Why Must A Translator Work Only Into Their Mother Tongue?

This has been one of our golden rulessince we started providing translations in 1998 – all of our translators work into their mother tongue. So if a translator’s mother tongue is English, they translate from another language into English – never the other way around.

First of all, what does ‘mother tongue’ mean? Can we define it? We can agree with this attempt, adapted from Wikipedia:

“A mother tongue is the language that someone acquires from being born in a particular country and being raised to speak the language of that country during the critical period of their development.”

Perhaps more scientifically, an article by Joseph Lee entitled “The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?” published by the Asian EFL Journalstates that there are six general principles that relate to the definition of “native speaker”. We prefer to condense these into the 5 points below, all of which must apply:

  1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse
  4. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community
  5. The individual has a native dialect or accent (including formal dialects such as ‘Hochdeutsch’)

So why do we insist that all of our translators work into their mother tongue? Because only a native speaker can deeply, thoroughly and completely understand the nuance and complexity of a language. It is a non-negotiable golden rule for us that translators work only into their mother tongue.

A couple of thoughts to add on the subject:

- Just occasionally we hear of linguists with more than one mother tongue – someone who grew up across two countries, or in a bilingual country – with parents speaking different languages for example. But even in this unusual situation, however good a person’s language skills, there tends to be a bias towards one language. This is the dominant language into which a translator will work.

- We accept that some people have quite outstanding languages skills across different languages and we know some quite exceptional and brilliant linguists. They may feel that they can translate into more than one language, but there will still be a point in a long specialised complex piece of work where deep ‘mother tongue’ knowledge of the target language is needed. So our golden rule applies at all times to avoid this situation ever arising.

If you would like to discuss the issue of mother tongue translators further – or indeed challenge our view! – do please get in touch!

Categories: General

View other blog posts from: Jun2015