The L2 debate

The sacrilege of translating into anything but your mother tongue.

This blog is triggered by a letter in the ITI Bulletin (March-April 2020). Its author, Emma Gledhill takes issue with an article in the November-December 2019 publication by Robin Humphrey on the topic of ‘reverse translation’, which sadly I missed. The controversy is about whether professional translators should be allowed to translate into L2, i.e. a language that is not their mother tongue. She writes: “I do wonder, how offering professional services into a written L2 can be reconciled with our professional commitment (…) only to translate into our native tongue… Ultimately, though, clients are the losers, in terms of the quality of work they receive, … and experienced L1 translators are the losers if clients and employers regard them as merely ‘nice to have’ and their quality not worth paying for.”

It seems to me that while in general it is a good idea to stick to your mother tongue or language of habitual use, this is in many cases not practical, and sometimes not even desirable.

Here are a number of counter-arguments:

In many cases, it is simply impossible to find a qualified translator into English. Think of languages like Czech, Hungarian, Latvian, Swedish or Maltese. Since the UK has closed down most of its departments of Slavonic and Scandinavian studies, translators from Czech to English are rare as unicorns, and if you happen to find one, they may not be subject-matter experts in engineering or the coal industry. You may be forced therefore to go to a Czech native who has good English and an understanding of the topic.

At Alpha, we have a number of clients who have stated explicitly that they prefer a German native-speaker – obviously with a highly professional level of English – to review their servicing manuals. These are written by non-native English writers and are meant for an international audience, who are also non-native speakers. Our clients are requesting a form of “simple” international English, not UK or US English with idiomatic expressions that only native speakers are able to understand. The requestors of such translations are often non-native speakers themselves, and they are after a translation that is closer to what they themselves might write, one that is more digestible and does not force them to use a dictionary. Let’s face it, In the end, what we are trying to do is please the client by providing them with what they want – rather than delivering a sophisticated, perfect piece of English prose.

We also have clients, particularly in Germany, whose source texts are so complex and intricate and full of jargon that only someone with the best possible understanding of the source (i.e. a German native) is actually able to disentangle the meaning. Often, the translation that a German produces is then better and more accurate than an English translator who might miss a nuance of sollen vs. sollten etc.

Bear in mind also that an increasing number of academic papers as well as whitepapers and similar pieces are now written in English, by Germans, French, Bulgarians etc. This is a measure of the success English has had as the language of international communication. It is impossible to un-do this effect. Many universities, and the academic community, are requesting that papers and dissertations are written in English. In some way, poor English is considered “better” than good French, or Dutch, or Polish. If a French intellectual can write a coherent paper on EU agricultural policy in English, why would a professional translator not be able to translate an instruction booklet of how to use a coffee machine, or how to use an e-mail system into English? After all, hundreds and hundreds of teachers have made a living teaching English as a foreign language, and clearly, they have been very successful. I believe there are now many, many more people who have English as their L2 than as their L1.

Another, strong argument is that of the exophonic writers, i.e. authors who write in a language that is not their mother tongue. The best known names among these are Joseph Conrad (Polish), Vladimir Nabokov (Russian), Kazuo Ishiguro (Japanese), Arthur Koesler (Hungarian). And to prove that this is not only happening with English, let me just say that many of the best writers currently writing in German have Serbian or Croatian as their mother tongue, or Turkish.

So, while the tacit assumption may still be that a translator only ever works into their mother tongue (L1), I do feel that the attitude of intolerance, outrage even, against “inverse translation” is obsolete and out of place in our modern, globalized world. To me, it smacks of protectionism, or arrogance and of a fear that a foreigner might snatch away work from English translators. At least, let’s keep an open mind about it, and not castigate those that translate into L2.

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