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Non-native-speaker translation
Thread poster: Leo Holroyd (X)

Leo Holroyd (X)
Local time: 04:25
German to English
Jul 30, 2007

Hello all,

I am a "pre-beginner" translator - starting a master's course later this year - and I'm trying to get as much as insight as I can into the profession through websites like this.

Something interests me - how many people are actively translating into non-native languages, and how much success are they having? I see a lot of people on here who are (apparently) doing it, but my understanding from the "official" literature - translator guidelines, academic books etc - is that this is a bad idea. There seems to be quite a discrepancy here between theory and practice.

Can you really create successful translations this way? Can you make money this way? Is the official advice too conservative and inflexible? I wouldn't dream of trying it at my age, but what about people who've lived abroad for 10, 20 years? What would be your advice to an impressionable novice?

Thanks for any insights!


Joseph Ferran
Local time: 01:25
Spanish to English
+ ...
Non-native-speaker translation Jul 30, 2007

Dear Mr. Leo Holroyd: My name is Joseph FERRAN and I will be glad to help.
First and above all, keep in mind that speaking two or more languages does not make a person a translator. The delicate nature of some of the subjects is only handled (or should be) by a selectec few.
Regarding ¨native speaker¨: As long as one is educated and fully trained in your second language... it is acceptable to translate into that target language. Example: I am born in the USA (New York, please do not hold it against me) and I was educated in Bs. As., Argentina (at a young age). I completed my Masters degree in Law (USA - University). After that, I studied and became a certified translator and interpreter (USA - University Degree). Also, I speak and read other languages. However, I refrain from translating into those languages because I never obtained formal education in these languages. Example: I perform translations from Portuguese (source) into English and Spanish (target). Italian (source) into English and Spanish (target). So, I would say that one must be conservative and not take a project that should be left in the hands of someone that could better do the job. I apologize> I reviewed my first version and I noticed that it was a disaster (spelling)

I hope this was of help

[Edited at 2007-07-30 18:37]


Local time: 04:25
English to German
I have done translations into non-native languages occassionally Jul 30, 2007

I am an English to German translator but have also taken on work occassionally from German to English for a client in Germany. On the continent it is actually not quite as strict as here that you should only translate into your mother tongue. University studies and alternative study routes for translators in Germany also always teach you translations into both language directions. But principally I do not take on any type of translation work into English. I do, for example, translations of contracts into English as in this case accuracy is more important than style and the commonly used phrases can be easily acquired. However, I would not touch marketing material, for example, as, despite having lived in England for many years, I would not be confident enough to have the feeling for the best words to choose and for the right style. As another rule, I always get a native speaker to read my translations into English before I hand them in to the client.


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:25
Flemish to English
+ ...
The proof of the pudding... Jul 30, 2007

I think ICL has given a good answer to your question.

The official advise, which finds its most ardent defenders among native speakers of English, is too conservative and too inflexible.
Do you want your German to remain at the same level as today, just because of the principle that you should translate into your native language only?
If you have to do it both ways, you will learn a lot about the intricacies of the other language and gradually improve your level.
Would you ask this question if you had grown up in a multilingual country like Belgium (trilingual ) or Luxembourg or Switzerland?
Hasn't English not become the lingua franca of the world?
Would you ask this question if your background was not chemistry, but linguistics-languages. What if you had to be able to make a semantical and syntactical analysis of the target language as well as translate a whole range of texts about different subjects both ways in order to graduate?

As long a you deliver what you customer wants, you can earn money translating into other languages. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in the prejudice.

How easy is it for you to practise German on a daily basis?
How easy is it for you to capture German television channels or read the Süddeutsche Zeitung?
How "far" is Germany from London Gatwick with Ryanair? Not exactly the other side of the world, is it.
B.T.W., the "hospitality club" was founded by a German.
It has many members there. You could go on regular weekends to different parts of Germany and practise your German by staying at one of its members every weekend. The only cost you have is a present for your host and an airline ticket. Or you could go and live in Germany for a while.

[Edited at 2007-07-30 15:13]


Giulia TAPPI  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:25
French to Italian
+ ...
It really depends Jul 30, 2007

If I take my own example, I was born in Italy, where I lived up to the age of 25. So when I came to France, where I got my degree as a translator, I mostly translated into Italian.
But, as you, Leo, said, I have now been living for 25 years in France, so I have no problem whatsoever in translating into French. And sometimes Italian texts I translate are so complicated I wonder how a non-native Italian could properly understand them, even if his/her French might still be better than mine as far as style is concerned!
Moreover, I was and still am very accurate, when writing in French; if I am not absolutely sure about spelling, I always check in the dictionary. Of course, this slows down my work a bit, but I do not think I really loose money.
Good luck for your future career as a translator! I think you ask the right questions, and this is a good start.


Shaunna (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:25
English to Chinese
+ ...
It depends Jul 30, 2007

In my case it is area specific.

