Native vs. Non-Native Translators: Pros & Cons

Native translator

Choosing between native and non-native speakers for translations has always been a controversial and hotly discussed topic. It’s widely believed that translators should only translate into their native language, but is this merely an oversimplification of a complex issue? What about the context?

Why should you hire a native speaker?

Usually, when somebody is looking to hire a translator, they have in mind a native speaker of the target language — and there are certainly many benefits to this. In a multitude of ways, people inherently have a deeper understanding of their native language.

Generally, native speakers have a greater vocabulary and better intuition when it comes to syntax. Additionally, and most importantly, native speakers also have an instinctive feel for the subtle nuances and stylistic differences in their first language.

The fact that native speakers tend to have a larger lexicon than second-language speakers means that it’s easier for them to find target-language equivalents that match the tone and feel of the original text.

I remember seeing a French and English language advert for a café that warned its reader to avoid jus de chaussette. This French term (literally ‘sock juice’) refers to particularly bad or low-quality coffee. The translator thus went for the safer option, translating it as ‘bad coffee’ and called it a day.

This gets the original idea across to some extent, but ‘bad coffee’ doesn’t really convey the sarcasm a term like ‘go-juice’ or ‘rocket fuel’ would provide, and it doesn’t have the contemptuous disdain of an expression like ‘mud.’

Non-native speaker

Unfortunately, these terms aren’t really taught in textbooks, because they’re things native speakers instinctively know. As a result, a great opportunity for coffee-inspired humour was lost.

Dull, pedestrian generic prose implies a disinterest in conveying your message to your target audience while vivid, dynamic and witty phrases are certain to attract their attention — so in this regard, hiring a native speaker may pay dividends.

Function follows form

As with vocabulary, native speakers also have a strong innate sense of style and nuance in their native language that can be extremely beneficial. The plot of Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World follows two storylines that eventually intersect. In both cases the first-person narrator uses either watashi or boku as a personal pronoun. Both words mean ‘I’ but watashi is more formal, while boku is more informal.

There is no equivalent to this politeness marker in English or most European languages, but the translator still found a way to work around this problem.

The translator, Alfred Birnbaum, recognised that this pronoun usage wasn’t simply an expression of politeness, but also of intimacy, and so he decided to translate the watashi sections of the book into the past tense (to match the source) while putting the sections of the book that use boku in the present tense.

This served to give the reader a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy in relation to the storyline. While the solution was simple, such innovations generally come more naturally to someone translating into their native tongue.

good translator must also have a mastery of pragmatics in their target language. Word-for-word translations are often awkward, because they fail to take into account the context in which words are used.

For example, one Dutch advert for a Hollywood film translated a character saying ’I love my life’ with the subtitles Ik heb een geweldig leven (I have an amazing life). In American English, it’s pretty common to use the verb ‘love’ even when you’re not referring to a person, but this would sound strange in Dutch (and most other European languages).

As such, this is an excellent equivalent, since it avoids using a similar structure and adapts the translation in accordance with the cultural context.

Context is key

Outside the world of movies and literature, making sure your translator is a native speaker of the target language is also extremely beneficial in a marketing context.

In the worst-case scenario, non-native translators have accidentally used language that is so inappropriate it is actually offensive to a company’s potential customers. Having to issue a public apology as a result of a poor translation is obviously something all businesses would seek to avoid in the interest of preserving their reputation.

Culturally or linguistically insensitive translations can tarnish a brand’s image, while additionally presenting a company as sloppy and incompetent. This will ultimately lead to a loss in revenue as customers switch to buying products from their competitors.

The stakes are high in the corporate world and poor-quality translations can have dramatic real-life financial implications. In an industry such as marketing, which fundamentally relates to connecting with audiences through the emotional power and resonance of language, it is often a safer bet to rely on translators who have the most comprehensive understanding of all the possible double meanings and connotations of each individual word they use. Accordingly, these people tend to be native speakers.

Never underestimate the ability of non-native translators

People love swapping stories about bad translations by non-native speakers, but they don’t often talk about all the times they do it well. Non-native translators definitely have a place in the world of translation.

In the literary world, Yoko Tawada has an impressive resumé for translating from her native Japanese into German. The author/translator didn’t start learning German until she was in her 20s, but she has won numerous awards for both her German language writing and her translations.

She attended university in Germany and, although she might lack the intuition of a native speaker, she has a profound understanding of the actual fundamentals of the German language and a deep breadth of knowledge which have proven invaluable. In fact, her German is so good that she is even able to create authentic-sounding made-up words in her translations.

