Posted by: patenttranslator | October 10, 2010

The Importance Of Being A Native

The issue of native versus non-native speakers is often debated among professional translators. Native speakers sometime say that translators should be allowed to translate only into their native language. However, for example in the United States, some 60% of the members of the American Translators Association are not native speakers of English, and many of them presumably do translate into English.

There are also practical considerations that one should bear in mind. I translate mostly Japanese and German patents into English. If patent lawyers had to rely only on translators whose first language is English and who have really mastered the Japanese language for translations of Japanese patents into English …. well, only something like 1% of what must be translated from Japanese into English could be in fact translated. A large percentage of Japanese patents, perhaps even most of them, is still translated by native Japanese speakers whose fluency in English ranges from quite poor to quite good or even excellent in some cases, or by native English speakers who don’t really know Japanese all that well.

And there are also translators who “know” both Japanese and English, living in countries such as India and China. I have not really seen any of their translations, but based on the English in the e-mails that I receive from these would-be translators who think that I might have work for them, their translations are probably only slightly better than machine translation. But the show must go on and somebody must translate the onslaught of patents as hundreds of thousands of new patents applications are filed every year. I am sure that even most of these “translators” will eventually find their “niche”.

The situation is similar also when it comes to translation of German patents to English, although it s not nearly as bad, of course, because there are many more native speakers of English who really are fluent in German and many native speakers of German who really are fluent in English. And again, based on the e-mails I receive, there are many translators who were born and live in countries such as India who want to or really already do translate German to English. Again, I am not sure how fluent they are in German, but their English is sometime not very good.

First of all, what is a native speaker? I have been living away from my country of birth for more than 30 years. What is my native language? I already wrote another article with the same title years ago. The truth is, I don’t have a native language any more. I translate from several languages, but I am most comfortable in English, which is (was) not my native language. At this point, I can only translate into English.

Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators and arguably the greatest translator in the history of translation, translated the New and Old Testament into Latin, which was not his native language. He had to move to Rome first as a young man in order to learn this language. His native language was a dialect of Illyrian.

For almost a thousand years, every book that was written in Europe and was worth reading was written in Latin, which was a dead language and thus not a native language of anybody. No mothers taught their children Latin any more, but when these children grew up, they talked to other people in a language that was “dead” and ye supremely alive, more than national languages, in many countries in Europe because it was the language of instruction at their school and university, and they wrote books in it.

Some of the greatest books of our civilization, such as De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which was written in Latin by Copernicus whose native language was either Polish or German), were written by non-native speakers. Who knows, had he written his book in his native Polish or German, the Sun could have been revolving around the Earth for a few more centuries because who would have known about his book?

I could go on and on. Non-native writing and translation into a language that is not your own has a long and noble tradition. We should try to remember that our history did not start with the Renaissance. There was history before the Renaissance, and contrary to what some philosophers were saying not so long ago, there was more history again after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are also different levels of “nativeness” when it comes to languages. Let us take a look at the “native English” of the recent crop of American politicians. Dan Quayle and George W. Bush are native speakers of English and they went to excellent schools. But neither of them can speak good English. Dan Quayle did not know how to spell potato (during a visit to an elementary school, he insisted that it should be spelled “potatoe”), and George W. Bush did not know the difference between dissemble and disassemble. So much  for the all-important qualification of being “a native speaker”, at least in the highest echelons of power in our country. And the most recent crop is even more promising as illustrated by this parody on a real campaign commercial.

I think that some translators who are native speakers of English try to use the fact that they were born in a certain country as a sort of a “magic place holder” in lieu of other qualifications, especially if they don’t have much else going for them. If you want to translate into a language, you have to be fluent in it, at least at the level of an educated native speaker of that language. But that does not necessarily mean that you have to be a native speaker. Moreover, this is only one of several important requirements for a good translator.

An important one, but not the only, and in fact not the most important one. You also need specialized (linguistic, technical, legal, etc.) education, experience, and let us not forget talent. You have to be a good writer. No single person can really possess in equal measure everything that is demanded from translators these days in our fast changing environment combined in one person. In the end, just like everything else in life, it is a trade off.

