Monday, March 1, 2010

Native Language vs. Dominant Language

Your native language - that's the language(s) you grew up with, of course, you might say. That's also what most translation agencies and sites mean when they ask about a translator's native language(s). Frequently, more than once choice is permitted in the "native language" field, acknowledging bi-lingual childhoods. But what about bi-lingual adulthoods?

The German word for native language is "Muttersprache" -- mother's tongue. I have met German translators who insist that one's native language is, indeed, one's mother's language, even when one grows up in a household where the father speaks a different language. That seems to me only true if the mother provides most -- if not all -- childcare during a child's first 2 or 3 years of life. While that is still relatively common in many German-speaking countries (where maternity leave is generally longer), in the U.S. it's often the nanny or daycare provider who teaches a child his or her first words. Some parents even deliberately hire a caregiver speaking a different language, so that their children can grow up bilingual, even if both parents are monolingual.

A friend of mine was born in Argentina, spent his toddler/preschool years in Israel and started school in Austria, where he remained until adulthood. Through all these moves, the language at home was German. He did attend preschool in Israel and hence learned Hebrew as his second native language, but didn't use that language again after age 5. When he returned to Israel as an adult, he found that some of his forgotten Hebrew came back, but with the vocabulary of a 4-year-old.

I, on the other hand, grew up in an entirely monolingual family (albeit with the more ex- and intensive foreign language study required in Austrian public schools). Many agencies and translator sites would therefore consider German to be my native language. However, my entire professional education and most of my adult life were conducted in English, and that continues to be my language of daily discourse. I therefore find it much easier to translate into English, and the results tend to be more idiomatic, as well.

This is particularly true in my specialization, IT. When I left Austria more than 25 years ago, I had never actually used a personal computer. Here in the U.S., I learned not only to use computers, but also to repair, maintain and document them. While I can understand computer texts written in German, I am much more fluent in English "computerese", and therefore translate from German to English, rather than the other way around.

There are any number of circumstances in which someone might initially grow up with a particular language, but be immersed in an entirely different language community as an adult, eventually acquiring a better facility with that new language than he/she had with their initial one. This happens to native peoples and migrants around the globe, if they move to a place where their childhood language is not spoken.

It seems to me a much better term would be "dominant language", meaning the language one is most fluent in. "Native language" suggests something one is born with -- a fact that doesn't change later in life. "Dominant language" acknowledges that for some people the language in which they are most fluent may change during their lifetime.

Translators, in particular, frequently end up in that profession precisely because their linguistic environment changed over the course of their lives. Some people continue to conduct their daily lives in their language of origin, and feel more comfortable in that language. But some switch languages more thoroughly, even writing literature in that new language. (Full disclosure: I write children's and young adult stories in English.) If one can be a novelist in a language one didn't initially grow up with, one can surely translate into such a language, as well.


  1. In fact all the agencies like to work with only the native language translators!

    - Cosmic Global Limited

  2. I was thinking about this exact question the other day. As a buyer of translation services, I was thinking that I'd prefer it if a translator has higher education (college level or higher) training in the "dominant language", but I am not really sure. I'd look at each person on a case by case basis. Interesting post.

  3. I always thought that the native speaker of a language was defined as a person brought up AND educated in that language. Only then can you expect the certainty of grammar, style, and nuance that distinguishes a good translation from a mediocre one. Subject-matter knowledge is always a given. Without it, don't translate. In the past, I had to buy translation services from freelancers for 12 years, and I always stuck to this rule.

  4. I have bought translation services for 15 years.... ;) I suppose you are right. Over the years, however, I have seen a few people who would be an exception to that rule. So, personally, I'd be skeptical, but still look at each person individually before I made a final decision. But, yes, if someone is not even close to this level, I would not consider them at all. For example, people who do not know their limitations and claim they can translate both directions with no education or upbringing to back it up...their resumes get tossed,as they clearly do not understand what they are talking about. But, for people who are at a high level and obviously serious translators, I'd take a second look.

  5. I agree with you Barbara. I am in a similar situation. Although I lived most of my life in Spain and went to university there, all my professional life I have been working in English. Now living in England for a long time I find it easier to write and read in English. Of course, my accent will continue to be Spanish, but my vocabulary and grammar in English are as good or better in many cases than English born nationals.
    I think even translators fall in the "accent" trap.
    When I trained for an interpreting certificate that had two translation components the tutors warned us to be careful from the translation from English into our mother tongue. They said that every year people tend to pass the one into English but fail the exam into their mother tongue.
    My theories:
    1. We live and train in England. We are more fluent with the English vocabulary for that topic.
    2. It will always be easier to understand your own native language, so it´s easier to render in correct English. Sometimes, we may miss nuances in English that then get incorrectly transferred into our mother tongue.
    So, sometimes, it´s probably wiser to get a translator whose mother language is the source and not the target, Especially if the text is difficult or has slang that a non native speaker may not totally understand.

    1. Hmmm, it's always the tenses that give non-native speakers away...It's actually "Now, HAVING LIVED IN ENGLAND FOR A LONG TIME",....Sorry, but non-native speakers remain, it seems, perennially weak in this area...

    2. And it's careful WITH the translation from English...use of prepositions is another give-away, I don't care how long you've lived in the UK. Sorry to be mean, but English is a hard language even for us native speakers, although non-native speakers will never admit that....

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