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Why the Native Speaker Principle matters to you

Technical Translation

The Native Speaker Principle: The first rule of translation

If you are at all familiar with the world of translation, or have looked around a few translation agency websites, you may have come across the Native Speaker Principle. In this article, we explain what it is, why it is important, and why it matters to you.


What is the Native Speaker Principle?

Have you ever read something that just didn’t sound quite right? Sure, you understood the text and there were no glaring typos or obvious errors, and yet, it jarred, somehow. Welcome to the world of translations by non-native speakers. The Native Speaker Principle rallies against this phenomenon. It is a key quality standard in the world of translation, stating that translators can only translate into their native language.

Thus, for example, a British translator who is fluent in German will translate from German into English and not vice versa. All translators worth their salt will, of course, be fluent in both of the languages in which they work. Professional translators will only translate into their native language.

native speaker principle

Why is the Native Speaker Principle important?

Translation is not just about conveying the meaning of the source text – it is about producing a text that can stand alone in its own right. The aim of any translation should be to not sound like a translation at all; instead, it should read like a text that has been created in the language in which it is written.

Whilst fluency brings with it an ability to write high-quality text in that specific language, it remains a level below what a native speaker can produce. That is because it is almost impossible to write perfect text in a language that you have not grown up with. Even if you manage to convey the meaning correctly, there are cases, tenses, verb conjugations, prepositions and more to contend with. And if the language is not your own, you are almost guaranteed to slip up on one of these, somewhere in the text.

Native speakers, on the other hand, know all of this grammar instinctively. Native speakers know how to write in their own languages – they have been doing it their whole lives. They know the intricacies of their language, the nuances and the tricks that need to be employed to create a text that is both technically correct and a pleasure to read.


Is being a native speaker enough?

Well no. As this blog quite rightly points out, being a native speaker does not automatically mean that you can produce quality translations. In order to be able to translate a text properly, you need to be a native speaker of the target language AND have a sound grasp of the source language. After all, you cannot translate a text that you don’t understand.

Then there is the fact that translation is a technical skill in itself. There are lots of people who can speak several languages who wouldn’t necessarily be able to produce a professional-quality translation. Like all skills, translation requires practice and, dare I say it, flair. It is about more than understanding the source text and being a native speaker of the target language – you need to be able to create a text that reads like an original, and that requires more than just linguistic proficiency.


Why does the Native Speaker Principle matter?

If you have a text that you need translating, you will no doubt want to source the best translation possible. This almost certainly means that you will need a translator working in line with the Native Speaker Principle, and translating into their native language.

Put simply – if your text is in German and you want an English version, you are not looking for a translator from Germany or Austria or Switzerland. You need a British (or American or Australian etc.) translator who is fluent in German.

At LEaF, we are often asked if we translate from English into German. And the answer is always a resounding “No!” (Although we are happy to pass people on to the wonderful English to German translators that we know – all native Germans, of course!) We only translate into our native language and any decent translator you come across should say this too.

So if you are looking for a translator, remember the golden rule: Translators should always translate into their native language!

About the Author

Why the Native Speaker Principle matters to you 1


Lucy Pembayun is a German to English translator with over ten years of professional translation experience and the founder of LEaF Translations.
She graduated with an MA(Hons) in German from Edinburgh University before being awarded a DAAD scholarship to study for a post-graduate Masters in Germany. She has lived in Bamberg, Fulda and Berlin, and now resides in York, UK, with her husband and two young children.

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