Yoko Tawada is just one example of the many people who have managed to do amazing things in languages that aren’t their mother tongue. Accordingly, this means that if you’re looking for a good translator, a native speaker isn’t necessarily your only option.

A translator’s credentials and individual aptitude are just as relevant (if not more so) in determining their suitability for a particular role than the language they grew up speaking. In fact, many non-native speakers regularly produce work in their acquired languages.

Some prominent examples include Chinua Achebe, Ayn Rand, and Joseph Conrad. Correspondingly, never discount the quality of a translation without first judging the translator’s individual ability.

Know your niche

Having said this, the example set by a handful of exceptional famous authors is unlikely to be the factor that convinces companies to hire non-native translators in a business context. It’s really the content of your source materials that will determine whether or not you hire a non-native speaker.

Some documents are so formulaic (eg user guides/manuals, legal contracts, product catalogues, etc) that you don’t need a comprehensive understanding of pragmatics and cultural nuances in order to be able to translate them effectively. For really standardised texts, you’ll probably be absolutely fine using a non-native speaker.


Similarly, you need to think about the target audience of your translation. Not everything that is translated into another language is intended to be read by native speakers of that language. English, for example, is often used as a ’pivot language’ or a ’mutual language’ in business environments where multiple languages are spoken.

This means that documents translated into English are not always intended to be read by native English speakers. When the target audience is primarily second-language speakers, non-native translators might actually be the best people to use. They’ll be better at avoiding idioms and culturally specific words and phrases that might confuse the reader.

Thus, many native speakers may, consciously or unconsciously, be communicating to their native-language group rather than creating a more lucid generalised translation that avoids ambiguity.

A native speaker is not necessarily a talented translator

Using a native speaker of your target language is commonly considered to be best practice in the translation industry. All you have to do is perform a quick internet search and you’ll see thousands of examples of poor and often inadvertently hilarious translations by non-native speakers.

But this isn’t the whole story. For one thing, it’s not always easy to define who actually qualifies as a ‘native speaker’. With so many people now raised in bilingual homes and multicultural environments, the question of ‘Which language is your mother tongue?’ isn’t always easy to answer.

Similarly, individuals who have lived outside their homeland for many years will often complain that their skills have deteriorated in their native language. They may not be aware of all the latest idioms and catchphrases, making it difficult for them to translate marketing copy aimed at a really young audience, for example.

Consequently, being a native speaker is not automatically proof that you can write particularly fluently in your native language, or even that you feel confident translating into that language.

Moreover, a native speaker isn’t necessarily a specialised, experienced or informed speaker. Some translations require specific knowledge and an in-depth understanding of a particular subject area.

For example, using a native speaker to translate architectural documents won’t guarantee success if the translator has no knowledge of architecture. The quality of a translation will always suffer if the translator hasn’t bothered to learn the specialised terminology that is often required — their linguistic intuition alone won’t be enough to save them.

As a result, the overall knowledge of a translator can ultimately make more of a difference than which language they primarily speak.

Occasionally, native speakers can actually introduce problems as they translate. Each native speaker has their own linguistic variant, which is specific to their age, region and social circumstances. As a result, they might translate phrases into a local dialect or use an antiquated term rather than something that is more widely known.

I remember reading an English translation from French where a character remarked out of the blue that ‘the Devil’s beating his wife today.’ As you’d expect, I was pretty confused. It turns out that the phrase is a colloquialism from the American South which means that it’s raining while the sun is shining. Since the story took place in French-speaking Senegal it came across as extremely awkward and out of place.

Therefore, while opting for a native speaker can definitely be invaluable in certain circumstances, engaging one doesn’t always ensure a good end-product.

So what’s the conclusion?

While there are certainly real advantages to using a native speaker for your translations, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t also be drawbacks. In essence, the incessant need to categorise somebody as either a native speaker or non-native speaker can lead people to overlook one of the most important aspects of being a translator: competence. Ultimately, a translator’s ability in a target language isn’t necessarily determined by which country they grew up in.

As we’ve seen, native speakers definitely have distinct benefits, but non-native speakers may also have something special to offer. Native speakers are often able to craft texts that address readers on a very personal level, but this level of cultural understanding isn’t always essential.

It’s thus important to consider the content of the source text, as well as its intended audience, before finally assessing your potential translator’s abilities. Therefore, looking at examples of their previous work will allow you to make a much more informed choice than making a judgement purely based on their place of birth.

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