Does it make sense to translate into your non-native language? Someone asked this on my monthly alumni call in October, and I think it’s an interesting topic, so let’s take a look.
The short answer
The TLDR version of this is: for most professional translators, it does not make sense to translate into your non-native language, but there are exceptions. Reasons for sticking to your native language include:
- most importantly, translation quality
- also, translation income, particularly if you get paid by the word, and you work more slowly into your non-native language
- industry conventions
But interpreters do this all the time…
Right. Here’s the big exception. I would never, in a million years, translate into French, other than something short, informal, and informational. Once in a while, a US-based client will ask something like, “Can you write an e-mail in French, asking when the Senegalese consultant will have the final version of the report?” Sure. But otherwise, I never ever translate into French, because I’m not a native speaker.
However, pretty much every single time I interpret, I interpret in both directions, because it’s unwieldy and expensive to have two interpreters for every court appearance, attorney-client conference, etc. Nearly every interpreter in the US works in both directions, all the time. In Europe, it’s more common for interpreters to have only one active language (their native language), and then work from multiple passive languages, but in the US, things don’t really work that way. So the big exception to the “only into your native language” rule is that interpreters are expected to, and do do this all the time.
My take: the key here is that interpreters are trained (at least in all the training I’ve done so far) to use specific techniques when interpreting into their B language. For the non-interpreters, a B language is one that you interpret from and into, but it’s not your native language. Into-B techniques include using the simplest phrasing that is accurate; using concise phrasing even when the speaker is very wordy; using voice expression to convey meaning; “when in doubt, leave it out” if you can do that without compromising meaning; using phrases like, “the interpreter will paraphrase,” when you know that you don’t know the equivalent of a quote, idiom, or proverb in your B language, etc. And you can’t really use those techniques when you’re translating.
Why stick to your native language?
As stated above, there are many reasons to translate into your native language only. The most important is translation quality. Even if you have near-native fluency in your source language(s), you’re still not a native speaker. It’s likely that all of us know people who are really, really, fluent in a language, but still say things that, while they make complete sense, aren’t something a native speaker would say, or the tone is completely wrong. Like asking someone, “What’s wrong?” (empathetic) versus, “What’s your problem?” (rude). My husband and I went to Nepal on our honeymoon, and I took a picture of the sign outside a trekking lodge that proudly proclaimed, “We will welcome you so warmly, you will feel like going home.” That’s the kind of thing a fluent non-native speaker might say or write, without realizing that it means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.
The whole point of a good translation is to convey more than word-for-word meaning, and that’s really hard to do in your non-native language.
Additionally, most translators are going to work more slowly into their non-native language(s), which will drag down your income if you’re getting paid by the word.
A final risk is looking unprofessional. In the US, where the vast majority of translators work into their native language, it can look unprofessional to even offer translation services in the opposite direction.
But of course, there are exceptions
Exceptions to the native language rule include:
- Translators whose dominant professional language is not their native language. If you came to the US from Italy when you were 18, then went to college and grad school here and have lived and worked in English for 25 years, your dominant professional language may no longer be Italian.
- Translators who work with small-diffusion languages. If you need a translation from Tagalog, or Bulgarian, or Amharic into English, chances are it’s going to be hard to find a native English speaker to do that. You’ll probably have better luck with a native speaker of the non-English language, and then a native English proofreader.
I think that the native language convention is also at least partially cultural. Anecdotally, it seems that the US market has a strong preference for translators who work into their native language only, while the European and Asian markets are a bit more tolerant of non-native speaker translators.
Readers, over to you; any thoughts on this?