3 Reasons it’s not enough to simply hire a native speaker as a translator

Law, Translation Services

Most professional translators these days will only work into their native language when translating texts. Still there are many who will translate both into their native language and into their second language, as they may have a certain advanced level of fluency, but for the purposes of this post, we’d like to give you 3 reasons why hiring someone to translate a text simply because s/he is a native speaker of the target language is not enough.

Reason 1: Specialized terminology is a learned skill, not native intuition

This might seem the most obvious reason to anyone who considers hiring a translator for a project, but for many who have never worked with a translator, it may not be so obvious. Consider your own native language. No matter what language you call your first, surely you are not familiar with advanced terminology in all categories of texts one might ask you to translate. If you studied medicine, you probably are not as familiar with terminology related to automobiles (unless of course you work on cars as a hobby or something of the sort). If you are an accountant for a living, you probably cannot spout off terms related to construction (unless you were a contractor in a former life). Our point is that although we are all native speakers of some language, it doesn’t make us experts or qualified to translate texts in any field from our second language to our native.

When we see a company advertising that it uses native speakers for 100% of its translations, we have to think if their clients find that to be enough of a qualification. A quick tip is to ask the company or the translator you approach about their expertise in the field to which the text pertains. Ask about how the company or translator maintains quality translation in the field and language. If you are dealing with a company, it’s important to ask how it vets its translators and proofreaders for different fields. Just as you would not offer to build someone’s home if you are an accountant, a translator whose field of expertise lies in medicine may not be the best person to translate the automotive text sitting on your desk.


Reason 2: Native competency does not equal native or advanced competency in a second language

Another point to consider in hiring a translator or a translation agency is whether or not the translator in question has advanced competency in the language of the source text. Just the other day, we were asked by a client for a quote for a language of lesser diffusion (LLD). In this case, the language was Fulani. We were happy to tell him that we do in fact have a translation team that handles English to Fulani legal texts. We could also say with confidence that this translator’s and editor’s skills in English are superb and that they both have many years of experience in the field.

Perhaps this relates directly back to Reason #1, but it’s a point that still very much hits home for us. We were at a large networking event last year when a man picked up one of our company brochures and looked at us saying, “So, what do you do? Go to the nearest university and stand outside the foreign language building picking up students to translate?” We were beyond frustrated that he would even imply this and told him flatly, “No way.” We could tell that he was not our target client, but we also could not walk away from him with the confidence of knowing that our company does vet its linguists very thoroughly and does not simply hire “native speakers”. Advanced language skills and expertise in both the source and the target language are vital to quality translation.


Reason 3: Native fluency means different things to different people

This is a point that we’ve found in our jobs to be one that a lot of people do not consider. What criteria determines one’s native fluency in a language? Is it simply that one was born in an area where the language is commonly or officially spoken? If so, what about someone who was born in Guatemala and spoke Spanish until age 6, moved to the United States and has spoken mostly English ever since? Chances are that this person has a more advanced knowledge of English than Spanish as an adult.

For those who are unfamiliar with translation or language learning, these concepts might be somewhat foreign. However, asking a few simple questions, like those we have recommended above, could make the difference in having a text you need translated well the first time and having to get it translated a second time (thus paying twice) in order to have a more accurate and professional product.

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