This is about a guest post Corinne McKay, a renown American translator, published on her website. The article, Guest post: The importance of translating into your native language is written by Ann Marie Boulanger, M.A., Certified Translator (FR-EN) and a Quebec-based French to English translator.
I am thrilled to see I am not the only one who says so. I wrote blogs on this topic a few years ago: Why Being Bilingual is not Enough to Be a Translator and Writing or Translating into Your Second Language
While reading her blog post, I realised she and I do not write in English with the same level of mastery. I encourage you to read Ann Marie’s post if you have not done so already. No matter how hard I try or how well I think I write in English, my pen betrays me. I never write like a native English writer. My mother tongue (French) always influences how I structure sentences and which words I choose to phrase what I say.
I also realise I write in a plainer way, with simpler words. I tend to write in a factual and straightforward voice instead of “with style”. Stephen King (novelist), William Strunk Jr., and E. B. White (authors of “The Element of Style“) would like me very much, but most word specialists would give me a dirty look. My expression lacks style, “punch”, and “life”. I am not as “colourful” since I don’t provide much nuance of expression. In other words, I write (and I mean no offence to high school students) like a first-year high school student. Given the right topic, the right state of mind, and the right amount of knowledge, I can write like twelve-graders, but my easy, natural expression is simpler. Once in a while, I will write a sentence worthy of a university class, but I cannot rely on this ability.
In short, this sums up why translators should only translate into their native language; they cannot possibly be as good in their second or third language as they are in their first language.
Translation requires a level of flexibility above average and reaching such level of mastery is difficult in a second language. Exposing myself to the English language using every means at my disposal for the last 30 years still has not given such flexibility. It still easy to figure out English is not my first language as my idiolect is not one a native English speaker would have. I was raised in French and only started immersing myself in the English language with the means available to me when school classes did not teach me fast enough. Thirty years later, I still haven’t arrived.
I often make the following distinction: I only write in English, I don’t translate into English. However, I translate English into French.
The fact we are still in the stages of raising awareness about our trade and trying to clear up misconceptions is both highly saddening and alarming. Translators have been around for millenniums, and still the world does not recognise the trade for the highly skilled, highly ethical, and highly trained profession it is.
Not too long ago, I visited a friend whose companion is a unilingual English speaker, someone who obviously did not know I am a translator. He said to me, “Your English is quite good.” I could not help but display a stunned expression on my face and these words just flew out my mouth: “I hope so! I’ve been at it for 30 years!” I smiled as I did not want to look insulted and I said, “Thank-you!” One has to learn to receive a compliment when given.
Misconceptions are widespread about translation; the work ethic, the training needed, and the complexity of the task remain obscure, devalued, and underappreciated. [See, I told you I could up my level of language!]
Learning a language is a matter of months or a few years, acquiring a language is a matter many years, and mastering a language is a matter of a lifetime.