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Why do translators translate into a language that is not their mother tongue?
Thread poster: liz askew
liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:16
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
Apr 7, 2008

Out of interest, those of you who translate into a language that is not your mother tongue (I have noticed this with translators into English) why do you do it?

I am a native English speaker from the United Kingdom and belong to the ITI (Institute of Interpreters and Translators) and their policy is that we translators should only translate into our mother tongue.

As an interpreter, which is a different skill to translating, I know that interpreting into French CAN present problems for me, so I would never be prepared to actually translate into French.

So, what are your thoughts?

Liz Askew

[Edited at 2008-04-07 13:24]

[Edited at 2008-04-07 13:24]


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patyjs  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 12:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
for "gist" translations Apr 7, 2008

I only translate into my second language, Spanish, for "gist", for example, when soemone needs to understand a text but it the translation is not for publication. Or when the text is very basic...I did a hypnosis script once which was as easy as it gets.

Interpretation is different altogether and I've often had to flip between one and the other language especially during question and answer sessions. I've never been to an event where the interpreter has had the luxury of only interpreting into the native language.



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David Russi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:16
English to Spanish
+ ...
I don't have a clear idea of which one is my native language Apr 7, 2008

Great topic!

Born in the US, got the seeds of English in the form of baby babble and early speech, but was transplanted to Italy before the age of 2, schooled in Italian until 1st year of High School (liceo), then returned to the US to have to learn English from zero... I learned Spanish later in life, but quickly became very proficient in it, and honestly, I have a hard time saying whether I speak it better than my native tongue (Italian, which I haven't used in 35 years? English, which I started learning as a teenager?).

I enjoy the Spanish language, and I find it easier to translate into it than into English (Italian is out of the question, inspite of the fact that I speak it well, and continue to read in it, I am hopelessly outdated). I read literature and other materials, and I travel to Spanish-speaking countries to continue to polish it as much as I can.

I find that I check myself a lot, even now, almost 20 years after beginning my carreer as a translator, and that contributes to greater degree of attention to detail than I often see in native speakers' work. I do insist on a native speaker editing my work, because I realize that this can contribute greatly to improving the final product. I also have recognize my limitations: I am very good at translating certain kinds of materials (technical manuals, product descriptions, scientific papers), but I will never be able to translate literary, legal and marketing materials well, for example.


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Michał Szcześniewski  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 19:16
English to Polish
+ ...
good question Apr 7, 2008

I'll stick to my language pair (English and Polish): the main problem faced when it comes to Polish into English translations is lack of available native speakers suited to do the job. There aren't many native speakers of English whose knowledge of Polish language and culture/legal system/etc. is sufficient to translate.

I agree that translating into one's native language is the best option. It's just that sometimes it is not possible.

Michał


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Magda Dziadosz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 19:16
Member (2004)
English to Polish
+ ...
Quite simple answer: market demand Apr 7, 2008

I've been interpreting between English and Polish for more than 15 years and I've never had a native English booth partner. Never in my life. There are simply not enough native English translators and interpreters from Polish to do all the jobs. The rule here is: if you can't interpret into your source language - you're out of (interpreting) market.

As a translator I have recurring satisfied clients ordering translation into English. It wouldn't make any business sense for me to decline these jobs, would it?

Magda


[Edited at 2008-04-07 15:30]


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Margreet Logmans  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 19:16
English to Dutch
+ ...
Not regularly Apr 7, 2008

I offer translation into English as an extra service. I don't do it regularly; I think more than 95% of all my work is translation into Dutch (my mother tongue).

These jobs were offered to me for three reasons:
- the client was Dutch and wanted to be able to communicate with a Dutch translator in Dutch
- I had worked with the client before in the reverse language pair, so I was the first translator they thought of
- jobs from clients who were unfamiliar with the translation market and did not have the time to find a native speaker

I began to learn English at a young age (7 or 8 years old), mostly by reading and watching television. I had a pretty good basis by the time English was offered in school. Never did any homework and best grades in class.

Whenever I translate into English, I try to find a native speaker to proofread my work. So far, there have been two occasions where that was not possible and I had to rely on my own skills. The client agreed to this.

I don't work as an interpreter, but I do interpret for visitors and friends sometimes. After a while, I find it hard to switch from one language to the other, so I tend to speak to my Dutch companions in English as well. I have deep respect for interpreters.

Just for the record: my own website has a section in English, which has been been translated by me, and proofread by a native speaker. This is in part because I wanted to get it absolutely right, and also because I realise my English is a mixture of American English and British English, and I wanted it to be consistent.

