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Mother tongue, native speakers and the direction of translation

I’m currently reading the utterly fascinating and fantastic book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” by David Bellos. It may be somewhat dated regarding the newest developments in language transmission – the book is from 2011 – but what he says about language and translation is quite thought-provoking and at times even surprising.

One thing he talks about in his book that has been a recurring topic of at times heated discussions among language professionals is the direction of translation, i.e. into which language (mother tongue or A language OR acquired or B language) a translator should work.

David Bellos tackles this question in the chapter “Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours?”, and what he has to say about what a mother tongue, respectively a native speaker, really is, supports my conviction that the dictum to translate only into your mother tongue is fairly arbitrary.

How well our command of any given language is, has little to do with what our mothers (or other primary caretakers) spoke.

Likewise, the notion that any language can be native, i.e. something we’re born with, is actually ridiculous, since all children have to learn a language and are able to learn any language (physical restrictions aside).

The time in our lives when we acquire a specific language also has a great influence on what and how well we can express ourselves in it. This is something I can attest to – there are things I can more easily and more eloquently talk about in English than in German because I experienced them in my coming-of-age years at university in the USA.

Anyone who has any kind of feel for language, and really anyone who is completely honest with themselves, knows that being a “native speaker” does not automatically mean that you have a large vocabulary and know how to use grammar correctly at all times, regardless of whether you speak or write. And isn’t that what makes someone a “good translator”?

So saying you can only translate into one direction seems to me quite restrictive. Everyone should translate into the language they feel comfortable doing so. The quality will prove whether you are a good translator in your field – not whatever language the prevailing convention dictates to be your mother tongue.

Photo by   Sol vazquez  on  Scopio

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