I am a Chinese native. Got a PhD in US. My study and work for the past 10 years heavily involved scientific writing. I have research papers published, and my colleagues (native English speakers) trust my English so that they even send their drafts for me to review. In addition, people I talked to started to ask me whether or not English is my native language from 3 years ago. So should I stick to the rule "native-only"? I don't think so. However, I do know my advantages and limitations. I know I can't really write (or translate) a witty movie review or that sort and I keep myself just as a reader for those.

I work mostly on medical/pharmaceutical/biological translation jobs when it comes to Chi>Eng. That way I know I can do a good job and the clients come back to me most of the time. Also by working on these more specialized projects, I get better rates. icon_smile.gif
I do get requests (chi>Eng) on general materials from clients I work with, and I take those jobs on only when I am sure I can handle it well. For Chi>Eng translation on other specialized fields such as business or law, i just tell the clients straight that I can't do a good job there.

Hope this helps.

[Edited at 2007-07-31 13:08]


Andy Watkinson
Local time: 05:25
Catalan to English
+ ...
With Giulia: depends Jul 30, 2007

Hi Leo,

Regarding the first point, it’s difficult to quantify how many people translate into a “non-native” language (to others, can we avoid having a debate on what “native-speaker” means?icon_wink.gif Thanks).

Your understanding of translator officialdom is correct. Translating into a second language is considered high treason by many, and very often they’re right. But not always.

As Giulia points out, on certain occasions the source text can be virtually unfathomable to a non-native speaker and, provided the native speaker’s powers of expression in their acquired language border on the excellent, the odd slip in style is preferable to an unintelligible translation produced by someone who has only half understood the original.
(This can be seen in the KudoZ ratios. I have more points into Spanish than into English - not because my Spanish is superior but because my understanding of the original English is).

Until a few years ago I was the “official” translator into Spanish for an international language school/agency and had worked for them on an ongoing basis for over five years, during which time I received only one complaint (I would like to be able to say the client was wrong on that occasion, but he wasn’t).
Obviously, I only translated those subjects I was very familiar with; I wouldn't dream of trying to translate a short story, but am comfortable translating a management report into Spanish.

That said, I’ve been studying Spanish (degree included) for literally the past 40 years and have lived here since 1976.

So I would answer your last two questions in the affirmative: Yes you can “make money” this way and, yes, the official advice is too conservative, though it does have its raison d’être.


[Edited at 2007-07-30 17:22]


Local time: 18:25
Chinese to English
This has been on my mind recently! Jul 30, 2007

I really think it depends on an honest assesment of your individual skills in the 'non native' language. Do strangers mistake your writing/speaking for native? (Family and coworkers don't count, as they may have adapted their ears to your style over the years). I think a good measure for this is a 'blind test' - write an anonymous passage in your non native text and submit it to a qualified, neutral thrid party along with several other anonymous texts written by native speakers. Does yours stand out or blend in? Ask for and adapt constructive criticism from this exercise.

I don't know about making money, but it's obvious by the amount of poor translations around that one can find work doing this. One of the reasons I am passionate about tranlating is because there really seems to be a void in quality, especially in my pair Chn>Eng. I'm constantly surprised at how 'professional' organizations let poor English signage/materials represent them. A prime example that people might not immediately think of: My physician's office has a sign posted "We are not responsibility for your children's behaviors" The meaning obviously is the office will not be held responsible if you do not supervise your children and they injure themselves on the premesis. If this particular doctor had not been recommended to me, I would have thought twice about becoming his patient! There is a saying, "little things tell you what big things will be", and my first thought is how good can this doctor be if they can't even get a simple sign right.

Just because one lived/worked for many years or even graduated university in another country does not necessarily make them a native speaker. I really think speicalization is an important consideration too, as others have mentioned.

Just my 0.002 USD.


Alp Berker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:25
Turkish to English
+ ...
Depends on the number of native speakers available & level of complexity of the text Jul 30, 2007

It depends on how many people translate into the language also. I have done one or two translations from English to Uzbek, a non-native language for me since Uzbek is a language where the number of native speakers is not that numerous out of Uzbekistan. It also depends on the complexity of the text. If the text is fairly strightforward, then this can also make it a good candidate to be translated by a non-native.


Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:25
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
A complicated question Jul 30, 2007

Clearly there are people who do outstanding work into their second or third languages. I know such people well, but they are rare, and most of them either started learning their additional languages in childhood or else have lived for decades in their target-language country.

The problem is that so many people who *think* they do good inverse translations simply do not. They may be accurate, but the writing is often unlike anything a native speaker would produce. Worse, such people sometimes hire themselves out as editors in those languages, often with disastrous results.

So I certainly understand why some outsourcers have hard-and-fast "natives only" rules. I'm sure that if I weren't ATA certified for English-Spanish work, most agencies wouldn't even give me a shot at it.

[Edited at 2007-07-30 18:43]


Carlotta Minozzi  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:25
Italian to English
+ ...
My experience Jul 30, 2007

Please forgive my very short answer but I have two eight-year-old nephews downstairs screaming and singing and running and doing everything but what I told them to do.

Anyway, I'm Italian and I have been doing IT>EN translations for over ten years (technical field). As someone said, Italian texts are usually written in a way that only an Italian native speaker can understand them. But since I am not an English native speaker, I have all my translations proofread by an English mothertongue translator. This way I can guarantee best quality.

