Should translations be done exclusively by native speakers of the target (“into”) language? This question has recently come up in several publications. The language industry and training programs in the US predominantly answer in the affirmative. I have speculated about some possible reasons for this attitude.
A recent article in the American Translators Association (ATA) Chronicle reported that in a blind evaluation of translations by native and non-native speakers, there seemed to be no clear correlation between the translator’s native language and the evaluation their translation received. In addition, The Conversation recently ran a thought-provoking piece on why native speakers of English unexpectedly stumble in international Anglophone business environments.
While native speakers undoubtedly have an edge when translating into their first language, merely being a native speaker is far from sufficient to qualify a person to be a professional translator — or writer. Listed below are a few shortcomings untrained native speakers may exhibit when it comes to their native language.
Ignorance of Other Regional Varieties
First, native speakers may be attuned to the variety of language as spoken in their home region and ignorant or dismissive of other varieties of the same language. This is especially true of languages spoken in diverse locales, such as Spanish, English, or Arabic; however, I’ve encountered it with the usually uniform Russian.
I came across the expression bolshaya komnata (literally “big room”) that was given in a textbook as the equivalent of the English “living room,” and I thought, surely, this must be a mistake. All my life I had heard zal or gostinaya for “living room.” It was not until I spoke with a colleague of mine from St. Petersburg that I realized this was a legitimate regional variant.
In other words, native speakers who have not been specifically trained in distinct varieties of their language will default to their local dialect, whether or not that is appropriate for that target audience. As the Conversation article pointed out,
The inability of the travelling native English speaker to refrain from homeland idiosyncrasies, subtextual dexterity and cultural in-jokes has been found to result in resentment and suspicion.
What this means: native speakers may correct or mark as wrong expressions from dialects they are unfamiliar with.
What to do: make sure your translator is aware of the target region for the text and is familiar with the language as used in that region.
Poor Knowledge of Language Conventions
Very often, the only yardstick against which a native speaker without language training can measure a passage is whether it is something they would say. However, this same native speaker may not always know or remember the conventions of their language.
One example is the usage of “whom” vs “who” (basically, “whom” cannot be the subject of a sentence/clause). A former ESL teacher insisted the difference didn’t matter because “no one says ‘whom,’ anyway.” This confusion can be seen when countless publications from The Guardian to The Atlantic misuse “whom” in a subject position.
What this means: if a native speaker is only basing their opinions on what they say in everyday conversations, they may be unable to author or edit a passage that uses an unfamiliar turn of phrase.
What to do: contract work to professionals with extensive training and experience in the genre and subject matter of your text — and, yes, that means a solid grasp of formal writing, if needed.
The opposite extreme untrained native speakers tend to go to is insisting on corrections based on outdated, misguided, or preferential “rules.”
The dreaded split infinitive is a notorious example in English. People may also insist that “farther” should be used for distance, and “further,” for everything else (follow the link to hear how this distinction emerged). Finally, in their desire to avoid what they’ve been taught is an error, speakers will slip into hypercorrection, saying things like “between you and I.”
What this means: an untrained native speaker may correct perfectly acceptable writing because that speaker has been taught that a certain turn of phrase is verboten — or because they confuse it with a different use case.
What to do: make sure the person who does writing or translation for you does not only rely on what they once learned in high school or read on the Internet — they need to have solid reference materials and research skills in order to back up any proposed change.
While it may sound counterintuitive, simply being a native speaker does not guarantee a high standard of writing. I have touched upon some of the areas untrained native speakers may be weak in, but there are many others, such as domain-specific language, consistency, and so on and so forth. Now, a native speaker with specialized training is a force to reckon with — but perhaps so is a trained second-language speaker? I would love to hear your perspective in the comments.