The native speaker controversy

The native speaker controversy

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Seeing the wood for the trees

Just over two weeks ago (this post has taken me longer than I intended to write) I was on the wonderful Canary Island of La Gomera. One of the smaller and less frequented islands, it has fantastic landscape, fascinating weather alternating African sun and atmospheric mist and cloud, and friendly people who are not (yet) sick of tourists. Perhaps its most important feature, though, is the wild laurisilva forest covering the dormant volcano that forms the mountain in the middle of the island. It is a habitat almost unique in Europe and a big attraction for the tourists who do come to the island.

We did our share of walking in this impressive landscape, among the huge laurel and gnarled giant heather trees, and we also spent some time at the visitor centre for the Garajonay National Park, which covers most of the forest area. It was an interesting place, full of information about the formation and history of the forest and the traditional ways of the islanders. Like most translators, though, even when I’m on holiday, I can’t resist a critical look at the English translations. In this case, they generally held up quite well, and some of them were even rather good. Then we sat down and watched an audiovisual about La Gomera life and traditions, and here we come to the main point of this post.

The desirability of having a native speaker for all translations has been something of a controversial issue lately. Alina Cincan, for one, in a post on her excellent blog, came to the conclusion that sometimes a non-native might do a better job. And this was obviously the feeling that had inspired the approach of the makers of this particular video. They had clearly entrusted the translation of the script, as spoken by the narrator of the film, to a professional translator who was a native English speaker, as the results were virtually perfect. But when it came to the interviews with local people, they obviously felt that their accents were so thick no foreigner would have a chance of understanding the Spanish. Judging by the awful English of the subtitles, the words had simply been given a rough, literal translation, probably by a local person who was at least able to penetrate the Canary Island accent but was utterly unable to express the result in English.

The initial approach was probably the right one, but in this case no professional translator, still less a native speaker, can possibly have been involved at any stage. Surely a better method would have been for the local person to produce a transcription for a native English speaker to translate, asking as many questions as necessary. This would undoubtedly have worked out more expensive, but would also have avoided the embarrassing linguistic horrors we were subjected to.

Personally, I’ve seen too many flawed results to think that a native speaker can be ever dispensed with for at least part of any successful translation process. That isn’t to say that they always produce perfect results, and sometimes a local-native speaker partnership may be the best option for achieving the most successful translation. In fact I have helped Catalan native speaker translators to understand English idioms in order to translate novels into their own language, for example, and I’ve been happy to do so. But I would never presume to do a better job in Catalan or Spanish, let alone French, than someone who’s spoken the languages from childhood. To me that makes no sense whatsoever.

What do you think? Does good translation require a native speaker? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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