Native Language Explained

August 10th, 2012
Native Language Explained

But a few years ago when I still used to work for myself, I used to maintain a list of excellent translators that I could refer my friends to. The longer I was in the industry, the more I got to know other translators and the more likely it was that I could find someone to match my friend’s needs.

 

I remember about three years ago, an acquaintance had a document he needed translated into Italian for his business, and he wanted someone affordable. I recommended a translator I’d known for a few years named Gary, who had just started his own business and needed to build up a client list.

 

“Gary? Is that short for Garibaldi?”

 

No, I said, I think it’s long for Gary. Why?

 

“That doesn’t sound like an Italian name. Aren’t translators always supposed to translate into their native tongue?”

 

I clucked my tongue and explained that ‘native tongue’ is an obsolete phrase, really. The real way to look at it was ‘dominant language’. The world has gotten smaller; more and more people are functionally bilingual or trilingual – or more – and determining what ‘native language’ means is increasingly difficult.

 

Take someone like Gary: He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Italian parents who didn’t speak English. He spoke both languages fluently before he was five. Then his parents passed away and he moved, as a young child, to live with his aunt in Spain, where he quickly learned Spanish. In the course of his studies he learned several other languages well enough that you’d never guess he wasn’t a native. But he’s strongest in Italian, so Italian is his dominant language, and that’s what he works in when translating from other languages.

 

“You mean his translations into other languages aren’t as good?”

 

“Not necessarily. You have to understand that the goal of translating a document is to make the translation read like the original – the style, content, and tone have to be maintained. You can only do this in your Dominant Language. You may be skilled in another language, but you’re not a natural in the other language. You’re only a natural in your dominant language. Translations into other languages may be technically correct, but won’t be up to snuff.”

 

I paused, and then asked my friend what kind of work needed to be translated. “Is it technical?”

 

“A little. Why?”

 

I told him being fluent, even dominant, in a language didn’t mean you could automatically translate anything into it. “You have to be familiar with the technical language as well. Every discipline – science, the arts, accounting, finance – has its own vocabulary, its own expressions and slang. If you’re not familiar with that, you’ll never get the translation right. I’ll get Gary to send a list of his competencies, and we’ll see if they match up.”

 

My friend shook his head, amazed at how complicated it was. “I thought you just read something and wrote it down in the other language!” he said. “I always wondered why it was so expensive.”

 

I laughed. “That’s because your dominant language is cheap!”