessons for two years, and another six years at high school. After that, the professors of the American Studies department at the University of Groningen drilled us for four years. Most American native speakers do not get such education in their language. The word got around quickly, and before I knew it, I was checking all my friends’ papers…

There is another reason why this question intrigues me. In The Netherlands, we know that much of the Dutch we see in the (online) media and advertisement is poor. Those texts are written by people who are supposed to know how to write good texts! It is no wonder that the Facebook page Taalvoutjes, which shows funny grammar and spelling mistakes in Dutch, has over 409,000 likes. We all seem to agree on the fact that Dutch native speakers do not necessarily excel in Dutch grammar and spelling. Why would we then expect that native speakers of the English language do excel in English grammar and spelling?

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The same question also intrigues other translators

Regardless of my experiences described above, there are translators out there, who claim that you should have a native speaker translating your text. For instance, MVD translations says the following:

“According to the native speaker principle, people not only have a larger vocabulary and a better intuition about syntax in their native language, but they also have a greater feel for subtle nuance and stylistic differences. This means that a native speaker generally writes better texts in his or her own language than someone who has learned the same language later on in life. […]Translators are no exception to this principle, and consequently are best at translating into their own native language. For native speaker quality, an accomplished non-native translator can have his or her translations corrected by a native translator with good text revision skills.”

What I find interesting about this is the fact that I feel more comfortable translating into English than into my native language, due to my American Studies training. Consequently, I do not feel convinced. Another reason I do not feel convinced is that this principle assumes that the source texts are written perfectly, because the native-speaking writers have “a greater feel for subtle nuance and stylistic differences” themselves. Oh, how I wish that were always the case!

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CityTranslations describes a more balanced view:

“As a rule, your translator should be a native speaker of the target language (the language you are having the document translated into). This is because it is much easier to write grammatically correct sentences that mean what you meant them to mean in your native language.

Have you ever read a manual where the sentences did not quite make sense? This is an examples of what can happen if the translator is a native speaker of the source language (the language of the original document) rather than of the target language. It can get even worse, when the translator is not a native speaker of either language.

However, not all non-native speakers write foreign languages that badly. Some write them extremely well, especially if they have lived in the country for years (although number of years in a country is no guarantee of native-like language abilities). If they are a native speaker of the source language, you will also have the advantage that they will have understood the source document as a native speaker.”

They then offer an image with rules for choosing of which language the translator should be a native speaker.

Hiring someone just because he or she is a native speaker is not enough

Accessible Translation Solutions offers three reasons why hiring someone to translate a text simply because he or she is a native speaker of the target language is not enough.

  1. Specialized terminology is a learned skill, not native intuition

Consider your own native language. No matter what language you call your first, surely you are not familiar with advanced terminology in all categories of texts one might ask you to translate. If you studied medicine, you probably are not as familiar with terminology related to automobiles. If you are an accountant for a living, you probably cannot spout off terms related to construction. Although we are all native speakers of some language, it does not make us experts or qualified to translate texts in any field from our second language into our native language.

  1. Native competency does not equal native or advanced competency in a second language

Another point to consider in hiring a translator or a translation agency is whether the translator in question has advanced competency in the language of the source text. Advanced language skills and expertise in both the source and the target language are vital to quality translation.

  1. Native fluency means different things to different people

What criteria determine one’s native fluency in a language? Is it simply that one was born in an area where the language is spoken commonly or officially? If so, what about someone who was born in Guatemala and spoke Spanish until age 6, moved to the United States and has spoken mostly English ever since? Chances are that this person has a more advanced knowledge of English than of Spanish as an adult.

Native-speaking translator versus non-native speaker: there really is no winner

It sure does come in handy when your translator is a native speaker in the language into which you wish to have your text translated, but I do not think it is a requirement. How well you translate also depends on your educational background, the places/countries you have lived, your experiences and your talents. Patent Translator says it well when stating that “some native speakers are excellent translators, and some are not. Most non-native speakers cannot translate into their non-native language, but some can do it very well.

He/she even takes it one step further: “It really is much more fun to translate from one foreign language into another foreign language rather than into your native language only. I mean, if all you can do is translate from one language into your native language, and mostly only in one or a few fields, where is the challenge in that? I wish I could ask Saint Jerome how he feels about this issue. I have a feeling he might agree with me. He spent decades translating from several foreign languages into another foreign language. Moreover, he kept doing it well into his eighties. Could it be that one of the things that kept him going in such a challenging job for so many decades was that he enjoyed the challenge of being a non-native translator?”

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