Translation Styles: Non-native Translation Doesn’t Work

Translation Styles Contents

Welcome to the third article in our eight-part series on how to get the most out of your translation. This series of articles is intended for readers who need to get their message across clearly, in a foreign language. Specifically, it deals with issues related to Japanese to English and English to Japanese translation.
This table of contents will be updated with links as I publish each new article.

  1. How Important is Translation Quality, Anyway?
  2. Translation Sin 1: Automated Translation
  3. Translation Sin 2: Non-native Translation
  4. Translation Sin 3: Direct Translation
  5. Translation Necessity 1: Consultation
  6. Translation Necessity 2: Communication
  7. Translation Necessity 3: Trust
  8. The Final Product

Recap: Automated Translation

. . . and why it is never, ever, acceptable in the public arena. There isn’t a whole lot of need to rehash this. Automated translation is acceptable for humorous purposes, and that’s about it. Last time we went over cost-effective alternatives that will present a professional appearance, so there’s really no excuse. However, there’s one option that people frequently mistake for a cost-effective alternative, and that is:

Non-native Translation

Why is this so bad? After all, there are a lot of companies out there who have bilingual staff. Why can’t they leverage their existing workforce’s foreign language ability to reach out to a new customer base, instead of paying an outside contractor. Because, if you’re a company, (I assume) you want a professional appearance. So, for any materials that will be viewed outside your organization, you need a professional translation. And, as the American Translators’ Association states, a professional translator works in to his or her native language.

I’m not trying to be cute with semi-circular logic here. The concept that a professional translator works in to his or her native language is not unique to the ATA. It makes sense to any translator with experience in the field- they’re going to feel much more comfortable and confident working into their native language because they’re familiar with all the nuance, obscure grammatical points, and the language as it is actually used. Working into a second language is far less comfortable; and a translator working in this direction is a lot less likely to produce work that resonates with the target demographic. Any translator will tell you the same thing. So, by extension, any translation service, company, or agency that uses non-native translation is deliberately cutting corners and knowingly producing sloppy work. That’s probably not the kind of company you want to hire to be responsible for your first impression.

As a footnote, there probably are a few people out there, raised in two countries, with native fluency in two languages and intimate familiarity with the culture of each country, who can translate both ways. However, these people have better career prospects than freelance translation- and certainly better than working for an agency- so they can safely be ignored for this argument.

A place for Non-Native Translation

Before I continue, I do want to stress that, unlike automated translation, non-native translation does have a place in the public arena: blogs and social media. Not for a company, of course, but for individuals. We support second-language development and one way a lot of people like to do that is to write their own blog posts in two languages, or post in both languages on facebook (we both do it, too!) Far be it from us to discourage that! It’s awesome to see people who want to reach out across language barriers while also improving their own skill. This is why we offer a step-up plan to people in this situation. With a TranSenz account, bloggers can begin by having TranSenz translate their posts, then graduate into writing their own multi-lingual posts and using us for the “Native check” proofreading. Finally, once your confidence is there, the training wheels come off and you’re ready to write both languages on your own. There is no better way to improve your language ability than using it to produce (not just comprehend) on a regular basis!

Back to Business

In every business decision, there needs to be a focus on the target customer. You wouldn’t develop a new product line without first determining that it would appeal to buyers. By extension, you shouldn’t contract for a translation unless you know the final product is going to resonate with your target readership. Even if you have bilingual staff in your organization, they are not- in almost all cases- going to be able to connect with native speakers of the target language in the same way as a fellow native.

Let’s say for example that you’re an American company and you’re looking to market your product in Japanese. Your target customer is not Americans who speak Japanese as a second language; your target is native speakers of Japanese. You need to account for the cultural differences between how Japanese and Americans communicate, as well as the linguistic ones. If you write Japanese words that betray an American communication philosophy, it will come across as being blunt and aggressive.

On the other hand, since Japanese is generally indirect and passive, documents written in English with a Japanese mentality will put an American to sleep. I once proofread a recommendation letter that had been translated from Japanese to English and had to stop to ask the writer, “Are you trying to get this guy to fail?” He replied that no, he considered it to be a strong recommendation. In English, on the other hand, it sounded as if he was a lazy bureaucrat who happened to have found success.

So, you need a native translator because there are almost no second language speakers who can satisfactorily (which is to say, completely) overcome the communication philosophy bias of their native language.

And, of Course, the Grammar

It’s possible to learn the grammar of a foreign language to a very high level, but you can only learn so much, if you’re taught the wrong things. For example, 95% of Thai speakers of English I know, overuse the word “already” in the past tense, in a way that could come across as offensive or belligerent. The other 5%, incidentally, studied abroad. A similar percentage of Japanese friends of mine struggle with spaces, particularly around commas, parentheses, and bullets. In both cases, the problem is so widespread, even when other aspects of their English ability are quite advanced, that I can only conclude that a fault exists in the education system.

I assume that I exhibit similarly characteristic errors when writing in Japanese, but my friends and coworkers are too polite to bring them up. For the sake of improvement, I wish that they would. Don’t worry- Sawa handles every word of English-to-Japanese translation.

Bottom Line

When it comes to translation for a business, or any organization that reaches out to its customers, there is no substitute for a native translator. In fact, you do not want a non-native translator touching your work until it is finished. At that point, it’s a good idea to have a native speaker of the source language review the finished translation with the translator to make sure the nuance is correct.

Yes, I have described TranSenz’s workflow precisely. We adopted this workflow because our experience show that it results in the best quality translations. Throughout the second half of the series, Translation Necessities, I will spend more time describing precisely how we do business because we’re proud of the way we operate and the product we produce.

Two-step Translation

A final note and segue: Some translation businesses will try to save money by using a non-native translator, then having a native editor proofread the work. Unless that native editor is a translator as well, with access to the source language text (in which case, the “editor” is more or less going to be retranslating from scratch), the best the editor can do is to repair grammatical errors. Your translation will not be as polished as one done by a native translator and it will lack the impact on your target demographic. In the best case scenario, a two-step translation will deliver the same result as the Third Translation Sin, and the subject of our next article: Enforced Direct Translation.

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