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Re: “Native language”

[the following is a reflection in response to a friend’s article; read that one first ]

A rule of thumb I have sometimes heard in the world of translation is that you should only really attempt to translate into your “mother tongue” or “native” language. My friend Anne, a professional translator both from English to French and French to English, recently posted on this topic, highlighting her particular situation of not having one sole “native” language, but rather two. She quotes a passage from a book by David Bellos:

What matters is whether you are or feel you are at home in the language into which you are translating.

In this way, bilinguals can asses their own ability to perform translations to their chosen languages.

Whilst this is fine for general conversation and personal satisfaction however, business is another matter, and I do not doubt that some persons of lesser ability may still bill themselves capable of the bidirectional feat — how then does a customer to such service then shape their yardstick?

I myself feel quite capable of translating freely between English and French, having been brought up in English for the first 9 years of my life by a language and poetry-loving father, and then in French for the ten years that followed that (albeit in an international school, so my street jargon might not be totally up to scratch in either dialect). But after having worked in a support role in both French and English, acting as a translation pipe between our American engineers and our French/Belgian/Swiss customers, the limits of my ability became quite apparent in the highly specialized world of I.T. and business. Process jargon and turns of phrase, managerial talk, technical speak, and the oh-so-French habit of turning one’s nose up at loanwords in preference of natively French terminology make for some jarring live translation, and lengthy deliberations on how to word emails.

So whilst I am very much at home talking in French, doing business in French, and even doing some creative writing in the langue de Molière (and you wouldn’t know I wasn’t 100% French, if that even means anything in this context), I could not allow myself to claim the ability to translate from English to French at a professional level. French to English however – fine. I would even tackle poetry translation in that direction.

Which raises another point – it is not sufficient for a person to speak a language to claim mastery over it. I know of many, many English-speaking persons who couldn’t paraphrase an idea in their own language properly, let alone express themselves in another language (it is also said that proficient foreign students of a language often fare better grammatically than the native speakers, but I digress). Ultimately then, it really doesn’t matter how “native” a language is to the translator. What really matters is how much time they’ve spent trying to use it properly and variedly.

So if a good translation comes from a good translator; and a good translator has studied their languages diligently; and you do not need to start out as a native speaker to go on to study a language diligently; then it follows that you do not need to be a native speaker of a language in any sense to professionally do professional translations – quod erat demonstrandum, and I rest my case.

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