The Case for Non-Native Translators?

While the idea of a translator working out of their native tongue is the stuff of nightmares for many established professionals, I recently took part in a round table discussion that briefly centred around questioning whether or not this method could actually be beneficial to translation.

Though the topic only came up in passing and there was little real support for the notion at the time, the discussion stuck with me and I thought that I would dedicate today’s post to entertaining this idea.

In the real world of translation, professional associations such as the ITI state that:

members shall translate only into a language that is either (i) their mother tongue or language of habitual use, or (ii) one in which they have satisfied the Institute that they have equal competence

[I find this definition of a “native language” as a “language of habitual use” to be a much more balanced distinction than “mother tongue” and, as such, here we’re using “non-native” to designate a language that is not that of habitual use]

However, while these guidelines forbid non-native translation, Antoine Berman’s conception of the aim of translation as receiving the “foreign” as “foreign” – where this encounter with the “foreign” enables the receiving culture to grow and develop – hints at the potential benefits of such a method (after all, who better to transmit this “foreignness” or “otherness” than somebody with extensive experience of that very other?).

So, aside from the obvious situation involving a rare language pair, where the use of a non-native translator is inevitable (though not necessarily preferable), what else can non-native translation offer us?


Understanding

A seemingly obvious benefit is that native speakers should have a comprehensive command of the source language and culture, allowing them to unpick the most convoluted jargon with greater ease than a non-native – undoubtedly a valuable attribute in a translator.

However, simply being a native speaker doesn’t guarantee comprehension. There are plenty of topics in English that are beyond my understanding and, as a result, you won’t be able to get to the heart of a text without hiring a specialist.

Furthermore, unless this command of the source language is mirrored by the translator’s target language ability, that understanding won’t be reflected in the translation. It’s all well and good to perfectly understand a source text but if you can’t transfer that understanding into the target text then it is all for nothing.


Innovation

Taking Berman’s lead once again, it can be argued that the non-standard use of a target language (influenced by an increased proximity to the source language) may result in innovation that can help the receiving language to develop.

One interesting anecdote I came across recently was the story behind the name of famous video game character Donkey Kong (the tie-wearing gorilla at the top of this post). Allegedly, creator Shigeru Miyamoto believed “donkey” could mean “stupid/stubborn” (depending on which sources you read) in English and assumed that the name Donkey Kong would convey the sense of “stupid/stubborn ape” to an American audience.

When he suggested this name to Nintendo in America he was initially ridiculed but the name stuck and, subsequently, some of those intended associations will have surely attached themselves to the English term given the character’s iconic status. While this usage stems from poor target language skills rather than his proximity to the source language, it neatly demonstrates the potential value of non-native language use.

In reality, though, how often will this be the case? The other side of the coin is that this improper usage can simply see us disregarding necessary grammar rules and misrepresenting a language by failing to adequately capture potentially key elements of meaning. For every Donkey Kong there will be a thousand translations like the one below (and much worse, no doubt) that negate any potential positive effects.


Visibility

With concerns remaining over whether or not translators get suitable recognition for their work, perhaps the implementation of non-native translation and these “innovative” usages offers us a way to differentiate translators’ work as an independent form of writing and increase the translator’s visibility. If all translations were produced by non-natives, we’d have a much better idea of when we are reading a text in translation.

However, when confronted with today’s standards of translation, which require perfectly readable, error-free target texts (a standard that professional guidelines – including the stipulation outlined above – are seemingly designed to uphold), these new translations are likely to be rejected outright and, if they did get released into the world, they would perhaps just serve to make translation synonymous with unreadable garbage.

Sure, we’d know when a text has been translated but we’d also be likely to quickly decide to steer clear of any translations in the future… Not quite the positive result we had in mind.


Clearly, concrete benefits of non-native over native translation are fairly hard to find and, while collaboration between native and non-native translators could prove to be a beneficial course of action in some situations, this solution is often impractical.

Ultimately, however, I find this entire discussion to be overly general and prescriptive. The basic label of native or non-native is not enough to assess what really matters: translation competence.

The fact that a translator is stronger in the source language than the target language does not necessarily dictate that their translations will be poor as a range of other, supporting skills also play an important role.

