The importance (or not) of native interpreters.

As all interpreters know, when translating from language A into language B the accepted wisdom (or dogma) is that the interpreter must be a "native" speaker of language B. (I have never liked the expression "native language"; nobody is born speaking a language but learns it, whether this be from school, parents or friends). However, recently I have been rather shocked on hearing some sub-standard translations of none other than the president of the United States of America, particularly when he makes off-the-cuff comments like "I figured that'd be an applause line". Obviously, such comments are far more difficult to grasp for a non-native interpreter, yet it is precisely such an interpreter that common wisdom says we should employ. And this is precisely my point.
In interpreting, "from" means understanding the speaker, whereas "into" means interpreting the speaker. Is the latter always more important than the former? What if the interpreter has not understood the speaker correctly in the first place? Interpreting then becomes futile. I am sure that Mr. Obama would feel far more comfortable when he visits Beijing if he hears a Chicago accent talking to him, but would it not be more useful to have someone who grew up in Chaoyang listening out for him? Such an interpreter may not get the English wording exactly as Mr. Obama would like, nor may they even have a perfect English accent, but they would be far less likely to make blatant mistakes as I have heard in his translations into Spanish recently (in the media in Spain). Obviously, the natural suspicion that the language is not being correctly translated when one hears a non-native accent may be further aggravated in this case by political suspicions. Perhaps Mr. Kennedy may have thought it wiser not to have native Russians and Cubans translating for him during the missile crisis.
This was brought home to me recently when I overheard a native Spanish translator friend talking on the radio into English. At first I thought this was bad practice, but on listening further I realised that she was doing a very good job. I myself may have phrased things a little differently being a native English speaker, but she had obviously understood the speaker perfectly, and being an experienced linguist she was able to translate the ideas more than competently.
Another example came from an Australian translator friend who was recently back in Spain. She informed me that the second person plural is now common in the Melbourne area and spreading fast as received English. ("Yous feel surprised" I imagine). If the Japanese prime mininster were to visit Australia with his own native Japanese interpreters, this may well lead to misunderstandings.
Then there is the case of increasing specialisation. Being a native speaker is of little importance on an oil rig if the interpereter knows nothing about engineering, and it seems to me that technical knowledge in this case should be favoured over nationality. Equally, a poet should not be interpreted by a linguist whose favourite read is "Astrophysics Weekly".
Obviously I am not proposing here that a U-turn should be made in the general line of thought in interpreting, and it is assumed that the interpreter must certainly fully understand the speaker anyhow (though I am shocked to see this is not always the case). Moreover, it is clear that non-native speakers who have spent a considerable time in another country usually have a complete grasp on listening to the local language. Many native Spanish speakers I know in the UK are no doubt more competent English speakers than the average tabloid reader, and one look at Spanish TV is enough to know that my own level of Spanish is way above average, at least in the visual media.
In the case of multicultural countries like the UK or the US, the potential problem can be solved relatively easily by employing well educated bilingual interpreters. Perhaps greater rigour is simply called for in ensuring that the interpreter completely masters the source language both aurally and lexically.
But can you imagine a non-Jamaican interpreting for Bob Marley? I must google that and see who did it...

Copyright, 1999-2006. All rights reserved. -
From or into?
Author: Gary Smith
Spanish to English translator
Platinum since Dec 16, 2007 
By Gary Smith
Published on 03/3/2009
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