Is mother tongue crucial for translation?

We spend a lot of time for learning a foreign language. We study its grammar, vocabulary, style, and even its history and evolution. Moreover, we are trying to be always up to date about that language, improving it everyday. But how much time do we spend for our native language improvement? 🙂 (this is actually a rhetorical question that may determine some of you to start improve it as well) The general belief appears to be that native speakers are good translators into their native language. But how far is this true and is it true for all categories of translation?

So, first of all we should make a difference between the processes of translation and interpretation. We can view translation as the process of creation of text, by turning an original or “source” text into a text in another language. Interpretation on the other hand is the process of creation of speech, by turning an original piece of verbal communication into a piece of verbal communication in another language. These two processes differ in their input/output, duration, subject, etc. The translation is a written process and usually involves high specialized subjects. As we know, specialized texts have their own terminology and do not contain idiomatic expressions. Also, translations can be reviewed and referred many times before the final translation is delivered.

The native proficiency in the target language is outweighed by the acquired proficiency in the source language and the technical knowledge. In the intellectual processes of review and references both have to compete equally and the management of available time gap between input and output is more dependent on their intellectual and other resources than on their native language. However, in interpretation, native speakers outdo the non-native speakers on all counts. Since they speak naturally in the target language, they are fast in translation and render the meanings accurately in the native idiom, without having to look up references for words and usage. Their pronunciation, stress and accent, which are an extra burden for the non-native speaker, would be perfect and well accepted and understood. Their task is made further easy when it is about non-specialized speeches. The only common area of competition is proficiency in the source language, where again native speakers are at an advantage if the source and target languages are nearly related like Kurdish and Persian or Spanish and Portuguese. 

However, these advantages do not count so much when it is about a specialized texts such. Even the native speakers have to learn the specialized vocabulary like non-native speakers. When it is about translation of literature and poetry, here both the source language and the target language are equally important. So we may have to choose between the native speakers of one or the other language. This leads to the obvious search for bilingual or multilingual individuals, which is a trend nowadays. A bilingual native could be easily outdone by a non-native scholar of both the languages, as far as translation of specialized discourses are concerned, but to interpret our speech to a native audience we have to replace the scholar with a bilingual native.

So the mother tongue is important, though not crucial for translation:)


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