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On the importance/requirement of being native speaker
Thread poster: Pia Kurro

Pia Kurro  Identity Verified
Estonia
Local time: 16:44
English to Estonian
+ ...
Jul 6, 2009

It is a kind of standard demand in many cases that the translator be a native speaker of the target language, or at least of the source language. I want to open a discussion about how relevant the requirement actually is, or whether it should be reconsidered in our times where people are growingly mobile and the modern means of communication more than ever bring any language environment directly into our homes.

By what, for example, does a second generation immigrant in an English-speaking country (native speaker!), who uses English outside his home, but at home uses and speaks the language of his parents, differ from a native living in his original country and using his native language (of that country) for conversations with relatives and friends, but using English in all his professional and/or business communications, for conversations and correspondence with international friends, reading books in English, watching English TV-programs and using English websites?

Or consider even someone living in a third country, using that country’s language for communication with the natives there, using his own native language with family and friends back at home, and English or any other language he claims proficiency in, for all the rest...

What I want to say is that there are very able non-native speakers who can provide a much better translation in many cases and for many purposes than someone claiming to be a native speaker, who may be either a recent immigrant, simply master his native language very poorly, or be of low intelligence that does not allow him to correctly understand the subject he is translating in, and then use the correct terminology.

To translate novels is another story, especially cheap paperback novels are often heavily infested with slang, or street language, and (quite incongruously) require good knowledge of the environment and type of people they describe. But business and theoretical papers are mostly quite „impersonal“ in that sense. They could (and even aim to) be written anywhere, and for anyone.

There are more cases that could be described, but I will finish it here with the plea, that talented non-native translators should not be overlooked, when distributing assignments, and that in many cases a talented non-native can actually provide a better/more accurate translation than a slouchy or simply dumb "native". In Proz.com if someone claiming to be native speaker gives a completely off the track Kudoz answer, I usually look at his profile. More often than not, his introductory text is full of mistakes even there...

Another issue is, how to measure „talent“, but shouldn’t satisfied clients be a proof, and then there are also test translations, of course.

Because, if intelligence is customarily overlooked, it will go the way of natural (de-)selection, because being more intelligent (or diligent) stops being an advantage, even becomes a disadvantage in way of making one differ from the crowds to the point of being ignored or shunned.
Then what will the tomorrow look like?


 

Epameinondas Soufleros  Identity Verified
Greece
Local time: 16:44
Member (2008)
English to Greek
+ ...
My view Jul 6, 2009

Well, there are quite a few translation agencies these days that won't let you undertake a project unless you are a native speaker of the target language. This, they think, will ensure the best results.

However, this opinion is not particularly well-informed. You see, the translator is not supposed to be able to operate in a one-way but rather in a two-way fashion. The ideal translator is the ideal bilingual: a person who possesses equally strong knowledge of two languages—and, hence, two cultures—and can operate within each one of them and between one another with equal skill and competence.


 

Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 15:44
Can native speakers tell the difference? Jul 6, 2009

The acid test is whether your command of the foreign language is so perfect that native speakers can't tell that the work was written by a non-native. One way to find this out is to give a sample of your writing to a native speaker and ask "Which parts of this text would a native speaker have worded differently?".

I think that high quality writing (i.e. native speaker quality) is necessary for all text types. Excellent writing is not only important for novels, it is essential for technical, legal and commercial texts, too.


 

Pia Kurro  Identity Verified
Estonia
Local time: 16:44
English to Estonian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
The doubtful importance of sounding "native" Jul 6, 2009

Hmm... I would then ask also - does the opinion of native speakers matter so much? And - why does it matter??icon_smile.gif
A lot (perhaps even majority?) of users/clients actually are not native speakers or, if they are, why should it be so important whether the natives recognise that the text was written by a non-native, or not? As long as the text is as correct as a native gets it (but many do not). The added finesses of style and saying... OK, so I write English the way Estonians (for example) write it. If you otherwise understand, do you mind?

