English translators: Why only experienced native speakers can truly guarantee you top-quality copy

by Wendy Schönberg, translated by Holly Mickelson

These days, just about everybody knows English, so it’s no problem to quickly translate or even write something in English yourself – at least that seems to be a popular opinion. How else can we explain the ubiquity of English-language texts that have very clearly not been written or translated by native speakers? Depending on how well or how poorly the authors or translators have mastered the foreign language, their copy may contain nothing more serious than minor spelling and grammar mistakes – or it may express ideas inadequately; in the worst case it might even be completely incomprehensible. That’s why a text should be edited or translated by a native speaker as far as possible, because no matter how “perfectly” we think we can express ourselves in a foreign language, native speakers will always possess a better feel for it because it’s their first language.

Wendy Schoenberg

When does the native speaker principle really matter?

Of course it’s clear to me that in practice, circumstances don’t always allow for the native speaker principle – there may be time restrictions or economic reasons to consider – and that sometimes the principle doesn’t have to apply. Who is the target group for the text, and what purpose should it serve? If, say, it’s an internal document intended to provide a quick overview of an issue within a company, then the subject matter takes center stage and linguistic errors are excusable. But an external communication has a totally different purpose: it serves to represent the company. Mistakes – both linguistic and content-related ones – reflect negatively on the company and could create doubts about its competence. Rather than trying to cut costs in the wrong place, care should always be taken to produce impeccable texts that have been authored or edited by native speakers. If you don’t, you might end up paying more in the end. What’s more, this applies not just to English – the foreign language most often encountered here in Germany – but is a general rule for all languages. And if you don’t have the necessary capacity to write or translate quality copy in house, you should turn to a professional language service provider like the one I work for.

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Which additional qualifications should the author or translator have?

In addition to outstanding linguistic talent, authors or translators should possess relevant professional or specialist expertise: in other words, they need to fully understand what they are writing about. These skills should be based on a sound education and related work experience, and they should be continuously built upon. Also, since language is a living thing and is constantly changing and developing, in my experience it’s always beneficial for authors or translators – even those who they have been living abroad for a long time – to regularly communicate in their mother tongue in order to keep their language fresh. Otherwise they run the risk of not automatically keeping up with developments in their first language and will to some degree lose their connection to it. This would then be reflected in the text or translation.

How does a text receive a final polish?

Let’s assume that we have a text that has been written or translated by a qualified writer or translator in their mother tongue. Is that enough to ensure the highest quality? Not quite – it still needs to be proofread. The text should be thoroughly examined by a second, equally qualified person; in the case of translations, this should always be done with an eye on the source text, too. The point of this peer review is not only to turn up typos that can undermine even the best writers and translators, but above all to ensure textual and linguistic accuracy and consistency, while giving the text one last stylistic polish.

Ultimately, it is and remains up to the individual company to decide who will write and translate all its various internal and external documents. Although generating truly professional copy may appear more expensive initially, it saves a tremendous amount of time-consuming and thus costly rework in the long run. Besides, what better business card could you ask for when presenting your company to your target audience?

2 responses to “English translators: Why only experienced native speakers can truly guarantee you top-quality copy”

  1. Holly Mickelson says:

    Thank you Heidi! And thanks for the compliment about our blog. It’s good to know our writing is reaching others!
    Best regards,
    Holly

  2. Heidi Benson says:

    Hi Holly,
    I’ve been enjoying your blogs on the BVIW site this week as I had a lot of time recovering from the flu. All better now, so you can send me any chapters you’d like me to start reading or editing.
    Also, let me know the best days to meet with you this week. I can be at the office Wed, Thurs or Friday any time. Thanks!
    I’m looking forward to working with you and the BVIW team.
    Sincerely,
    Heidi Benson

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