The fact is, some native speakers are excellent translators, and some are not. Most non-native speakers cannot translate into their non-native language, but some can do it very well. But some native speakers would never admit that, possibly because they can’t imagine themselves being really fluent in a foreign language, so much so that they could pass for a native speaker.

But just because they would not be able to pass for a native does not mean that somebody else can’t do it either. It really is much more fun to translate from one foreign language into another foreign language rather than into your native language only. I mean, if all you can do is translate from one language into your native language, and mostly only in one or a few fields, where is the challenge in that? It is kind of like being a one trick pony, is it not?

I wish I could ask Saint Jerome how he feels about this issue. I have a feeling he might agree with me. He spent decades translating from several foreign languages into another foreign language. And he kept doing it well into his eighties.

Could it be that one of the things that kept him going in such a challenging job for so many decades was that he enjoyed the challenge of being a non-native translator?

(A commenter on Youtube where I found this video wrote: “The dude playing drums seems quite happy that the b***h is gone. LOL”).

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Responses

  1. Nice post.

    There is a certain prejudice that favors native speakers. But go ask your next-door native (born & bred) American neighbor. Do they have perfect English spelling and punctuation? Do they know the difference between Austria and Australia (sorry George W.)? Some of them probably do, but most certainly not all of them.

    I actually enjoy translating from French into English the most, neither one of which is officially my native tongue. Having said that, I would not translate into French as I know that my command of French just isn’t good enough. So I think it is also a question of self-evaluation and of being honest with yourself as a professional.

    Speaking of being honest with yourself. The other day I stumbled across a website of a German translator (native German) who offers German-English and English-German. His website was in English only, and any 14-year-old would have done a better job at sentence structure, wording etc. It was terrible!

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  2. My response to people who say that translators should translate only into their native language, without any exception, because only native speakers know their language well, is that I think that translators must also know the language from which they are translating equally well. Therefore, only translators who were born at least twice, once in every language, can call themselves fully qualified because they are native in both languages. You can’t have it both ways. Unless you were born at least twice in one lifetime, you are not really a fully qualified translator.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] know how well they know Japanese or English. I do know that their English is not good as I write in this post. So India is probably not an option for Natasha. Her best bet would be to try to find somebody in […]

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  4. Very interesting post. I especially liked the point that a lot of non-native speakers cannot write English properly.
    I wrote a bit about how to be a good translator in a recent blog post (How to be a good, successful and happy translator: Part 1), and did basically say that you should be a native speaker… I still think this is the ideal, particularly, as you said, in language combinations like mine (German to English), but it is true that there are a lot of native translators out there who not only fail to understand the source, but write badly in the target. You would not believe some of the errors I have come across…
    It is a thorny issue, though I have recommended non-natives in some cases (e.g. highly technical texts). In fact, I would nearly always recommend a non-native English speaker when it comes to interpreting between two languages – the grammar of English is simply easier, meaning it is easier for a foreigner to master English than an English native-speaker to master the foreign language.

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  5. 1.

    “I would nearly always recommend a non-native English speaker when it comes to interpreting between two languages – the grammar of English is simply easier, meaning it is easier for a foreigner to master English than an English native-speaker to master the foreign language.”

    I think that the English grammar is not really that easy, except on a basic, superficial level. Are you saying that (most) native English speakers are not smart enough to learn a foreign language, including pronunciation, well enough so that they could pass for a native?

    If that is what you are saying, I think I would have to agree with you.

    2.

    What about people like me who have no native language anymore – for the last 30 years I have been speaking only English and some Japanese every day. When I speak Czech now, it sounds pretty strange.

    Shouldn’t we have some rights too? What would you call people like me who are not native in any language anymore?

    (My son calls himself “a Czechonese”, which seems to work like a charm with girls).

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek

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  6. 1) …I guess I am! 😉 The trouble with English-native translators is that most consider themselves good enough to translate when they are “good” compared to the general population (who are “terrible”). Compare this to the competition a German native translating from English will face.

    I do think that English is easier to make oneself understood in, and write pretty well, and that there are many non-natives who write better English than the English/Americans/Australians/Canadians etc.. I wonder if in fact the issue is that few natives speak the language well. I make MANY corrections when I proofread text written by English natives. Even professional copy writers. I am talking about genuine errors, too, not stylistic ones – although many seem to think some genuine errors are a “matter of taste”.

