Translation: Why it’s not enough to ‘just’ be a native speaker

Translator workingI don’t know how many times I have heard the argument “yeah, well, we have native speakers working in the company, so they can do the translation”. Or often the (sole) requirement of a translation agency or client will be that a translator is a native speaker. Don’t get me wrong. Most translators do indeed translate into their mother tongue. Some translators have been raised bilingual and hence have two working languages and a few translators are just linguistically skilled enough to translate into a foreign language. More often than not, the latter will not be accepted for a translation job because they are not native speakers. Granted, translators that master a foreign language as well as a native speaker are in the minority but trust me they are out there. So if you insist on getting a native speaker to do the translation, fair enough, but if you ask me if it is enough to get a native speaker to do a translation my answer is a loud and sounding screaming-from-the-rooftops no! And I will explain to you why.

The simple fact is that far from all native speakers have the linguistic skills needed. In fact, I have put together a little test for you below. Do you know the answers to these? Pssst, the answers are at the end of this post…

  1. She had the choice between tennis ______  squash.
  • and
  • or
  • both
  1. I don’t like _______ leaving the party.
  • yours
  • you
  • your
  1. He is one of the most famous writers who _______ ever lived.
  • have
  • has
  • had
  1. Between you and _______.
  • I
  • my
  • me
  1. Hanna and _______ are best friends.
  • my
  • I
  • me
  1. Jack is the _______ of the two brothers.
  • youngest
  • young
  • younger
  1. If I _______ you.
  • were
  • was
  • be
  1. Neither Julie nor Sarah _______ at the party.
  • was
  • were
  • went

If you answered them all correctly, well done to you! You have above average linguistic skills in English. If you got some of them wrong, don’t fret, fact is that most native English speakers would get these wrong as well and frequently do.

Is this alarming? Well, that depends on how you look at it, but right now I would be inclined to say that no, not really. It is actually quite common. Just because you are French does not mean that you can bake the perfect baguette yourself. The French also go to the bakery to buy their bread. Why? Because the baker is a specialist in his field of expertise.

Translators have specialised in language, and apart from being experts on syntax, grammar and the general functions of a language, they have also specialised in particular fields which means that they have extended knowledge of something else than “just” language. They have sufficient knowledge to know how to convey the message and the tone of a piece in one language into another whilst ensuring that the content remains at a high quality as well.

So am I saying that you shouldn’t use a native speaker? Of course not. I’m just saying that if you want a quality translation you should work with qualified translators that have sufficient knowledge of the target language and of the field in question. And not all native speakers do.



  1. Correct: She had the choice between tennis and squash.

Explanation: ‘Between’ is always followed by ‘and’.


  1. Correct: I don’t like your leaving the party.

Explanation: The verb in the -ing form acts as a subject noun in this sentence. Hence the pronoun needs to agree. It is the leaving that I don’t like.


  1. Correct: He is one of the most famous writers who have ever lived.

Explanation: ‘Who’ refers back to writers, the verb therefore needs to be in the plural.


  1. Correct: Between you and me.

Explanation: Here ‘I’ is not the subject of the sentence but the object.


  1. Correct: Hanna and I are best friends.

Explanation: ‘Hanna and I’ are the subjects of the sentence. If you changed the sentence to say “I am best friends with Hanna” it becomes more clear. “Me am best friends with Hanna” sounds like something E.T. would say, no?


  1. Correct: Jack is the younger of the two brothers.

Explanation: The comparatives is used for two as in this example. The superlative is applied when talking about three or more.


  1. Correct: If I were you.

Explanation: This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Of course, the English subjunctive, which is used to denote pure supposition, is needed here. You could of course argue that in some regions “If I was you” is common and accepted. Yes, perhaps to some extend in spoken language, but not (yet) in writing. And yes, a qualified translator will know how to distinguish between written and spoken language.


8. Correct: Neither Julie nor Sarah was at the party.

Explanation: Both sujects are in the singular, therefore the verb also needs to be in the singular. If one or both of the subjects are in the plural form, the verb also need to be in the plural. Neither Keith nor his friends were at the party.

Kira Petersen

Photo by Thomas Lefebvre