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Native or non-native, that’s the question

Why native speakers aren’t necessarily better at translating

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Portrait von Susanne Holzer. | © punkt & komma
Susanne Holzer
Content editor

One thing’s for sure: The World Wide Web has its name for a reason. Countries and cultures that are usually separated by many hours on a plane are only one click away from each other in the online world. Your corporate website or online shop are ideally not just seen by Mr. Maier from next door – but also by Mr. Andrews from Berlin or Mrs. Sanchez from Madrid. The fact that not all of them speak German is quite obvious. So, having an English (or multi-language version) of your site makes perfect sense – especially for the following reasons: 

With an English version of your website … 

  • … you’ll reach a larger target audience. 
  • … you’ll improve your search engine rankings. 
  • … you’ll demonstrate a strong customer focus. 
  • … you’ll highlight the international orientation of your brand.
  • … you’ll have an edge on the competition. 

 

Now, who should be in charge of the English translation of your website? You – with your school-level English? Your customer service representative for the English-speaking realm? Perhaps an external translator might be better, after all. Clearly: What you need is a native speaker, because who else could possibly provide a perfect translation? But is that really the case …? 

Seite eines aufgeschlagenen Englisch-Wörterbuches | © unsplash

Native speakers

The holy grail of translation

Many companies insist on having their documents translated exclusively by native speakers – in other words, by people whose mother tongue is English. Native speakers seem to be the holy grail of language proficiency. Because, after all, they know how to speak English! Consequently, you’ll receive the highest-quality translation from a native speaker. 

Yes, but: This might be true, but only to a certain extent. Granted, a native speaker probably knows all the finer shades of meaning and subtext when it comes to his native tongue. But let’s start from the beginning … 

What does it mean to be a native speaker?

That’s where it starts to get interesting … Strictly speaking, the term “mother tongue” implies – as the name suggests – that this is the language spoken by the mother and then passed on to her child. But what about countries where multiple languages are spoken? And what about families where the mother and father of a child don’t speak the same language? 

Imagine the following scenario, for instance: A Turkish family that has been living in Germany for generations has a child. At home, both parents speak Turkish – in kindergarten and in school, the child learns German right from the get-go. Which language does the child become more proficient in? In which language does it acquire proper grammar? And what about the better writing style? 

As we can see, the concept of a “mother tongue” is a little tricky. That’s why translators usually speak of this language as someone’s “first language” or “L1”. It’s the first language that is acquired in childhood – regardless of the context. 

The native-speaker principle

It’s quite obvious that people usually have more resources to draw on in their first language than in a foreign language. Translating into your “own” language is usually quicker, and difficulties in finding the right wording are less likely to occur. When translating into a foreign language, even the best translators inevitably have to consult a dictionary a little more frequently. 

Many companies and translation agencies thus rely on the native-speaker principle. A German translator only translates into German, a British translator only translates into English and so on. The so-called “target language” is always the translator’s mother tongue or first language. 

Globus auf einem Tisch | © unsplash

Are native speakers automatically better at translating?

So far, so good – a native speaker has the highest level of language proficiency and is thus more qualified as a translator. True? No! Or rather: yes and no. 

Having a language as one’s mother tongue doesn’t necessarily mean that this makes you a good translator. After all, not everyone who is a native speaker is automatically also a good writer. 

Let’s flip this question around: There are about 8 million people in Austria – for most of them, German is their mother tongue. Would you unhesitatingly let just any one of them write the cover letter for your dream job? Probably not … 

Even a native speaker can be bad at translating

Besides writing style, there are many other requirements that a good translator needs to fulfil. Some of them we’ve already touched on in our article “4 web copy translation myths”. The bottom line: A bad translator is still a bad translator, even if he or she is a native speaker. 

After all, being a native speaker won’t save them from the following pitfalls: 

  • Difficulties in understanding the source text: A native speaker of the target language doesn’t necessarily also understand all the finer shades of meaning of the source text. They might have an excellent understanding of their first language but lack the necessary language skills in the source language. And if you don’t understand a text, there’s no way you can translate it correctly … 
  • Lack of specialist knowledge of a topic: Even an English native speaker isn’t an expert on all topics. It’s simply impossible to be equally well versed in topics such as law, medicine, formwork technology and horticulture, and to know all the specialist terminology. 
  • Lack of intercultural competence: Languages don’t all work the same way. They are always shaped by the culture and circumstances of life in the respective country. Many mental images and concepts that make complete sense in one language don’t make sense at all in another. Translation is the art of finding an image that works in the target language – and this requires both cultural competence as well as creativity. 
  • Bad writing style: Translating is an equally creative process as writing the source text. It’s not enough to know how one word translates into another language. It needs to be “packaged” correctly – this means, readers must remain under the impression that this text was written specifically for them. It shouldn’t become apparent that they have a translated version in front of them. Correct grammar, sentence structure and punctuation are just as important as an appealing writing style. 
Zwei Wandregale mit Gegenständen mit englischer und amerikanischer Flagge | © unsplash

Why non-natives are a viable alternative

So … what’s better? Translations by native speakers or by non-natives? That’s a question that ultimately leads you to a point of absurdity. The better translations are delivered by the better translators – whether they’re native speakers or not! 

Some food for thought: Did you know that getting a degree in translation studies takes multiple years? For most language pairs, having the necessary language skills is a PREREQUISITE for enrolling. If language skills alone were enough, what would all those hard-working translation students spend so many years at university for? 

The bottom line: If your translator is a native speaker – great! But what matters first and foremost is that he or she is a good translator! The term “native speaker” isn’t a quality seal, and it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get the best translation for your money’s worth – far from it! Having a qualified non-native who is really good at translating often gives you a much bigger bang for your buck. 

Choosing the right translator not only saves you time and money, but hopefully also spares you the humiliation of finding your website listed among the worst translation fails

After having read this article, you’re now looking for a good translator? Then go ahead and find out more about what punkt & komma offers in the area of English web copy & translation

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