Sometimes a native editor or corrector, or both, can be used, if they are used anyway (as in case of publications etc) and if the aspect of style it is really important.

Please do also consider - I am not comparing talented native translators with non-natives as much as untalented natives with talented non-natives. I am not even asking to completely leave out the nativity. I just ask that the order of importance be reversed - to first talent, then nativity (instead of first nativity, then "talent")

??icon_smile.gif

Mr Dewsbery, you seem to claim that "high quality" and "native quality" are one and the same thing.icon_smile.gif When what I see is that they are two different qualities that may coincide in one person but do not have to...

[Edited at 2009-07-06 12:45 GMT]


 

FarkasAndras
Local time: 15:44
English to Hungarian
+ ...
I sure do Jul 6, 2009

Pia Kurro wrote:

OK, so I write English the way Estonians (for example) write it. If you otherwise understand, do you mind?

Yes.
It obviously depends on the kind of text and context we're talking about - in some situations, saving a few euros on translation is a legitimately more important concern than making the end result a bit more polished - but generally, I would like to see translations that could pass as original texts written by a native speaker.

That said, I myself do translate into English (my mother tongue being Hungarian), and often without native proofreaders. Most clients are thrifty...


 

Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 15:44
What standard do we measure ourselves by? Jul 6, 2009

Hello again Pia,

Pia Kurro wrote:
I am not comparing talented native translators with non-natives as much as untalented natives with talented non-natives.

Comparison with **untalented** writers (whether native or non-native) is not helpful here. Translation is not a career for the untalented. We must all be talented.

The standard (for me) is a text that flows naturally and is of good native speaker quality.
It is not essential that the person actually **is** a native speaker. Our language learning biographies vary, and some of us have reached native speaker quality in our acquired language.
If we are in that very small number, we will be perfectly happy to have native speakers advise us on any points where we still need to develop.

Mr Dewsbery, you seem to claim that "high quality" and "native quality" are one and the same thing.

Yes, the standard for quality is a native speaker with excellent writing talents.
As I said, some non-natives can achieve this quality.
And as you said, many native speakers are not excellent writers.


 

Taija Hyvönen
Finland
Local time: 16:44
Member (2008)
English to Finnish
+ ...
Ah yes, these discussions again... Jul 6, 2009

I have actually proofread texts in Russian translated by The Native and corrected (examples are fictional):
- obviously missing words
- entire missing sentences relevant to understanding the text
- obviously missing and extra punctuation (for example, "grammar,,.and punctuation")
- missing and extra spaces
- words substituted for no reason (for example, "an important meeting" -> "an early meeting")
- sentences completely misunderstood and meaning turned upside down (for example, "she started working there in March after having spent two years abroad" -> "until March she worked there and then went abroad")
- not to mention all the stylistic sloppiness with headings etc.

After this I have taken a little more relaxed attitude. Knowing how much stuff actually doesn't get proofread at all and how meticulous I am about proofreading my own work. Being a native isn't enough after all...

That said, the way I see it is that it would be just great if we could all devote ourselves to what we do best, our native languages. Many people think we should. They are usually native in English, French, German or Spanish. They never answer my question about who would then translate everything from Finnish into, well, any language except Swedish. It would be nice to hear their suggestions about where all the translators of Finnish into anything would suddenly come from if Finns stopped doing it. The same naturally goes for many other languages.

[Edited at 2009-07-06 11:14 GMT]


 

Anne Koth  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 15:44
Member (Feb 2018)
German to English
The best of the best but not the worst of the worst. Jul 6, 2009

Pia Kurro wrote:
why should it be so important whether the natives recognise that the text was written by a non-native, or not?


If some of your readers are going to be native speakers, why not cater for them, too? For native speakers it can be annoying when a text has minor mistakes or passages where you have to read it twice to understand what is meant - or where you are left slightly uncertain whether you understood it or not. Even if the text is good, but somehow just doesn't sound natural, when your attention is drawn to the form it can make it hard to concentrate on the content.