Gotta go now! ciao!



Leo Holroyd (X)
Local time: 04:25
German to English
Thanks everyone Jul 30, 2007

I'm sure this is a debate you've all taken part in 100 times - but if it's worth having that many times, it's probably worth 101 too.

My original feeling was that 1st-language to 2nd-language translation is a bad idea, but in my case this must be a guess - it can't come from experience since I have so little. On reflection, it does make sense that this "rule" applies much less to some areas of translation than others, quite apart from the question of how competent one is in one's 2nd languages.

Furthermore, I suppose it's always possible to underestimate someone's ability to use a foreign language. It's easy to say "you can always tell" when discussing the shortcomings of 2nd-language translations, but of course you can't tell how many good ones you didn't spot for every one that clearly isn't good enough. Nobody criticises Joseph Conrad for writing Heart of Darkness in English, or Samuel Beckett for writing En attendant au Godot originally in French (I think I'm right about that second one?).

Williamson - you make an interesting point about a linguistics vs. scientific background. I understand if there's some caginess about the idea of someone without a linguistics background horning in on the industry - nobody wants an outsider to come charging in, offering to take on impossible tasks at "competitive" prices and driving down rates and reputations for everybody - but that's certainly not my intention!

So I should perhaps revise my prejudices about the "native speaker" issue - though on the other hand, I'm not going to play with fire by advertising myself En->De just yet.

Best wishes to all.


Amy Duncan (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:25
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Not a good idea Jul 30, 2007

Maybe there are some rare individuals who are truly bi-lingual and who can translate back and forth, but in my experience, I have yet to see a decent translation done into the non-native language. I wouldn't do it myself unless I had a native check it over for me. There are always little things that you're going to get wrong, and sometimes big things, too.

I run across this kind of thing when I am given a document to revise that has been written in English by a native Brazilian. Inevitably I have to do most of it over, which makes it even harder with this type of document, since there is no original to compare it with. I'm always amazed when I see here on ProZ how many people list themselves as translating to and from their native language.



Andy Watkinson
Local time: 05:25
Catalan to English
+ ...
A couple of points Jul 31, 2007

Amy Duncan wrote:

Maybe there are some rare individuals who are truly bi-lingual and who can translate back and forth, but in my experience, I have yet to see a decent translation done into the non-native language.......

It is tempting to say that I've never seen the Pyramids, but don't doubt their existence.
As Leo rightly points out. How many excellent texts do we read without realising that the author is not a "native"?

I run across this kind of thing when I am given a document to revise that has been written in English by a native Brazilian.

I imagine we'll all had to slave/swear/sweat over some dreadful text written by the guy who once succeeded in ordering a meal in English which, as we all know, is the Universal Proficiency standard in English.

Yet I've also encountered texts produced by native Spanish speakers which I'd be proud to have written myself. Que conste.


PS. Leo, as far as I remember Becket wrote all his works (after '46, 47) in French first so as avoid adopting any particular style or use of clichéd language.


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:25
Flemish to English
+ ...
Behind a computer screen. Jul 31, 2007

Do you really want to become a translator, sitting behind a computer screen whole day without any contact with others, except your family?
Besides in 20 years time, M.T., CAT and voice-recognition + speech synthesis + Artificial Intelligence will be integrated and the profession will become obsolete or limited to rewriting texts churned out by such a tool.
If I were you, I would go for a Phd. in my field and try to make a career at one of the big drug companies or become a professor. Gives you ample free time to do that extra occasional translation. Translator as such is a profession that has no status in the "normal" world whatsoever.
A native assimilates syntax and semantics from his/her mother and the outside world around him.
A linguistically skilled person assimilates phonetics, semantics and syntax by study- analysis of sentences of works of Proust (French author, who writes sentences which are 20 lines long without any punctuation) or Francisco de Ayala (Spanish-same is true), a lot of reading, living in the country. Usually, classes are given by linguistically skilled natives.
Generally speaking, there are four types of persons on this site:
1. The ones who due to their profession rolled into translation from say banking or a technical field. These persons seldom know a certain register very well, but have no notion of the underlying structure of the language. Don't ask them to name parts of sentences or types of words. They usually work in their field into their mother-tongue, but not always.
2. The ones, who had a linguistic training. They are not that specialised in a particular subject-matter, but can instruct you in the structure of the language and had to translate a lot of texts of different nature.
Usually, they had to be able to work both ways to graduate.
And after graduation, they want to continue to do it both ways .
Would you like to forget all you know about chemistry, because there is a rule which impedes you to use it.
3.The truly bilinguals. Translate both ways.
4.The ones, coming from England, who went to live in the country of their spouses, assimilated his language and started translation.
You will find most partisants of the principle amongst the speakers of your native language.
Language is about semantics, syntax, register, style.
To what exent do natives master the syntax, semantics, register and style required for a particular translation? My plumber is a native, hence he can translate into the target language?

@Leo : No, but you can improve your German by becoming "Herr Doktor" at a German university and living in Germany for a couple of years or study German more profoundly.

[Edited at 2007-07-31 06:27]

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