"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a native speaker in possession of a mother tongue must be an excellent translator.&qu...

The mother-tongue advantage

 "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a native speaker in possession of a mother tongue must be an excellent translator."

The above statement is perhaps not entirely accurate (nor is it quite so elegantly formulated as the source from which it was borrowed). When it comes to translation, being a mother-tongue speaker of the target language in question does not automatically qualify someone as the best person for the job. It is commonly believed and accepted, however, that it is far more desirable for a translator to translate into his or her mother tongue rather than into any other language.

We take your bags and send them in all directions
Airline ticket office, Copenhagen

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this assertion is that a person's mother tongue is the language they have grown up speaking their whole lives, or at least from early childhood. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is generally this language with which we are most familiar and which we feel most comfortable speaking and writing. One might say that it is this language which comes most "naturally" to us - a position which was perhaps first established in concrete form by the linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky claimed that humans are in fact biologically endowed with the capacity to learn and produce language, and which language we end up speaking is determined, quite simply, by which language we are exposed to as babies - that is, the input language used by our parents, siblings, caregivers and other people in our environment. Indeed, in theory, we could learn any language as very small children as long as we were provided with enough input. A child's parents may be native English speakers, for example, but if the child grows up in, say, Japan, surrounded only by Japanese speakers, it is Japanese that the child will grow up speaking - that is, Japanese will be the child's mother tongue.

Even if you don't buy into the idea of a biological language endowment (or Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, as Chomsky conveniently labelled it), there's no escaping the fact that, in most typical situations, you are surrounded by your mother tongue on a daily basis, at work, at home and even just when walking down the street. This is also the language you learn in school, not just in classes specifically devoted to it, but also in other lessons where it is used as the language of instruction. You speak this language with your friends and family, and as you get older, you start to gain an understanding of how language is used differently in different situations - the different styles used in writing emails to friends as opposed to your employer, for example, or how you might speak to a child as opposed to your grandparents. Possession of this sort of knowledge, though seemingly obvious, can make a crucial difference when composing a text of a certain type, style and genre, and with a particular audience in mind. For it is this knowledge that often eludes, or at least may prove a challenge to, non-native speakers attempting to translate into a language other than their own. Deciding which preposition goes with which verb, whether a time expression should come sooner or later in a sentence or whether a particular idiom is appropriate in a particular context may all seem like simple matters of common sense to a native speaker. But for someone whose mother tongue uses these structures in a different way to the target language being translated into, such decisions can prove to be deadly traps which could well ruin the seamlessness and invisibility desired for many (if not most) commercial and literary translations.

Perhaps most difficult to account for in the mother-tongue advantage paradigm are those speakers who grow up with two (or three, or four) mother tongues - that is, bilingual speakers who claim to have equal proficiency in two or more languages. There is debate as to whether one language is always inevitably stronger or more dominant than the other, but such cases are perhaps always best looked at on an individual basis. Such people certainly cannot be written off as bad translators on the basis that it is difficult to establish for certain which language, if any, they are more proficient in - indeed, being capable of speaking or writing multiple languages can prove very handy when trying to think how best to formulate a particular phrase, since differing language styles can provide new perspectives on how to tackle certain linguistic problems. It is all a matter of knowing your strengths and playing to them.

So although we understand (or at least hope we do) what the Danish airline means when it says that they will take our bags "and send them in all directions," or what the Parisian hotel is really getting at when it requests "Please leave your values at the front desk," it is perhaps best if we stick to translating into our own language when it really matters - just to be on the safe side...

By Hollie Marshall


Croker, C, Lost in Translation, Michael O'Mara, 2007

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