More importantly for natives and non-natives alike, if a word is used correctly but you don't understand it, you can use a dictionary or ask someone else what it means. If it is used even slightly wrongly, then you can't.

I am not comparing talented native translators with non-natives as much as untalented natives with talented non-natives.

I've just been proofreading a translation by a native speaker which needed a lot of work, so I agree that nativeness does not guarantee quality. I've also proofread for a very talented non-native speaker whose work was far more pleasant to read - if still not perfect. On the other hand I've proofread for talented native speakers whose work has been a real pleasure to read, where I have not changed a single thing. I have yet to read a text by a non-native of that quality.

So in the game of translating, a talented non-native may sometimes beat a useless native, but a talented native holds the trump card.

And there are plenty of untalented non-native translators whose work will be even worse than that of the untalented native speakers.

As agencies get a lot of enquiries from translators they may as well limit themselves to the group whose best work is the best and whose worst work is not the worst.


 

Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:44
Flemish to English
+ ...
Here we go again... Jul 6, 2009

This topic has been rehashed over and over again. It gets boring.
Native is no guarantee for being a good translator.
Knowledge of language (and subject) according to the language-levels of the COE is.

I find it stupid that for years I translated both ways and suddenly I can not bid on a translation from Dutch into English, due the native only limitation. Moreover, nobody seems to work together with a person speaking the target language.

Of course, all natives of English seem to speak RP or standard American, have a high level education and are infallible. All you need is a translator website and you can translate.

At most international institutions and in international business is the lingua franca.
These institutions accept applications from candidates whose native language is not English. Besides, if you want to pass their preselection tests, you have to do these tests in your second language. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

[Bijgewerkt op 2009-07-06 12:02 GMT]


 

Anne Koth  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 15:44
Member (Feb 2018)
German to English
The language makes a difference. Jul 6, 2009

There's an interesting essay on this subject by Allison Beeby Lonsdale in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies (1998).
It notes that translation into a non-native language is very common, and that in a survey, the number of "purists" translating into their mother tongue was the highest in Britain (it isn't clear if this survey was international or European). This is explained in the essay as a question of practicality: the number of translations into English is far higher than into other languages, and at the same time more Finnish speakers (for example) learn English than the number of English people learning Finnish.

Seen that way, it isn't surprising if the idea that you should only translate into your native tongue is more common among English speakers, that English agencies are pickier in that way, and that so little emphasis is placed on translation in that direction at English-speaking universities. (Which may even make English native speakers less certain of their ability in that direction.)

I agree that, practically speaking, non-native translations are often necessary and very often perfectly adequate. But how adequate and necessary they are depends on the languages involved. I can understand very well why so many Germans end up translating into English, but why should I translate into German when so many native Germans are chomping at the bit to translate that way for a change, and when there is so much more work into my native language?

[Edited at 2009-07-06 12:32 GMT]


 

Jocelyne S  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 15:44
Member
French to English
+ ...
Reach for the stars Jul 6, 2009

Why would anyone settle for less than the best? Or at least strive for it?

Do you not find it annoying when you read something which sounds just a bit off? At best, it reminds me of listening to music played slightly off key.

We are language professionals and it's our job to love and respect languages, IMHO.

I can admit that exceptional circumstances exist which might require a non-native to translate a document, for reasons of extreme specialisation or confidentiality, for example, but I really don't understand why anyone would want to make a habit of it.

We've been through this endless times before and I imagine that the issue will never really be put to rest, but personally I don't understand why someone would take the added time needed to translate into their second (or third, etc.) language.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that a non-native cannot have perfect command of a language, but there is no doubt that more time is needed to produce the same result. I regularly write articles (which are published) in my source language, but I only translate into my mother tongue. I can express myself perfectly in my source language, write it fluently, but have absolutely no qualms in admitting that a (competent) native French speaker could surely write faster and in a more elegant, "French-sounding" style.

