Should you always translate into your mother tongue?
Andrew Bell is a medical and pharmaceutical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English trading under the name Bell Johnson Translations. You can connect with him by using the following links:
I don’t question that English is my strongest language right now in June 2021. After all, I am a native English speaker and I live in the UK, I speak English at home and I am fully immersed into British culture and society, so how could English not be my most dominant language? However, there have been times where this wasn’t always the case.
I’ve been very fortunate to have lived abroad in both Spain and Mexico. I had unforgettable experiences in both countries, but it was in Mexico where I was able to fully immerse myself in the Spanish language. I could go days on end without speaking or hearing a word of English, and this certainly had an impact on my language skills, but probably not in the way you think. Not surprisingly, my Spanish improved tremendously, but what I didn’t see coming was how I started to lose my English!
When I spoke to my family and friends in the UK, I noticed that I was making very obvious grammar mistakes, and that my prepositions were all over the place. My English was also very slowly Americanising, as my limited contact with my native language was mainly with American English. Spanish words and phrases also started worming their way into my vocab, and all of this culminated into my native language becoming a Spanglish-American hybrid.
I started using Americanisms like cell phone and eggplant, as well as coming out with Spanglish phrases such as ‘I don’t really have any ganas for that’ (I don’t really want to do that).
This all came to an end when I returned to the UK in 2019, and I can safely say that my English has fully recovered, although I have been told that my accent isn’t as strong as it once was.
I now work as a translator and I made the decision to only translate into my native language, and whilst I would like to say this was a personal decision, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel pressured by the translation market to do so.
There seems to be some kind of belief that your native language is always going to be your strongest language, but that’s just not how it works. Language is a skill, and regardless of your native language, you need to train it if you want to keep it. My experience is an obvious example of that! Most people do this passively everyday just by being immersed in the language of their country of residence, but that itself is not enough to be a successful translator. Translators need to invest a lot of time into maintaining their writing skills, and there is no reason why they can’t do that in their second language.
I strongly believe that if I had stayed in Mexico and undertaken translation training there, I would have been more than capable of working into Spanish, as this was the language I used most frequently at the time. It would have required a lot of hard work to ensure my writing skills were at the right level, but I actually think it would have been easier than trying to improve my native language whilst under the constant influence of Spanish and American English. The question is, would there have been a market for a native English speaker working into Spanish? Possibly, but with the way the translation market is now, I’m sure I would’ve found breaking into the industry much harder working into Spanish than into my native English, and that’s before we even take the pandemic and Brexit into the equation!
This blog post was inspired by a recent working lunch session with the North-West Translators’ Network. If anyone does find themselves in this position of translating out of their native language, please get in touch, it would be interesting to hear about your experience.