Native on Non-native translation?

What is meant by the term native language?

The term “native language” (also known as “mother tongue”) is a particularly important linguistic concept in the field of high quality translation services. A person’s native language is one that he or she learns by speaking it within the family setting, beginning in early childhood; this is the language that the individual uses during their education and for day-to-day communication within society and their peer group, certainly until adolescence. Mastery of the native language comes spontaneously, naturally, and effortlessly. Most researchers highlight that this way of mastering a language is possible only up to a critical age - according to various sources, usually around 9 to 11. Evidence supporting this suggestion is that children who have not learnt to speak before this age (feral children or children with hearing disorders) subsequently find speaking and conversation extremely hard. Therefore, a person’s language may be considered “native” if they have become fluent in it before they are 6-7 years old. In a limited number of cases, two (or very rarely more) languages may be simultaneously mastered in such a way. This is generally as a result of both languages being used for everyday communication within the family.

Who can be considered a native speaker?

A native speaker is a person for whom the language under consideration is their mother tongue, i.e., as noted above, they have mastered it in their early childhood (before they reach 6-7 years old); this is the language they used during their education and for communication within their society as they grew up and developed their intellectual abilities.

Can a person learn how to speak a foreign language as if it were their mother tongue?

The process of mastering his or her mother tongue takes place at the same time as a child’s physical and intellectual development, as they study the world around them. The structure of the native language has a lasting effect on the formation of the child’s personality at all levels. The phonetic system involved even influences the development of the vocal apparatus itself (the reason why it is so hard to overcome your own accent when learning a foreign language). Human intellect also develops in close association with the native language as it enables us to name objects, to connect them in abstract groups, to create numerous associations, and to build logical relationships between them. That is why grammatical structures not embraced in one’s own mother tongue are especially difficult when studying a foreign language. Thus, mastering the use of Russian or French grammatical genders or case inflection is especially hard for native English speakers, simply because their minds must learn to notice and apply interrelations appropriately in contexts that they are unaccustomed to having to consider. Therefore, unfortunately, a second (or foreign) language can almost never be mastered to the instinctive level of the native language, although professional linguists may get very close to this ideal.

Is it best to use a translator working into their own native language?

In most cases it is preferable to employ a linguist who will be translating your text into their native language. Only then can you be sure that the meaning of the source text will be conveyed in a way that is clear and unambiguous for the target audience. The use of a native speaker in a linguistic project is particularly important when the translation is being made for producing promotional or marketing materials or for web content. Only a native speaker can reliably identify logical structures of the original that might be difficult for the target audience to understand, properly explain culture-specific concepts, and instinctively select the most suitable stylistic devices. However, translation by non-native speakers of the target language is often more appropriate for content where understanding and conveying original and precise factual information is paramount (e.g., the translation of civil documents, technical translation, and for certain cases of legal translation).

Can proofreading by a native speaker be used in place of using a translator with the appropriate native target language?

In the case of rare language pairs (for instance, translation from Kazakh to English) it can be difficult to find a translator with the appropriate native language who is also fluent in the source language. One solution in this case would be to use a translator who is good in both languages and then to submit the translation for proofreading by a linguist who is a native speaker of the target language (though not necessarily fluent in the language of the source text). In this situation the native speaker highlights any passages in the translation that sound unnatural for the target audience and suggests possible corrections. After that, the text is returned to an editor proficient in both languages of the pair. The editor then makes a decision on the suitability of the native speaker’s suggestions to ensure that they do not distort the initial meaning of the source text.

In some cases this method may actually lead to a better result than that of a translation made by a native speaker of the target language. Why? Often, source texts will contain a number of social and cultural references that such a translator may not recognize or might misunderstand and may therefore translate inappropriately. As a real-world example from our practice we can consider a project including the translation of a report on the Russian Army by a human rights organization. At the stage of revision it became clear that the English native speaker who translated that text was not aware of the cultural context and had not conveyed the meaning of some culture-specific elements in an appropriate manner.

Here are some further examples of corrections suggested by a native English-speaking proofreader, together with his explanatory comments:


Source text Original translation Suggested modification Comment
И уже многие наши клиенты, включая предприятия группы компаний «Газпром», оценили преимущества такого комплексного подхода. Many of our clients including Gazprom Group enterprises have appreciated the advantages of such comprehensive approach. Our clients, including the Gazprom Group, appreciate the advantages of such a comprehensive approach

Omitting ‘many of’ is proposed as its use could suggest that some clients do NOT appreciate the advantages!

The resulting translation is not incorrect, but cries out for a qualifying adjective to make the insertion useful. e.g. ‘including world-leaders like the Gazprom Group…’

Компания владеет и управляет портфелем из 13 готовых бизнес - центров в ключевых деловых районах столицы. The company owns and manages a portfolio containing 13 ready-for-service business centers in key downtown areas of the capital city. The company owns and manages a portfolio containing 13 ready-for-service business centers in key downtown areas of the capital. If the text is to be oriented to UK English speakers, it should be adapted to UK language style. For example, the UK equivalent for ‘downtown areas’ would be ‘business areas’ and ‘centers’ should be changed to ‘centres’; so the text would then be: ‘ready-for- service offices in key business areas of the capital.’
Восстанавливающая крем-сыворотка с опунцией и слизью улиток Regenerating Serum Cream with Opuntia and Snail Slime Regenerating Serum Cream with Opuntia and Snail Secretion Filtrate Word-for-word translation really doesn’t sound very nice in English; a more usual term is ‘snail secretion filtrate’ or the client could name it by using the Latin name of the snail and a usefully scientific-sounding term e.g. ‘Helix Aspersa glycoconjugate’, as appropriate

Крем-сыворотка мгновенно насыщает и восстанавливает уставшую кожу, стимулируя клеточное обновление, останавливает процессы старения.

Крем ликвидирует все следы стресса

The serum cream immediately nourishes and regenerates tired skin stimulating cellular renewal, and stopping the ageing processes

The cream removes the traces of stress

The serum cream immediately nourishes and regenerates tired skin, stimulating cellular renewal and helping to slow down the ageing processes

The cream can help to remove the traces of stress

This may actually be a claim that could be challenged legally. Suggested insertion of ‘help to’ could avoid legal challenges