Is a native speaker of the target language the best option?

The mother-tongue principle or native-speaker principle is a source of controversy among translators. It states that a translator should only translate into his or her native language; for instance, an English native speaker should only translate into English, and a French native speaker should only translate into French, etc. Many consider it the golden rule to ensure the best quality, fluency and linguistic and grammatical accuracy of the target text as linguistic intuition and mastery of a second language is rarely as good as in the mother tongue. 

Supporters of this principle argue that a benefit of using a mother-tongue translator is that native speakers are better at rendering stylistic details and nuances, and the target text will therefore be perfectly understood by those who read it because even if a person is highly skilled in a second language, there might be giveaway signs that they are not writing in their native language. The principle is mentioned, for instance, in the advice given by the American Translators Association (ATA) to translation buyers in Translation: Getting it Right

But this principle is just one of many factors that make a qualified translator, as he or she should also have knowledge of the subject matter, must be familiar with the target audience and their culture, and must have knowledge of grammatical and spelling rules, etc. Being a native speaker does not necessarily mean that a person can write well in his or her mother tongue. That is why many argue that this principle does not always guarantee quality and native speakers of the target language do not always produce correct and fluent translations.


The reasons for controversy

One reason for the controversy surrounding this principle among linguists is the difficulty of defining the concepts of “mother tongue” or “native speaker”. In the globalised world we live in, there are plenty of situations in which people grow up with complex linguistic backgrounds speaking more than one language regularly – For example, bilingual families in which each parent speaks a different language, or the parents speak one language but live in a country where another is spoken, where children speak one language at home and another in other domains of life, and bilingual or multilingual societies in which people speak two or more languages on a regular basis. Some people even claim not to have a mother tongue in the traditional sense. 

The definition of mother tongue is not always so clear-cut and, of course, even if a person is bilingual, he or she might speak more than one language fluently, but this does not mean he or she is good at transferring information between them, especially in writing. So being bilingual does not make someone a translator, and being a translator does not mean he or she can translate in both directions, i.e. from and into his or her native language. 

It should also be mentioned that bilinguals usually use their languages in different domains of life, such as family, school, work, friends, etc., and they rarely use all their languages in all domains. Hence, it is possible that they do not have equal and total proficiency in all their languages.

Of course there are exceptions; there are translators who translate into a “foreign language” with excellent results. However, while there are truly bilingual translators who are qualified to translate both ways and the circumstances and life experiences of every translator are completely unique, I would say that they are a minority and that in general, most translators translate into their mother tongue. In my experience, most translation companies, for example, demand that their translators work exclusively into their mother tongue, but I have heard of translators having to translate both ways because their language combination is rare and there simply are not enough translators to do the work.


The reason why I only offer translations into Spanish

As for me, I was born and raised in a Spanish-speaking family living in a Spanish-speaking country. I grew up speaking, thinking, and dreaming in Spanish, so, without a doubt, my native language is Spanish

I started learning English in kindergarten, and a big part of my current life occurs in English; I have obtained the highest certification in Italian as a foreign language, meaning my level of reading and understanding is high; and I did a big part of my studies in Germany, where I have been living for over a decade, so my knowledge of the German language and culture is vast. However, I do not write perfectly in English, Italian, or German. 

My passive knowledge of my source languages and cultures is higher than my active knowledge, and I simply do not write like a native speaker who grew up speaking those languages and immersed in those cultures. I consider it a matter of professional ethics to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses. 

At the end of the day, translators should ensure that their customers are getting flawless, fluent, and accurate translations. That is why I only translate into Spanish and do not even attempt to translate into my source languages, leaving such translations to native speakers of those languages. Language proficiency aside, I find it much easier and less time-consuming to produce good writing in my native language.

Ultimately, I think it is up to each translator and translation buyer to decide what is best for their business. A native speaker of the target language can, in many cases, deliver a more fluent translation, but there are also cases in which such native speakers might distort the meaning of the source text or cases in which non-native speakers of the target language can deliver top-quality translations. 


Should you need your documentation translated into Spanish, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be more than happy to assist you and provide you with my services. Should you need your texts translated into one of my source languages, I would gladly refer you to a translator from my network.


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