The mother tongue issue is something I am not sure about. In some language pairs, there simply are not enough native speakers. Not saying this is true for my language pair, mind you.

By the way, you're welcome to point out any errors in my postings here. I'm always willing to learn.


[Edited at 2008-04-07 14:13]


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John Cutler  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 19:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
4 possible reasons Apr 7, 2008

I suppose there are as many answers to this question as there are translators who do it. Some of the more obvious ones that come to my mind are:

1. If a struggling, hungry translator receives an opportunity to do a translation (even though it’s into his or her second language and not into their mother tongue) they’re going to put paying the bills ahead of any sort of linguistic scruples.

2. The big-fish-in-a-little-pond dynamic may also play a part. Some translators are probably accustomed to speaking their second language better than anyone else around them. They’re even considered “authorities” who other members of their own mother tongue come to when they have a language-related question. This can lull them into a false sense of thinking they know more than they really do. When one of their acquaintances says, “Oh you know language X so well. Won’t you please do this translation for us”? it becomes easy to believe the flattery. Of course, if the client didn’t know the language well in the first place, how are they going to judge the results?

3. There may also be many, many people who aren’t exactly sure what their mother tongue is. Here in Catalonia, many families are completely bilingual and alternate between two languages without batting an eyelash. They may have a personal preference or affinity for one language or another (Spanish/Catalan) but they’re perfectly competent in both. In other words, “mother tongue” can be relative.

4. There may also be people in my situation. I’ve lived in Spain for 23 years and can bang out a pretty decent document in Spanish or Catalan. Would I send it off for publication though without it being proofread by my Spanish wife? Absolutely not!


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Daina Jauntirans  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:16
German to English
+ ...
Less common languages / Subject-matter experts Apr 7, 2008

I personally don't translate into anything but my native language, which I consider to be English. Although I was born and raised in the US, I actually learned Latvian first (mom sent me to school and told the teacher if it seems as if I don't understand, it's because I don't speak English), but never received much formal schooling in the language or spent much time in Latvia. I would not feel comfortable translating into Latvian, although I do write in Latvian for local community publications.

However, the couple of translators I know who do translate into their non-native languages either are so well-versed in their specialty (and that is very narrow) that they can pull it off with editing, or they work in less common languages (in this case Czech) where native English-speaking translators are hard to come by as in the Polish example above.


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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 20:16
Turkish to English
+ ...
Supply and demand Apr 7, 2008

The same thing applies to the Turkish into English pair: there are very few native English speakers working in this pair (I am one of the few exceptions!).
I am sure that this situation is repeated in a great many pairs. If there are not enough native speakers to cope with the demand, then work will go native speakers of the source langauge.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 19:16
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Some do because they are experts on the subject and not at all bad at English Apr 7, 2008

Admittedly, lots of people who think they can translate into English are mistaken.

But there are notable exceptions, especially in small countries whose languages are not widespread, and it is impossible to get a higher education without reading a foreign language very fluently, maybe even two.

Several of my Danish colleagues can really write English as well as or better than many English people. They know their limitations, but for some legal and technical translations from Danish into English, experienced State Authorised Translators with the terminology at their fingertips can do a first-rate job.

They have done five years of very demanding training, often supplemented by living in an English-speaking country. Denmark does not quite qualify, but there is a constant stream of English on TV and the media. Danes grow up with English in the background, and those with a natural talent for languages can train themselves to come close to native speaker quality.

There are many borderline-bilinguals. University students cannot wait for their study material to be translated into Danish. Globally circulated periodicals appear in English and are rarely translated. One of my nieces reads German and French as well, but that is exceptional.

Danish translators often get a native speaker to proofread their translations, and when the lot falls on me, I frequently have to admit that it would take me a long time to find all the terminology, and I could not do it better. I practise the 'native speaker' principle myself, because I cannot live up to my own standards in any language other than English.

In fields where there are not enough native English speakers with the expertise, the alternative is no translation at all, so there is your answer.

My father used to translate between two acquired languages (New Testament Greek and Marathi), and I believe he did it very well, though he was proud of the fact that the Marathi-speaking students he trained, who translated into their own language, were better.

That is simply how it works in the real world, where not everyone is subject to the principles of the ITI.


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Lori Cirefice  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 19:16
French to English
In-house work Apr 7, 2008

For my in-house work (not a translation agency), I don't always have a choice in the matter. When I translate into French, it is usually within my specialized field, so I am comfortable with that. 95% of the time, a native speaker checks my work (my mistakes are usually gender related), but sometimes we don't have enough time for that.

