No, You Don’t Always Have To Hire Native Translators

If you have ever been looking for a translator or if you are just interested in translation, you may have heard of what some call the “myth of the native translator”. Does that mean anything to you? If not, have a look at the website of any translation agency. You will probably find sentences such as “We only hire professional, native translators…” or “all our translators work to their native language…”

In the translation industry, it is widely admitted that a translator must translate to his mother tongue in order to produce the best results. While some just say that a native translator is often able to produce better translations than a non-native, many people in the industry – including academics and teachers – have gone further, and see this as an absolute rule. According to my teachers at university, translating to a language other than our mother tongue was a professional misconduct.

This “rule” rests on the assumption that we need to be a native speaker of the target language to be able to translate accurately the tone and the meaning of the source text, and to make the target text sound like it was written by a native speaker. In fact, this makes sense if we assume that we can never be as fluent in our second language as in our mother tongue.

Hang on a moment! I was born in the US before moving to Italy when I was 9! Are you saying that I shouldn’t translate from English to Italian, even though I can speak Italian like a native?

Good point! There are indeed a lot of examples where a translator can do a very good job, even though he is not translating to his native language. That’s why the idea that you have to translate to your native language only is too simplistic. Here is why you do not (always) need to translate to your mother tongue to translate well:


We don’t always write better in our mother tongue than in our second languages


I know that may seem contradictory. However, in my experience, a foreigner who has been studying a language for years will often make much less grammar and spelling mistakes than natives. As an example, although they are able to flawlessly speak in their own language, many French native speakers still do not master some basic grammar or spelling rules. On the other hand, foreigners who have been learning French for a while tend to have a better spelling and pay more attention to grammar. Although this is only based on my own impressions, saying that a native speaker can write in his own language better than a foreigner looks like an oversimplification.


Sometimes, it is hard to know what your mother tongue is


Some children are raised with two mother tongues, for example if their parents speak two different languages at home. I have once met a family where children could fluently speak in both English and French at 10 years old! What is their mother tongue in this case?

More generally, people who have been immersed in a multilingual environment at a young age can show a native-like proficiency in several languages. Therefore, it would be ridiculous for a translator with this kind of background to restrict himself to translating only to his “official” mother tongue.


Our life experiences matter


A lot of translators love to travel. And some of them live abroad, just like me.

Translation is not only about languages. The cultural background of the languages you are translating to and from is as important as the style of your translation. After living abroad for long enough, many people are able to translate to the language spoken in the place they are living in just as well as if they were translating to their mother tongue. Why? Because they have been immersed for long enough in this language and its culture to understand them as well as they understand their home country.

Of course, that takes time. Some translators start working in both directions (English>French and French>English for example) after spending 10 years in the country of their source language. Others wait 20 years, while some translators translate to their mother tongue only. This is my point here: everyone is different, and it is something of an over-simplification to say that a translator cannot, ever, translate to a language other than his mother tongue.

As an example, I almost always translate to my mother tongue, French, as I believe I haven’t spent enough time in English-speaking countries to be able to produce native-like quality translations. But once again, this is only a matter of life experiences!


The bottom line


Nowadays, many agencies work with translators working to their native language only, and use this fact as a marketing argument. I think this is both meaningless and dangerous for two reasons:

– Some translators can translate accurately in both directions. Translating to their mother tongue only is a waste of potential (and money) for them.

– Emphasizing too much the importance of being a native translator can be dangerous, as this is definitely not enough to be a translator. Translation is a skill you have to learn and polish over the years.

Keep in mind that everyone is different, and have a thorough look at the background of all your potential translators. A foreign translator who spent years travelling around the world can sometimes be a better pick than a native who has been staying in his home country his entire life!


Do you always work with native translators? I would love to hear from you!