Is being a native speaker enough?

Professional translators should translate from one or more foreign languages into their native tongue: this is a point on which all experts agree. There are few cases of perfect bilingualism which allow translators to work indiscriminately in both directions. This is above all due to the fact that translators are required not only to master a language, but also the world behind it; they must bridge the gap between the two languages by conveying every single nuance.

However, an excellent understanding of the foreign language does not necessarily guarantee a good translations as additional qualities are also important; the translator must be able to write a grammatically correct target text which is faithful to the original message and features an appropriate and up to date language. Not all native speakers are able to write a good quality text. In fact, according to statistics, the percentage of Italians with high level Italian proficiency is particularly low (as low as 16%!)

In order to further examine why translators must be more than just native speakers, the translator’s country of residence should also be considered: often native speaker translators who are not living in their country of origin experience problems caused by the interference of the foreign language on their native tongue. This can affect their lexical and syntactic style. Living abroad makes it hard to follow the evolution of the native language and causes a loss of familiarity and a subsequent weakening of the language. However, since globalisation often results in the decision to live in a foreign country for various personal, job or family related issues (which however can also offer big advantages such as understanding the foreign culture), the translator is required to keep in contact with the written and spoken native language with the help of frequent visits to their country.

Finally, the last question we would like to consider is the “native speaker, yes, but of which language?” question which is the relationship of the native speaker with an official language. Sometimes translators define themselves as native speakers of a “huge” international language of which they only use a local variation (such as English or French in colonial Africa for example) which reflect the vast changes which were necessary in history to express the individuality of the culture.

All translators should therefore make time for the ongoing improvement of their skills in their own languages. Usually, the study of a foreign language is given priority over a native language. However, improvement of the latter is essential because, as previously observed, it is a key translation tool.

Originally posted 2013-01-29 15:47:25.

  • Lei Kristianne Bernard

    Hi! I don’t believe that being a native speaker is enough. You also need an advanced knowledge of vocabulary. Even if you’re a native speaker but you only know colloquial or everyday terms, that will pose a problem. You will inevitably encounter advanced words at one point of your translating career. What I did was hire a teacher for an advanced course. It helped me a lot. I thought I was already good at it. Turns out I had a lot more to learn.

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