Both the Donkey Kong and the “don’t touch yourself” examples demonstrate a clear lack of linguistic/cultural knowledge and research skills and these are a vital part of any translator’s skill set.

However, while we cannot routinely assume that non-native translations will always be inferior, perhaps the most important element of translation competence in contemporary professional practice is the ability to produce error-free target language texts and, in my experience at least, that ability is much more likely to be found in a qualified “native” speaker.


– If you’re looking for a different take on the discussion, check out these interesting posts: ‘The Importance Of Being A Native‘ & ‘Native or Non-native… This Is the Question‘. Enjoy!


5 thoughts on “The Case for Non-Native Translators?

  1. Vadim Kadyrov says:

    There are a lot of situations when you simply don`t have a native speaker of the target language. Sometimes even gist translation will suffice. You can of course wait for a native speaker for a day or two, but if you have someone right here, right now, why not?

    Sure, much of this discussion is purely theoretical. A lot of factors have to be considered before you hire someone.

    One basic statement is true: non-natives may and (sometimes) are encouraged to do this job. Why not?

    • jaltranslation says:

      I agree, there are plenty of situations when a non-native translator is a perfectly acceptable choice (such as gist translations or rare language combinations). People within translation regularly take such an uncompromising line on the subject but the context of course has to be taken into account. You’d think translators of all people would realise this 😀

      Thanks for your comment Vadim, hope your week has started well!

  2. Bob Myers says:

    Very confused by this post. The title is “the case for non-native translators”. However, the final paragraph says that ” the ability to produce error-free target language texts and, in my experience at least, that ability is much more likely to be found in a qualified “native” speaker.” So what are you proposing, exactly?

    A thread I see here and elsewhere is that the source language is so specialized and unique and difficult to understand that no one other than a native-speaker of the source language could possibly really understand it, and that that benefit outweighs whatever the negatives are of less-than-native target language ability. I see this especially when it comes to Japanese as a source language. Well, that’s just wrong. A competent translator of course knows the source language in great detail–if he doesn’t, he’s not a competent translator.

    The notion that non-target-native translators are going to somehow improve the target language through their “innovative” translations is, well, just bizarre.

    • jaltranslation says:

      Hi Bob, thanks for taking the time to comment. Sorry for the confusion, the title of the post is actually meant to be a question rather than a statement (although I did add a question mark a clearer title would have been better – perhaps something like ‘Can we make a case for the use of ‘non-native’ translators?’, but that’s not particularly internet/Twitter-friendly, something I have to take into account when writing a post).

      This post wasn’t intended to make the case for using non-native translators but rather to briefly discuss the potential merits of using non-natives based on what I was thinking about and reading at the time.

      In truth, I don’t think the threads you mentioned in your second paragraph (regarding native speakers being the only ones able to understand a source text [“A thread I see here and elsewhere is that the source language is so specialized and unique and difficult to understand that no one other than a native-speaker of the source language could possibly really understand it”]) really reflects what I wrote. My exact wording was “native speakers should have a comprehensive command of the source language and culture, allowing them to unpick the most convoluted jargon with greater ease than a non-native”. There is no suggestion that natives are guaranteed to have that knowledge or that non-natives cannot gain access to that knowledge, just that a comprehensive command of the source language and culture (which should of course be part of a competent translator’s skillset) should be more common among native speakers and will make the process of reading and understanding a source text go more smoothly.

      As for the idea that “that benefit outweighs whatever the negatives are of less-than-native target language ability”, the paragraphs following the one quoted above state the exact opposite – without the corresponding target language ability, that benefit is completely irrelevant.

      Finally, yes, it is a rather bizarre idea, and not something that I really subscribe to. However, if we extend the threads developed by Berman, Appiah and even someone like Venuti, where an inherent value is placed in the foreignness of a text, this is one potential line of enquiry. If we can produce estranging effects that are not so extreme as to be self-defeating then perhaps we would see some innovation in the form of new usages, rather like a foreign accent… Of course, experience in professional translation tells us that in reality this is generally just going to produce horrible results and it’s certainly not going to take off as the dominant translation methodology any time soon.

      Thanks again, Joe

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