At any get-together of translators, one topic that surely heats up the conversation is the virtue or lack thereof of translators translating into their non-native language. In its most extreme form, one side declares that non-native speakers, regardless of their language level, are unable to express themselves in writing like native sons and daughters, who have had a lifelong education in that language. On the other hand, those excluded translators retort by claiming that this generalization is, at best, a form of unjustified elitism and, at worst, an attempt to limit competition, noting that many native speakers, even translators, are unfamiliar with the grammar rules of their own language. As usual, the truth is more complex with the full expectation that many will disagree with me.
To clarify, it is clear that interpreters, as compared to translators, can and often should be natives in the source language, not target language, since their task often involves almost instantaneous understanding of the speech of people from all levels of society and a need to understand the subtext. For example, an APTI conference in Valencia, a professional interpreter recounted how difficult and important it was to understand the testimony of uneducated women in Yugoslavia during the War Crimes Tribunal because they were talking about rape, a taboo topic. The interpreter had to understand the code language of these people while the judges could cope with less-than-perfect English. So, the arguments below do not apply to interpreters.
To help non-translators understand the problem, it is first necessary to realize that the demands of written communication are different from those of spoken communication in terms of learning process and flexibility. Formal education is not required in order to speak a language. Numerous people worldwide have studied a foreign language, even for several years and are barely able to get a sentence out while others, with no education but merely the opportunity and necessity to use the language, not only express themselves clearly but live their daily lives in that language. By contrast, people attain the ability to express ideas in a clear, acceptable manner in writing through many years of formal schooling. To one degree or another, written language is a dialect that is only taught in schools although reading and speaking contribute to its acquisition. Furthermore, speaking is an instantaneous act that does not allow for editing and thus accepts individual differences in style and even grammar. When we judge spoken language, the essential issue is whether the listener understands with accuracy a secondary factor. It is true that people may note grammar and vocabulary errors, especially teachers and translators, but these mistakes are generally forgiven. On the other hand, written language, especially English, a hodgepodge of various roots, is a polished product, like a diamond. Since writers (and translators) have the time to edit, readers expect a perfect result in terms of grammar, syntax and style. The requirements of those elements may evolve but do so quite slowly. The “accepted” manner of writing, with small variations, is de rigueur. Any writer failing to comply with those rules is harshly judged as the sharp reactions to grammatical errors in comments in social media shows. The scope of acceptable written communication is rather limited.
For this reason, native speakers generally categorically reject translation by non-natives in their language. Unless the foreigners were educated in that language from childhood, it is stated that they simply cannot write like a native but instead write in a hybrid style combining their native and second languages. Teachers call this language interference, which can also happen to natives after sufficient years living in a foreign country. Examples include Hebrish, where commas and preposition use is rather whimsical and Russian Engish, famous for its curious use of articles. Consequently, translations by non-natives may be accurate in terms of content but will sound “translated”, not seamless, the legendary goal of all translation. Specifially, Ideally, a proper translation should sound like it was an original work. Clearly, the vast majority of non-natives, Samual Beckett aside, are not capable of achieving that goal. Thus, in terms of attaining seamlessness, the nativists are correct.
Yet, supply and demand create a strong niche for non-native translators. First, even in the common language combinations such as Spanish-English, excellent non-native writing may be good enough for the customer or the customer may lack sufficient knowledge to detect the errors. On a larger scale, many languages used on one country with low population suffer from a lack of non-natives that have learned the language proficiently. For example, few Americans and Brits have learned Czech or Hungarian, to name a few. Thus, law students in the Czech Republics are also trained as English translators as there are insufficient numbers of native English translators in these combinations. In addition, the translation rates in a country may be too low to attract foreign-based translators, effectively giving local, non-native translators a virtual monopoly. The Russian Federation is the most striking example where non-native, local translation is the norm due to the price structure for the most part. Thus, in practice, non-native translation is rather common and acceptable in some markets.
As in most issues, the question whether it is acceptable or not for translators to translate into their non-native language is not black or white. Ideally, translators should only translate into their native language since they have the proper ear for that language. On the other hand, market conditions create a situation requiring translation by non-native speakers. Reality is often a shade of grey.
* Caption pictures to allow the blind access. Picture via Pixabay