In sum, I don't think that translating into a non-native language makes much economic sense. Plus, when writing in my mother tongue I know when something sounds off and I can pretty much rule out all doubt; in a non-native language it is impossible to be 100% sure.

Best,
Jocelyne


 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:44
German to English
Talented non-native speakers, untalented native speakers Jul 6, 2009

I've worked with teams of native and non-native speakers alike. I've found in many cases that non-native speakers understand the source text better than the native speakers of the target language, and in a few cases non-native speakers can compete with natives in terms of clarity. Rendering a translation into something that anyone can understand is a different story.

I'd like to emphasize "anyone can understand." Someone mentioned that non-natives may be reading the translation. Especially because of this, the translation must be accurate and understandable. If a native can't understand the text (assuming sufficient knowledge of the subject matter), then a non-native will be less likely to comprehend the material.

Some non-native speakers living in the target language country can do an adequate job of translating into the target language. One non-native I work with does a beautiful job of rendering marketing material into English, but she is the rare exception. I've found that non-natives living in the source language country (or elsewhere) tend to produce less than adequate work.

Hiring non-natives to perform translations when native speakers are available increases the likelihood of increased editing costs and potentially missing tight deadlines. Ruling out non-native speakers is a matter of pure economics and risk management.


 

Taija Hyvönen
Finland
Local time: 16:44
Member (2008)
English to Finnish
+ ...
Oh yes, it does! Jul 6, 2009

Jocelyne S wrote:

In sum, I don't think that translating into a non-native language makes much economic sense.


Here, in the wilderness beyond French and English, it is economically stupid not to translate that way and to keep turning down loads of work, which is not going to be done by the very few native speakers of any language who know enough Finnish to be translating from it anyway.

[Edited at 2009-07-06 13:01 GMT]


 

Jocelyne S  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 15:44
Member
French to English
+ ...
Point taken - cultural relativism Jul 6, 2009

Taija Salo wrote:

Jocelyne S wrote:

In sum, I don't think that translating into a non-native language makes much economic sense.


Here, in the wilderness beyond French and English, it is economically stupid not to translate that way and to keep turning down loads of work, which is not going to be done by the very few native speakers of any language who know enough Finnish to be translating from it anyway.

[Edited at 2009-07-06 13:01 GMT]


You're right Taija, my comments are totally based on my personal experience in a combination with a lot of good native translators in both languages.

I cannot speak for other language pairs where the reality is surely very different. I maintain, however, that (professionally) if you can't do something well, then it's best not to do it at all, whether it's economically profitable or not. Would you not agree that a non-native who does not master a language should not attempt to translate into it?

Best,
Jocelyne

Edited to add a left out word.

[Edited at 2009-07-07 05:30 GMT]


 

Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 15:44
Pragmatism and purism Jul 6, 2009

As Taija points out, in some markets it is necessary to work in both directions because the supply of translators is simply not there. But that does not necessarily mean sacrificing quality (and from her comments in this thread, Taija seems to be one of those who have achieved native speaker competence in her non-native English).

Actually, I haven't yet seen anyone in this thread argue that it is wrong on principle to translate into a non-native language. We have discussed issues of quality and practicality, but nobody has proposed any rigid "native only" rule.

For the record, I am one of those who have sometimes worked into my non-native language. Nowadays my work into my non-native German is less than 5% of my total work, but in the past I have done a couple of substantial jobs into German (including contracts and a couple of book length translations), and in my private life I do some creative writing in German, and sometimes I have to edit German written by Germans (although not by professional linguists). So I do not count myself among those who make a rigid principle of only working into my native language. But when I do write in German, I expect my work to be judged by the very strict native quality principles that I have outlined above.

So my vote goes to pragmatism - but with very demanding quality standards.


 
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