    2) I have no idea… I have not really met anyone like you face to face. 30 years is a long time. If you are an academic, too, it is a bit different. I have an Austrian friend who is amazing in English – educated here since he was 14 – but he still occasionally does not understand an expression – meaning that he also would not use that expression in his daily vocabulary…

    There is also a difference between people who have spent 30 years living in the country (and a single country – i.e. US and UK would cause confusing English in many cases), and 30 years using it as their language of communication in, say, Malaysia.

    I have no idea what category I would put someone like you in… The trouble is how to define people like you. Many would simply claim to be “neo-native” (or “re-naturalised”?) in English, when they are not.

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  7. This native vs. non-native issue is defined in a manner that is rather narrow, artificial and static in the minds of most people. And it shouldn’t be. It reminds me of the issue of race, which is another issue that is thought of in a static manner.

    Most blacks in US have some white blood in them and many people who appear to be white have African ancestry. For example, Obama is related to Dick Cheney. He was making fun of it during the campaign but now he looks more and more like Dick Cheney every day.

    I think that most of my clients don’t care whether I am a native speaker of English. It also helps that I only translate technical texts. I know my limitations. Even after 30 years of being immersed in English every day and earning a living by translating only into English, I do not feel that I am qualified to translate for instance novels from another language to English. I translated several books from Japanese but those were books about management methods, not novels.

    But I do believe that I may be a better translator of patents from foreign languages to English than most native English speakers simply because I translate patents from a number of languages, while most native speakers of English, especially if they translate from Japanese, know only one foreign language.

    In technical translation, it is all about exposure to subjects that one translates and it really helps when you translate materials about the same subjects from several languages.

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  8. Great article, and I can’t help but wonder – do you feel like you face this bias? Have you lost prospective clients because you’re not a “native” English speaker? I do agree that there is much less of a bias in technical writing, because there isn’t a need for “colloquial” English.

    Also, (I can’t help it, editing is my business!) I did see a few errors in your post – do you want me to share them?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting thoughts, Steve. Although my only native language is English, when in France I can sometimes pass myself as French. And my written French is very, very good. But I still would not translate into French (not for money, anyway), because I recognise that my natural instinct/feel for French is not the same as it is for English. For me, it has nothing to do with understanding or grammar.

    (By the way, I spotted a small mistake in this sentence: “But just because they would not be able to pass for a native does not mean that nobody else can’t do it either.” I think it should be “nobody else can do it either”.)

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  10. Thanks for the correction.

    If you lived in France and had virtually no contact with the English language for 32 years, you would be probably translating into French rather than into English because your natural instinct for English would be pretty much gone. It’s called language attrition. I am fluent in Czech, but I can translate into it only simple things like birth certificates at this point.

    But I could become fluent in it again if I moved back to Prague after about 6 months or a year, I think. But my wife won’t hear of it, and I am not too keen on experimenting with my life again at this point.

    How long have you lived in France? And why go back to England? I would probably stay there, preferably in a warm place near the coast in the South France.

    You say that your written French is very good. So you do write in French. Do you agree that it is much more fun to write in a non-native language than in your native language? I find it intellectually much more satisfying, but maybe it’s just me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We lived in France for four years, from November 2005 to December 2009. (I also spent an academic year there in 1992-93 during my degree course.) As to why we returned to England, there is no short answer, but one of the key reasons involved concerns over how our son was doing at school. (A discussion of the relative merits of the French and UK education systems is beyond the scope of a blog comment; suffice it to say that those who do well in school in France tend to be those who are highly self-motivated and academically inclined. Our son is very intelligent, but neither self-motivated nor academic; he was really struggling with school and we were becoming very concerned for his future.)

      There are many attractions to living in France, and there are many things about it that I miss. But there are plenty of negatives on the other side of the equation too. In the end, taking all things into account, we decided it would be better for us to return to the UK. (By the way, we lived in Normandy in the north west of France, so although slightly warmer than the UK, the weather was not a major pull to stay there.)

      You asked whether I find it more fun to write in a non-native language. I think it is in some ways, yes. I very much enjoy writing in French, and in fact would love to do more of it (nowadays it’s mainly restricted to e-mail correspondence with clients). I’d love to translate a good English book into French, just for the sheer fun of it (I don’t have the time at the moment). Having said all that, while writing in French is fun, if I want to really express what I’m thinking with conviction and passion, I need to write in English. I find I can express my heart and mind much more clearly in my native language than in French.

