Mother Tongue-How crucial is it for Translation?
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We often encounter translators claiming proficiency or efficacy in translating into a particular language, mainly on the basis of it being their mother tongue. Similarly very often agencies look for native speakers of the target language for translation. The general belief appears to be that native speakers are good translators into their native language. Let us examine how far this is true, and whether it is true for all categories of translation.
Translation v/s Interpretation
To start with we should distinguish between the processes of translation and interpretation, as they are generally understood. We can view translation as the process of creation of text, in a target language, which conveys the same meaning as a given piece of text in the source language. Interpretation on the other hand is the process of creation of speech, in a target language, which means the same as a piece of verbal communication in the source language. These two processes differ mainly in their input/outputs, duration and the subject matter. In other words while interpretation involves instantaneous verbal transformation of communication on general subjects translation involves a delayed transformation of written communication on subjects including highly specialized ones.
As we know specialized written communication is far removed from idiomatic expressions, has its own terminology and possible to be reviewed and referred many times before the final transformed output is delivered. This provides a level playing field for non-native translators in comparison with native translators. 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.
Native v/s Non-native
However, in interpretation, native speakers outdo the non-native speakers on all counts. Since they speak naturally in the target language, they are instantaneous and convey 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 by the usually the non-specialized nature of the subject matter to be interpreted. 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.
These advantages do not count much when the source text becomes specialized and non-idiomatic as in business, legal and technical communication. The native vocabulary in most dialects of many world languages can be narrowed to about 3000 words. Beyond that even the native speakers have to acquire them like non-native speakers. The situation
in translation of literature and poetry differs much more, since the proficiency in the source language is equally important as that in the target language. 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. In the reality of human learning abilities, 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!