Most translators work daily with their native language. It’s been said that to be an effective translator, you have to be proficient in the source language, and masterful in the target one. But why is this?
Say you’ve got a project that requires translation —doesn’t everyone? — and you go through the usual channels. You hire a translator, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Isn’t that the way to go?
You bet it isn’t!
Finding a good translator isn’t just about getting someone off the street who knows two languages. There are many proficiencies and skills that are particular to the translation trade. One is being an actual good writer in the language they will be translating to. This is also harder to ascertain unless they’ve assembled a decent portfolio that you can examine in-depth.
Even then, having them translate into their own native language is not a guarantee of quality. Let’s go over some of the finer points of native-language translation to help you make informed choices!
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
So, translation… what’s that again?
All right, no problem in starting from the top! Translation basically means conveying the meaning and spirit of a document or speech into another language. The former is translation as commonly thought, the latter is called simultaneous interpretation.
Translation occurs across a variety of mediums. It’s one of the reasons we’ve got such a widespread marketplace of products and ideas on the internet. Localized versions of websites and intellectual property abound. Translation doesn’t just make things understandable for a wider variety of people; it engages new audiences and makes them feel as if they’re being addressed directly.
In short, translation is the way ideas are conveyed reliably, bridging gaps and making us feel closer to each other. That’s a good thing whether you’re thinking politically, culturally, or commercially.
When talking about business, then, translation allows you to increase your branding outreach. It captures new markets and, most importantly, wins hearts and minds. A good translation shows you care, and that you intend to engage with your audience on their own terms.
Native language translation
Still with me? Translators are required to know two languages, then. One is the source language, the one that’s going to be translated from; the other is the target language, or the one that’ going to be translated into.
Not that hard, right? So, what is all this native language hubbub? Well, you will essentially want your translator to be a good writer and an outstanding reader. How so? Let’s set up an example:
If their native language is English and the source language is Spanish, what does this mean for a prospective hirer? It means they’re going to want to ensure the translator’s proficiency in reading Spanish, for one. The other, equally important part, entails the translator proving how good a writer they are in English. The final piece of the puzzle will be their research skills.
Let’s break it down into parts to analyze it in a little more detail!
Being a reader
This is where everybody learning a second language has found themselves in at one point or the other. The debate on formal education vs. being self-taught will ever rage on. This article doesn’t intend to settle that debate. What it does do, though, Is establish a standard for a translation job.
To continue with the previous example, you don’t have to be the Puss in Boots to establish your translator’s Spanish bonafide. You just have to make sure that they can pass (and ideally have passed) a standard proficiency test. It doesn’t matter where they acquired their knowledge, regardless of what people say. Unless you’re in a country where you require a certified translation by a specialized governing body, this point is moot.
If a translator can establish their reading, writing and listening comprehension in a language, that should be all. It’s not necessary for them to be fully bilingual in both languages either. Most translators I know couldn’t pass for natives when speaking their second tongue. Does that make them bad translators? Not in the slightest!
For all things related to translation (not interpretation), your main focus will be their reading comprehension skills. If those —and their knowledge of grammar and syntax — are very good, you don’t need them to have secret-agent-level bilingual skills. Sometimes it even goes bad for them (spoilers for that Tarantino movie).
This, of course, does not apply for the reverse. Sometimes translators work with their non-native tongue as the destination. Then, you will need to establish their writing skills. Of course, there are exceptional second-language writers around. But, trust me when I say this, they are probably not as dime-a-dozen as great readers.
Writing in their native language
After all, it’s easier to polish one language skill to perfection. It takes years of study, practice and cultural immersion. It’s quite another to master two (writing), or three (speaking). Point being, when it comes to writing in the target language, it’s usually a much safer bet to go with a native.
This is not to discriminate against truly bilingual people. It’s hedging your bets on the side of averages. I don’t believe it’s controversial to state that there is probably a greater degree of good native English writers compared to those that have it as a second language. The fact that there are many from the latter camp that write extraordinarily does not invalidate that claim.
What’s the best way to get around this issue? Simple: ask for proof of their writing. They should have a decently-sized portfolio from which you can gauge how their writing looks. You don’t have to be the next Shakespeare to know whether it reads or flows naturally.
This is where you need to practice discernment. The first thing you should keep an eye out for is literal translation. What’s the first warning sign you’ve got a clunker on your hands? Weird. Yes, it’s the fact that the text is not reading quite right. Stilted sentences, weird turns of phrase, jokes that just don’t land — all are telling you something.
They’re usually a damning indicator that something is off. You see, this person can be a great reader. Maybe even truly bilingual. But that doesn’t mean that they have the ability to recognize or create great-quality writing. They may fall into the trap of 1/1 translation, producing a set output to an input.
How do we avoid this?
But translation is not just that. It’s conveying the spirit of a document rather than just its words. A translator is engaged in a process of partial co-authorship; while they should endeavor to be as invisible as possible, they’ll be exercising judgment calls all the time. What to leave as-is and where to alter things is part of a day’s work.
Jokes and extremely local humor or turns of phrase are good examples. “Tres tristes tigres comen trigo en un trigal” is a famous Spanish tongue-twister. It roughly translates to “Three sad tigers eat wheat in a wheat field.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it, right? What’s a translator to do? If this particular wordplay is of no greater narrative interest, they may insert an English analog. If the narrative requires it, though, a more involved approach may be merited.
It’s not uncommon for translators to have to add their own brand of writing flair. With the previous example, maybe a whole new tongue twister that makes sense for both English and narrative reasons may be in order.
And this is not even half of it. Character voices and personalities are another common sticking point. If a character has the prose of an old Castilian nobleman, what does that translate into in English? What accent, personality, and word choice should the translator go for? These quandaries are common for any translator working in their native language.
And this leads us into another requirement which I aim to elucidate about: research.
Them research skills
Another oft-overlooked point. And it’s the one that puts the great native language translator and the bilingual star to shame, occasionally. Research is not just about looking up stuff in a thesaurus. It’s about knowing what you don’t know. If any translator ever says that they have the final, all-inclusive, perfect knowledge of whatever language, do like Lenny. You can even have the awesome sideburns while you’re at it.
The quest for knowledge and perfection is never finished. That’s the long and the short of it. No matter how experienced, versatile and awesome a translator is, they’ll always have gaps. There’s always that new slang, that new colloquialism, that new Urban Dictionary entry. It’s impossible to stay up-to-date about every nook and cranny of language. And that’s something that both clients and translators need to accept sooner rather than later.
Being a translator means being part of a living profession. That means always researching, always double-checking. In the previous section, I discussed giving voice to a character with a distinct tone. That usually requires searching, finding analogs; it requires meticulous, thorough testing for compatibility and nuance; it will mean exhaustive analysis and preparation.
In the end, it will require the only way to make all that knowledge and research come together: good writing.
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Summing up my thoughts about native language translation
As you can probably tell, people have an easier time translating into their native language. That’s just the way it is generally. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find your own language wizard in your internet searches. There are plenty of great translators out there. Some have native-level capabilities in both languages; some don’t. But the best way to get out of analysis paralysis is to remember to check the three main guidelines:
- Can they read well in the source language? Do they have an understanding and clarity of what’s being said?
- Do they know how to write well in their native language? (This also applies to true bilinguals. Are they as good at writing as a native? If they are, mark this as a “check”.)
- Do they know what they don’t know? Are they equipped with the tools and learning capability to change that?
If the answer to all three is “yes”, then you, my friend, have got yourself a translator.