Native-Speaking Translator versus Non-Native Speaker: Who Wins?
In my translation career, I sometimes encounter the question whether I am a native-speaking translator. For your information, I am Dutch and I translate from Dutch into (American) English and from 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.
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. As it had the best grammar, spelling, and structure, he thought this paper was the best one. He thought it was sad that the exchange students were better at English than the American students were. For this, he blamed the American school system; according to him, grammar and spelling did not receive enough attention.
Not the first time I heard that
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/spelling. Why would we then expect native speakers of the English language to excel in English grammar and spelling?
The same question also intrigues other translators
There are translators out there who disagree with me. They claim that you should have a native-speaking translator translate your text. For instance, MVD translations says the following:
“According to the native-speaking translator 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.”
Here, I find it interesting that I feel more comfortable translating into English than into my native language. Consequently, I do not feel convinced. Here is another reason I do not feel convinced. 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!
A more balanced view
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 example of what can happen if the translator is a native speaker of the source language 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. Do keep in mind that 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 which language the translator should be a native speaker of.
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-speaking translator of the target language is not enough.
- 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 the 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.
- Native competency does not equal native or advanced competency in a second language
Another point to consider in hiring a translator is whether the translator 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 high-quality translations.
- 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-speaking translator. Still, 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. What I mean to say is: 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 not being a native-speaking translator?”
What can I do for you regarding translations?
You have written high-quality content for your prospects or clients, and you need that content in more than one language. I would be happy to help you if you are looking for a professional yet affordable translator. I translate from Dutch into English and from English into Dutch. If you need another language combination, do not hesitate to contact me either. I have a big network, so I might still be able to help you. You can contact me by mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by filling out my quotation form in English or in Dutch. Hope to hear from you soon!
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