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  11. Only just realised that this post is from 2010! (For some reason it popped up in my RSS reader yesterday.) I probably read it first time around and have since forgotten about it.

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    • I get a lot of comments about posts that are 2 or 3 years old.

      I like to think of my posts as immortal, thought provoking, elegant writing, interspersed with numerous typos which I use as a trademark characteristic.

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      • Your comment makes me realise that I can’t have read this post the first time round, or I would surely have noticed the typo and pointed it out 😉

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  12. […] In fact, I believe that people who are truly “native” in more than one language do not e…, as the word native is a cognate of the Latin word “natus” meaning “born”, and unless you are James Bond or become reincarnated, you get to live only once. […]

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  13. […] The issue of native versus non-native speakers is often debated among professional translators. Native speakers sometime say that translators should be allowed to translate only into their native l…  […]

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  14. […] is great, there are also non native speakers who can translate just as good. One translator, in his blog, said that he considers himself to be without a native language. He said that he’s been away […]

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  15. Are comments allowed several years later? I’ve only just come across this.

    The “rule” about translating into your native language is very misunderstood and I suspect has come about as a way of countering poor translations containing a hideous, bastardised version of a language. Let’s face it, most people, including so-called “translators”, have over-inflated views of their language skills. The rule is only intended to be a guideline for the professional linguist. Of all people, we ought to be well aware of our own language limitations and strengths.

    Personally, I would say it is unusual to lose your native language, even after several decades of living abroad. My father has lived in Portuguese-speaking countries for 46 years and left his native England 60 years ago. Nobody would ever think him anything but a Londoner. Again, a linguist might achieve complete assimilation and in so doing perhaps lose their native language, but I think it is important not to apply that distinction across the board. In short, Steve, to me you are the exception, not the rule.

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  16. You don’t lose your native language, even after decades of living in another country while speaking another language.

    But unless you make a conscious effort to keep up with the language and spend time in your native country preferably every year, you will no longer be as fluent in it as you used to be, especially if you have nobody to talk to in your formerly native language. That is why I no longer translate into my formerly native language, only into English.

    If I am an exception to the rule, and there are many, many exception to this rule, doesn’t that mean that the rule is not really a rule, but only an oversimplification?

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    • No, it’s certainly not a rule which is why I put the word in inverted commas. It IS oversimplification, but I think makes sense to discourage a lot of subpar translation. English unfortunately is the worst victim when it comes to translators equating themselves with native speakers and unfortunately producing utter tosh, in the belief that it passes for competent English. It is also why you will probably find this “rule” being quoted by native English speakers more often than by anyone else.

      I can’t recall my reasoning now, but I suspect I put this in my FAQs to discourage requests for me to translate into French, Spanish or Portuguese and to go some way towards explaining why I do not do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. “I can’t recall my reasoning now, but I suspect I put this in my FAQs to discourage requests for me to translate into French, Spanish or Portuguese.”

    I believe that this is a mistake that many translators make. A Russian translator living in Germany (Yuri Tomarenko) wrote an interesting guest post on my blog on this subject a few years ago, you can find it by searching for “The Biggest Mistake Translators Make.”

    If an agency asks you to translate in a different direction, simply say no, sorry, guys. But if it is a direct client, why would you say no when you can enter into a collaborative relationship with another translator who can do what the customer needs?

    You can either act as an agent, which is what I do, or refer the customer directly to the other person if you don’t like being an agency, with or without a commission. If more translators started thinking as translation agencies, it would be a better world for us all.

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  18. I do refer work (without commission) to colleagues who work in my direction and whose work I know, but I only very rarely do so for colleagues working in the other direction. I would leave it for other native speakers to judge how good they are as translators.
    I should add, for the avoidance of doubt, that if a direct client ever asks me to do a job that is outside my area or not in any of my language combinations, I go out of my way to ensure the ball does not get dropped and they end up resorting to an agency.
    I will read Yuri’s post.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. […] looking for a different take on the discussion, check out these interesting posts: ‘The Importance Of Being A Native‘ & ‘Native or Non-native… This Is the Question‘. […]

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