Among the professional translation community, it’s generally agreed that translators should only ever translate from a second language into their mother tongue.
And that’s an excellent rule to stick to when you’re looking to work with a translator.
But some strangers to the world of translation get a little confused as to why that is.
They tend to assume that being a good translator is about having a flawless command of the foreign language.
I get the logic behind that thought process, but when you actually sit down think about it you realise the reverse is true.
A translator is, to all intents and purposes, a writer. To be a good translator, you need to know your own language inside out, and have a way with words.
Sure, some types of translation (like legal, medical or technical) rely more on the translator having a broad, specific vocabulary in both the source language (the language the text was originally written in) and the target language (the language the text is translated into). That’s not to say these kinds of translations require any less skill!
But the vast majority of translation work calls for creativity and accuracy in your mother tongue. To be able to turn out high-quality texts in your target language, you need to know it back to front, and sideways.
You don’t only need to be a native speaker, you need to be a cultural native. You need to know all the little things that, however long you spend living immersed in another language as an adult, it can be hard to pick up.
Your culture’s inside jokes, national heroes, significant dates, taboos, norms… the list goes on.
All of that, combined with talent for writing, is what makes for translations that don’t sound like translations, which is the goal we’re all aiming for.
You get to decide what your native language is
So, in theory, a translator should only ever work into their native language.
But this can become a problem when people start making snap judgements based on whether or not they judge someone to be a native, or not.
Your native language isn’t decided by your name, or your passport, or even where you were born.
And a lot of amazing translators find that this causes them problems. Even I have had people raising their eyebrows at my surname. It’s actually Irish. But the fact that my first name sounds convincingly Anglo-Saxon seems to reassure people.
It can be a much bigger issue if your name doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ your mother tongue.
The other day, I was speaking to a lovely translator who was born in Spain. She has a super traditional Spanish name but moved to the USA when she was just one year old and grew up totally immersed in American culture. She only translates into English from Spanish because, for her, English has always been her first language.
But she sometimes has a hard time justifying her native speaker status, and it can be stressful for her. Her name might be Spanish, but when you speak to her, she couldn’t be more American.
Your native language is whatever you feel it to be.
Generally, it’s the language you’ve had your formal schooling in, and the culture you’ve spent the most time immersed in. But it might be the language of the country of your birth, even if you’ve never lived there, if you’re totally surrounded by said language in your family life.
There are no hard and fast rules that can decide your native language if you’ve had a multicultural, multilingual upbringing.
But any self-respecting freelance translator will only ever offer to translate into what they know, deep down, to be their native language, so take them at their word and let the quality of their work do the talking.
Can a translator have two native languages?
Generally, people only have one language in which they consider themselves to be native.
A friend of mine, for example, was born in Italy and lived there for several years, before moving to Germany and having all her schooling there. Despite being entirely bilingual and bicultural, she now only feels comfortable translating into German from Italian and English.
But that’s not the case for everyone, and some translators that have had similar upbringings do feel entirely comfortable translating both ways and do it superbly.
It’s so important to work with native translators for the best quality results.
We just need to accept that native speakers come in all shapes and sizes, bringing rich cultural backgrounds with them.
Just like you should never judge a book by its cover, you should never judge a translator by their passport.