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Naughty Non-Natives: The Reasons Why Translators Should Always Translate into Their Native Language

I don't know if it's through desperation to find work, or over-confidence in their own ability to express themselves correctly in all of their working languages, but since this lockdown began, I have seen hundreds of translators on social media claiming they can translate both out of—and into—their source languages, i.e. their foreign languages. For me, this not only screams a lack of professionalism, but also indicates a lack of understanding of what translation really is. I would never be able to produce a convincing translation, that is, a piece of writing in its own right, in French, Spanish or Portuguese as well as people who were born, and who have later been raised and educated, in countries where these languages are spoken. Likewise, no matter how much I have studied the cultures of countries who speak these languages, or how much I immerse myself in them during my free time, I will never understand them as well as those who have lived them first-hand on a daily basis for many years. That is why legitimate professional translators know the importance of working into their native language. So, unless they work with relatively unknown language combinations, such as Uzbek-English or Tigrinya-English, for example, and thus, have to work both ways due to there being a very limited, if not, inexistent pool of native English-speaking translators who work with these languages, they cannot be excused for offering translation into their foreign languages. I am therefore not targeting this blog post at professional translators, since they should know better. Rather, I intend to educate those unfamiliar with the language services industry about the need for professional translators who work exclusively into their native language.


Despite the reasons mentioned above, the main inspiration upon which I have drawn for this post has emanated from two people I know extremely well: a family member and a friend with whom I attend West Bromwich Albion matches. The latter was surprised to discover that I don't "turn English into French, Spanish or Portuguese" when we were discussing what I do before one game several months ago, while the former approached me to translate medical documents from English into Spanish. As much as I wanted to help my cousin-in-law out by translating this document, my professional self told her straight away that she needed a native Spanish speaker to do the translation. Although I am very confident when writing in Spanish, and would probably have been able to produce a comprehensible rendering of the original English text, it would have been highly unprofessional of me to take on this job, especially for money. So, if you're wondering why I only translate from French, Spanish and Portuguese into English, that is, from my second, third and forth languages into my native language, then this post has been written with you in mind.


Here are the reasons why you need a native speaker to translate your content.


1) Native speakers produce idiomatic (naturally sounding) translations:

Translators are language nerds by nature; we analyse language with a fine tooth comb, drafting phrases and sentences until we produce something that sounds as though it hadn't even been translated in the first place. Only native speakers can accurately render the meaning of the original text in a way that is so idiomatic in terms of style, register, tone, grammar and punctuation that the translated text represents a text in its own right. Translators consult bilingual corpora (collections of original texts alongside their translations), or perform Google searches with words within speech marks to check that a series of words or collocations (two words naturally used together) frequently occur in the target language (the language into which they are translating). They also modulate the original text (reshape phrases/sentences in the original text to conform to natural language patterns in the target language), and perform other techniques such as verbalisation (changing nouns into verbs), which I very commonly use when translating from French, Spanish and Portuguese into English. One example of the importance of modulation in translation is a press conference with Jurgen Klopp several years ago. When attempting to express his annoyance at his side's hastiness on the ball in English, he said: "We need to let the ball work do." Having recently started learning German, I know that this error occurred due to him carrying out a literal translation from German to English in his head, which almost fully maintained German's natural word order of subject (we) + modal verb (need) + direct object (the ball) + infinitive (in this case, "to let"). Although the infinitive "to let" is in the right place in the English sentence, the German rule of putting the infinitive at the end of a sentence when a modal verb is used influenced the way that Klopp expressed himself in English in this instance. If a native sports translator, like myself, had been able to translate the original sentence, they would have rendered this correctly as "we need to let the ball do the work." Whenever I self-revise my translations, I instantly spot instances of copying or sticking too closely to the word order of the original text, and thus, modulate my solutions to make them sound more natural in English. However, when I'm talking to my friends from abroad in other languages, I occasionally produce literal renderings of English phrases without realising, thinking I've expressed myself correctly in that particular language. In other words, even professional translators, who have spent years learning their source languages, are still not able to produce accurate, idiomatic language consistently in anything other than their native language. Another case in point of the need for native-language translation and/or interpretation is Marcelo Bielsa's interpreter, who often fails to accurately convey the meaning of the source text. This is because he often sticks too closely to the Spanish word order or uses many false cognates when expressing himself in English (words that look identical in the other language, but carry a completely different meaning). Native speakers never makes these kind of mistakes, which is why they are the only people you should ask to carry out a translation.


2) Native speakers fully understand the culture of the target language and the needs of the target audience (the people for whom the translation is intended):

In translation theory, the functionalist approach to translation states that the purpose of the translation and the audience for which it is intended shape the translation process, affecting the translator's overall approach towards the translation. This is often oberserved at the word level, for example, through a translation technique known as explicitation (providing a brief explanation of cultural phenomena known to the source culture, but unknown to the target audience, to facilitate the reader's understanding). For instance, I have recently completed a translation of a text promoting a local crafts exhibition in Mallorca, which contained many references to plants and objects found exclusively on the island. Therefore, as I knew that the target audience wouldn't understand these references, unlike a native Spanish or Catalan speaker to whom these plants and objects are commonly known, I decided to provide a brief explanation in brackets to facilitate the reader's understanding. Likewise, there are clear differences in the format of certain text types across languages and countries that only native translators would be able to adapt accordingly in their translation. For instance, when writing an essay on journalistic translation during my MA year, I spoke at length about the differences between articles published in French and British newspapers. British headlines tend to omit articles (the words "the" and "a") and rarely contain two phrases separated by a colon, for example, whereas French headlines typically include both. Similarly, British newspaper articles very rarely contain sub-headings, whereas they commonly feature in French-language publications. Keeping such features of French news articles in an English translation, even if they were translated idiomatically, would therefore violate the conventions of journalistic writing in English, and thus, go against the expectations of the target audience. This is because the translation should feel, look and be written as though it was published in English in the first place, which is something that can only be achieved, in an instance such as this, by a native English-speaking translator with experience in journalism. Translation in this sense is not only a linguistic exercise, but also a task involving the adaptation of the appearance and nature of a text to suit the culture in which it will be used. To elaborate further on this point, a game of ice hockey in an English-language text published by a Canadian author might be transformed into a game of football if it were translated into Italian, since football carries the same cultural significance in Italian culture as ice hockey does in Canadian culture, with both being their country's respective national sports. This instance of cultural adaptation therefore represents the translator's understanding of his audience's needs and how he has tailored this part of their translation to them.


In a nutshell, translation doesn't simply involve the transfer of words. It involves the rendering of the meaning, cultural significance and essence of the original text in a way that is natural, understandable and relatable to the reader for which the translated text is intended. Only native professional translators with their advanced knowledge of their working languages and associated cultures, in addition to their perfect command of their native language, are able to unearth the nuances of meaning and portray them accurately in the target language. The assumed knowledge of the intended reader, the common characteristics of the same type of text in the target language, and the language patterns of the target language are inextricably linked to the translation process, hence the need for a native translator who has lived and experienced all these things for many years. After one translator famously asked whether his Spanish was good enough to take on the gargantuan task of translating Don Quijote de la Mancha into English, he received this reply: "Is your English good enough?" In other words, it is more important for translators to have a perfect command of their native language than an in-depth understanding of their source languages.


If you need an accurate and idiomatic English translation of a French, Spanish or Portuguese text, please feel free to contact me.

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