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Native vs. Non-Native Language Translators

by Steven Marzuola

Ideally, native language speakers should be involved in a professional translation, but the need depends on the type of job and the availability of people who understand the source document. Here are some problem scenarios, the first two by colleagues on the Internet, the last from personal experience:.

  1. You work for a police department in a city in the United States. You have obtained hours of audio surveillance of a suspected drug dealer. The suspect is from Colombia (or Russia, or Italy, or China), and many of his conversations are in his native language. This person speaks in slang, with obscure meanings. You need to produce an English language transcription.

    The best translator in this case will NOT an American who learned Spanish / Russian / Italian / Chinese; it's someone from the same country as the suspect, someone whose English is also not native.
  2. You are interested in financial news from a country that is undergoing big changes. The government is writing new laws and regulations, with new titles, abbreviations, acronyms, and nicknames. (Do you remember the first time you saw "EBITDA" or "Freddie Mac"?). The best translator available for these assignment may be a resident of the other country, someone close to the situation, even when they are translating out of their native language.

    (This scenario is from an article by Danilo Nogueira. Look on this page for the phrase, "Native Stylus vs. Native Style":

  3. A company that produces industrial tools must translate several operation and maintenance manuals. The manual uses incomplete sentences and jargon that one would only learn by working in a shop or industrial facility in the United States and that does not appear in published reference materials. The specialized parts and tools have deceptive simple names that do not reveal their shape and function.

    Perhaps the ideal situation is for the company to select a native speaker of the target language who can visit the manufacturer's facilities and become familiar with the tool. But frequently there is no time and no budget for this type of research. 

  4. A company in one country is performing work for a client in another country. It's often most practical for the same person to translate all correspondence on certain topics in both directions: for example, translation of a technical report or specification written in language A, and then translation of the remarks received from the client in language B. 

Updated: December 14, 2014
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