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Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Native Speaker Myth: Translators

Eowyn Crisfield of Raising Bilingual Children has written a series of 2 posts on the topic of native speakers. The first one was devoted to teachers. The post basically explains why it’s not always preferable if a teacher is a native speaker because often he has been chosen for that very reason, and not for his education or talent for teaching.

In the other post, Eowyn goes on to explain why we can’t expect our multilingual children to show a level of language skills that would be somehow comparable with monolingual children. This is because multilingual children show specialisation of languages, meaning that they use certain languages in certain situations.

Maybe you would be interested in knowing that I occasionally work as a translator. So when I read Eowyn’s post, I pondered on how the myth of native speaker influences translators. And it does, on many levels.

First, it is sometimes assumed that if you bilingual, you are by default a good translator. Not true. That’s because of the very thing I explained above: language specialisation. A bilingual person might not know the vocabulary of his target language, but understand the source text very well. Therefore he or she won’t be able to translate the text. Balanced bilinguals, though they are an ideal worth striving for, are extremely rare.

Furthermore, the mere fact of being a native speaker of a language does not make you a good translator. And it does not even mean that you are able to translate a text into that language. However, many institutions, organisations and translations agencies require translators to only render texts into their mother tongue, on the ground of this being “professional conduct”. And while this seems logical and understandable, there are many exceptional translators who prefer not to translate into their mother tongue, for example because they know their expert vocabulary in the target language, for example because of their studies. I consider Polish to be my mother tongue, but I can translate texts into German.

There are many definitions of a “mother tongue”: it’s the language your mother used. It is your best, strongest language. It is the majority language. For most people, that’s the same thing. But not for all. So, in case of bilinguals, even the mother tongue becomes problematic.

So maybe it’s better to think of qualities that a translator should possess? It depends on so many things. For example, education is one thing. Of course, a strong knowledge of language is a must.

So, maybe it’s better to find translators who are just best suited for their work? And this doesn't mean that this person has to be bilingual or translate into his or her mother tongue, even though for most it’s easier and their translations are better. It just means that this person has to be good at what they're doing.

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  1. This is so true. Many language teacher jobs at universities for example are advertised as "native speakers" only. Same goes for translators. I can't count the number of times I was asked to translate things I know nothing about! Having to explain to people why I couldn't do it why often met with puzzled expressions.

    1. Annabelle, yes, and it's not only universities. Language schools do this, too. More and more, "normal" schools as well. As for translators, I think this is a reasonable requirement, however then you could miss awesome translators just because they prefer to translate into a "foreign" language. And, in case of bilinguals, this becomes even more complicated.


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