Does a translator's native language matter?

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Do translators work both ways? Can they translate into either of their languages?

Note: This article distinguishes between translators and interpreters. To understand the difference between these professions, see "What's the difference between translation and interpreting?".

If a translator works with French and English, we might think that they could take task of translating from either language into the other with equal ease.

In actual fact, it really matters which is the translator's native language. That is, unless the translator is completely bilingual in both languages. This happens, but it is certainly not always the case.

Translators with professional standards typically only translate into their native language. This means they read the original version in their second language and write the translated version in their native language, which is their stronger language. This is even true of very good translators.

(Note that this standard applies to translators, not interpreters. Indeed, interpreters are often required to transition back and forth between their languages!)

Receptive skills vs productive skills

Shouldn't a highly skilled translator have exactly equal skills in both languages?

Not necessarily. There are two categories of communicative language skills.

1. Receptive skills

  • listening

  • reading

2. Productive skills

  • speaking

  • writing

Which of these skills are easier? Of course, particular strengths are dependent on the individual.

There is a general rule, however:

In their native language, users should confidently be able to employ both receptive and productive skills. In their second language, users generally exercise receptive skills with greater ease, efficiency and precision than productive skills.

  • The receptive skills, reading and listening, are about recognition. They are more controlled, easier to process and have less risk involved. Consider a multiple-choice test, where information is presented for the correct answer to be selected.

  • The productive skills, writing and speaking, are more creative and higher-risk. They take place in an open field of possibility, where there may be many possible ways and means of arriving at a certain outcome. Productive skills take more planning to carry out correctly. In the same analogy of a test, this would be like writing an essay answer to a question.

What's so special about your native language?

Your native language gives great power and versatility. Expressing ideas in your native language is almost instinctive and often requires no special preparation to produce a flawless presentation. In revising written work, the eye of a native speaker can instantly recognise errors made in their own language with no need to process or question.

Translators work very confidently when reading their second language and translating into their native language. It is easier, more efficient, and brings less risk of unnoticed errors. It is possible to draw with precision from the native speaker's vast mental stock exactly the word and tone that is needed. A skillful native speaker intuitively knows which words are elegant and which are clunky.

The same translation work can be laborious and risky when translating into a second language. Even for an excellent translator, writing in one's second language can never be expected to attain the same standard and capacity as what can be achieved in the native language.

An unregulated industry

This important standard of professionalism goes widely unacknowledged in the field of translation. The translation industry is generally unregulated and there are many low-quality translators who advertise themselves as being equally skilled at translating in either direction.

This common misconception sometimes creates the need for truly professional translators to work hard to reach a difficult standard. In some parts of the world, translators may commonly be considered viable only if they are translate in both directions.

Indicating Language Direction

Translators will generally show their translation direction as a language pair with arrow symbols.

For example, 'French>English' means that this translator will only translate into English.

Notice that 'French<>English' indicates that the translator is willing to translate either way, .e. into French or into English. Hopefully this translator is truly bilingual!

Do you have a question about linguistics or the language industry? Ask Shana to learn more.

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