Only Translating to One’s Mother Tongue : Compulsory Rule or Free Choice ?

Languages are the cornerstone of translators since they all use several of them for work. On this topic, the French Society of Translators (SFT) asserts that all translators must translate towards their mother tongue, not the other way around. But why is that ?

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The advantages

Each language being inherently linked to its country’s culture, it seems normal that a native speaker can easily adapt a foreign language concept into their mother tongue. They are aware of all the cultural subtleties and stylistic nuances, so that they can transmit the original message more accurately.

Moreover, they can instantly gather expressions and wording from the richness of the vocabulary, , because these all belong to them from the moment they were born.

That is the reason why translation agencies always recommend customers to employ translators working in their native language. The SFT is again inflexible on this point :

“Translators who do not follow this basic rule will be more likely to overlook other criteria which are essential to the translation’s quality. If you want an international image, approximation is not allowed. In many cultures, people disapprove of their language being altered. Ask for a translator whose mother tongue is the same as the required target language.”

Is mastering one’s native language enough for a translator ?

The answer is assuredly negative. Translation is not only about transposing a text from one language to another. There are various factors to this process, namely the understanding of the original text.

Indeed, working towards one’s mother tongue does not guarantee that there will not be any mistakes from a rough reading of the original document. Translators must be skilled in all their working languages. If they are poorly skilled in foreign languages, they won’t be able to convey the original message accurately.

What happens in everyday life ?

When translators make their way into the job market, they must pick their working languages. Most translators generally choose to work towards their native language. Yet, others choose to expand the number of their working languages. In spite of the SFT and some translation agencies’ opinion, this decision does not follow any particular rule. It depends on the will and the professional coherence of each translator.

Francesca Laganella

Translated by Sarah Deville

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