The Myth of the Native Language Translator and Why the Native Speaker Principle is Irrelevant to Real Translators

One of the lessons I had pounded in my head while getting a degree in Spanish Translation was that “translators only translate into their native language.”

I had two main teachers who ran the translation degree program and they both harped on this native speaker principle.

You know what it is even if you’ve never heard it referred to as that principle.

Basically, the idea is that you are never going to be as fluent in your second language as you are in your native language.

Translators have taken that a step further and decided if that’s the case, then “real” translators should never ever ever translate into their second language since it’s not as good as the native language.

Well, needless to say, both of my college instructors were wrong.

Translators should not be shamed into thinking that they can only translate into their native language.

Here’s why.

Translation is Not Black and White

I’ve never heard advocates of the Native Speaker Principle fudge around with the idea that different types of translations could call for different approaches, including translating into your non-native language.

With these advocates it’s usually an all-or-nothing approach, meaning you never should even dare translate into your second (or third) language.

The thing is, translators know that translations aren’t static. Every translation is not the same.

Some translations could lend themselves very well to be translated into a non-mother tongue, while other types of translations might not get that treatment.

And the kicker is that it completely depends on the translator.

The translation, language, and writing skills of each translator are different.

The life experiences of each translator are completely unique.

These are the characteristics that define a translator’s competency, so making a blanket statement about all translators, especially in regards to the Native Speaker Principle, is completely wrong.

Let me provide an example.

A few years ago I was asked to do a translation from English to Spanish. The client was a timber logging company who needed equipment manuals translated into Spanish.

I took one look at the English-language files and immediately knew that there was no way I could adequately translate the material.

I had no background in logging or the type of logging equipment that was being used.

I quickly responded voicing my concerns and passed on that opportunity.

Fast forward a few weeks and I receive an email from a county library in upstate New York. The staff at the library was interested in having a bunch of pages on their website translated into Spanish, once again not my native language.

Could I do it?

I took a look at the materials they provided and, going against my professors (aghast!) counsel, I accepted the job, which turned out to be an ongoing relationship that both sides were completely happy with.

Why the change?

Because I knew about library systems and corresponding website terminology. I had worked in a library for over a year. I had been building websites (both in English and Spanish) for the past six months.

In short, I knew the material and I knew I could translate it.

So I took the job.

Remember, translations aren’t static. Translator’s aren’t either.

Which brings me to my next point. . .

The Idea of “Mother Tongue” and “Native Language” Isn’t True

Translators pushing the native language principle in translation have obviously not spent much time with language learners who’ve grown up learning two or more languages from birth.

Guess what?

This is common, especially in Europe. The girl I went to prom with in high school was from Finland. She spoke three languages all equally well. On top of that, she spoke English better than 95% of the kids at the high school.

Same with the foreign exchange student we hosted from Sweden (although his English wasn’t quite as good).

And these aren’t just isolated cases.

There are plenty of instances where translators don’t have a single native language or mother tongue.

Why?

Because they grew up speaking two or more languages equally.

If someone grew up speaking two languages equally and became a translator capable of translating into both languages equally, should he be forced to pick which combination is going to be the native/non-native one?

I don’t think so.

Even ATA recognizes this possibility by allowing translators to certify in both directions.

Professional Translators Want to Make Money

OK, last point before we leave the topic outside on a trash heap.

Translators. . .

Wait, let me correct that.

Professional translators want to make money.

We’re in the business of providing a value-added service to a customer in return for some dinero.

We’ve got dreams along with everyone else and many of those dreams aren’t going to become reality until we have to money to facilitate them.

Because of that, most professional translators I know will take a good hard look at a translation job regardless of the language direction.

As an English/Spanish translator, I will entertain any adequate offer for translation services regardless of whether the client needs the job done from English into Spanish or from Spanish into English.

Why?

I want the business (if it’s a good client) and know that I can do most types of translations going either way.

As I mentioned above, there are always going to be jobs you don’t feel qualified for. That’s OK. In those instances you just inform the client that you can’t take on the job.

If you don’t want to admit your inadequacies, tell the client that your plate is already full and that you don’t have time.

But at least take a look at the job.

Don’t automatically assume that because you grew up speaking English that you’ll never be good enough to translate from English into another language.

This is false.

It does take work.

But it can be done and it is done by translators all over the world every single day.

What do you think?

Who’s crazy here? Me? My professors?

Tell me below.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Native Language Translator and Why the Native Speaker Principle is Irrelevant to Real Translators”

  1. Pingback: The Myth of the Native Language Translator and ...

  2. Christian Esquivel

    Hi Clint,

    Great article. I agree 100% with you on this specific topic. It’s just like my very own case as Spanish is my “native language” because I was born in Colombia and have spent most of my life in Colombia, and my country is by no means bilingual. Nevertheless, I spent three years in the US at a very young age (2-5) and when I came back to Colombia my English was way better than my Spanish. I also attended a great bilingual school in my country, which really was 100% bilingual as my teachers were all 100% bilingual as well, some were Colombian but most were from the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, Ireland and the UK. I’ve been always interested in the correct use of languages, both for English and Spanish, and I went to a great university in my city and took the Law and Politics program but I had to leave my studies during my 3rd year due to financial issues so I took a job as an English teacher with ELS Language Centers. I continued working as an English teacher and got certified in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) with a special program with the University of Maryland – Baltimore County and a local prestigious learning center. After a few years of teaching, I became engaged in teaching for pharmaceutical companies through such institutions were I had to teach highly-technical medical and pharmaceutical terminology based on artticles about ongoing research and novelty medications. My passion for laws has always been there as well so I love reading about it and I always end up drafting up all types of agreements and legal documentation for my family, friends, co-workers and even employers. In 2009, I was offered a job as a translator and had to take some tests and I got the job. I spent three and a half years working there and translating all kinds of documents from English to Spanish and viceversa which were mainly about general fields and occassional divorce proceedings, lawsuits, agreements, and the like. In 2010, we landed one of our largest clients which was a pharmaceutical company and I ended up translating a lot of medical literature and adverse reaction reports for novelty drugs on a daily basis. I resigned in 2013, and now I have been working as a freelancer for over 4 years and the legal, medical and pharmaceutical fields have become my areas of expertise. I have clients in Colombia, Europe and North America, and I translate both into Spanish and into English in these specialties. I have never received a complaint regarding quality and while some people have questioned my ability to translate into English because it is not my “native language” I have proven them wrong. This is a great article. I wish many more people read it, including translators and clients, either agencies or direct clients themselves.

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