I prefer to translate into English of course.

On one occasion, my translation into French went out to the client with a mistake, I had used a "false friend" and the client noticed that it didn't make sense ... this is why it is so important to have a native proofreader.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 19:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
a cultural thing? Apr 7, 2008

liz askew wrote:

Out of interest, those of you who translate into a language that is not your mother tongue (I have noticed this with translators into English) why do you do it?

Liz Askew

[Edited at 2008-04-07 13:24]

[Edited at 2008-04-07 13:24]


Apart from the reasons already mentioned by other ProZers, I would like to say that I think there' may be a cultural element in terms of the level to which the "requirement to translate to your native language" is an acceptable or unacceptable norm.

I would say that it's a fairly unacceptable norm in the EN-speaking world; both the ITI and IOL indicate that "translators should only translate into our mother tongue". Incidentally, the international FIT too.

In Spain, however, lots of Spanish people advertise as translating to English. Now, I have lived here for over 20 years and I can honestly count on one hand the number of Spanish users of EN that I have met who either/or speak/write English very well (the latter to the high level required for professional writers). Very well = close to native level. Naturally, I have seen no end of the most excruciatingly awful translations to EN by what were clearly Spanish speakers.

Spain appears to me to be a country/culture where translating into a language not one's native language is acceptable. Note that:

1) sworn translators in Spain translate into and out of their native language
2) nearly all translation faculties teach "inverse" translation.

This would appear to indicate a certain degree of "institutional" support for translating into English by Spanish speakers, and this may explain why it's acceptable and even normal practice.

The rich-poor country divide also may affect the ES-EN market, as poorer Spanish-speaking countries may not be able to afford the rates of natives to EN, all of whom, almost without exception, live in rich countries. This may in part explain the culture of it being acceptable for ES speakers to translate to EN.

I accept that non-natives may be necessary in certain circumstances, and I also subscribe to the opinion that a non-native may in fact do a better job than a native, although all things being equal, a native translator is likely to be the better choice.




[Edited at 2008-04-07 15:26]

[Edited at 2008-04-07 15:30]


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liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:16
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Christine Apr 7, 2008

"That is simply how it works in the real world, where not everyone is subject to the principles of the ITI".


Trouble is the ITI in the UK IS part of the real world and all the translators who belong to it are part of the real world, and in order to maintain high standards amongst the translation fraternity, in the UK at least, we should respect these principles.

I don't think it is good enough for somebody to have a high level of expertise in a field and be "not bad at English" or any other language for that matter. You only need to look at some of the suggestions on Proz from people who consider themselves experts in their field and they make pretty dire errors in their non mother tongue when suggesting a translation. These are usually the people who rush to defend their "own" language when somebody suggests a translation in their non-mother tongue! Let us not kid ourselves.

Also, often translators are translating material written by experts, so why not ask similar high standards of the translator? An expert is not going to want their material poorly or badly translated by somebody who is not a native speaker, or at least the equivalent in standard of a native speaker. And of course I am talking about native speakers who are translators, I don't mean any Tom, Dick, or Harry which some people have interpreted.

So, standards and principles are important, in my opinion.

Are you suggesting principles of any kind can go out the window?

Liz Askew


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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
Two answers Apr 7, 2008

1) There are certain types of culturally bound texts that only a native speaker of the source language will understand fully. The ideal in this case would be to have two translators working together -- one a native speaker of the source language and the other a native speaker of the target language -- but that is seldom financially feasible.

2) Although most people can only translate well into their native language, there are notable exceptions. For example, I can think of one Argentinian-born translator I know who produces flawless English translations that are both accurate and stylistically appropriate.

My own native language is English. However, I've been speaking Spanish since I was about seven years old, I studied English-Spanish and Spanish-English translation in college and am good enough at English-Spanish work that I passed the ATA certification exam. When translating into Spanish (which I do only occasionally and mostly for direct clients), I always use an editor who's a native speaker of the target language. The feedback I get from the editors is generally constructive and mostly involves Americanizing my Spanish. So clearly some people *can* translate well into their second language.

[Edited at 2008-04-07 16:36]


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liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:16
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Two answers Apr 7, 2008

The thing is if a translator has difficulty with the source language which is not their native language, then they post a query on Proz so that they get the most appropriate answer/solution to their query, so I find your point 1) a bit of a non-starter. This is what I have been doing in any case...

As for 2), I will take your word for it, but I'd always make up my own mind about this.

Thanks for your contribution, Steven.


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