Jun 10, 2010

Choosing an agency or an independent translator

A translation colleague in Brazil, José Henrique Lamensdorf, has entertained and educated me for many years with his observations on the art and business of translation. He recently wrote an article on when to consider hiring an agency and when it is probably best to work directly with a translator. It's an excellent overview, and I agree with most, if not all the points. It is definitely worth reading here. If you are in need of translations for personal use or for your company, José's checklist is well worth taking into account.

One statement I cannot agree with is "Don't fall for the 'native speaker' talk. If a translator is truly competent, they'll have mastered the target language, regardless of where they have been born." If my memory is correct, José translates often into English, and he is most likely very good at it given the way he usually expresses himself in that language. In my own language pair I know a few people who can translate at a high level of competence into the language which they do not speak as natives, but these people are rare exceptions. More common are those who think they do so or who think that a lack of native fluency offers them some bizarre advantage. A state testing committee composed of Germans and UK English natives once decided that I translate better into German than into my own language, American English. (This was the result of the state exams I took in Germany several years ago.) However, this judgment is more a reflection of the committee's incompetence in understanding American English, not of the brilliance of my German prose. I'll admit that I can usually put together a coherent sentence in German; after 35 years of working with the language I would be rather embarrassed not to do so. But I do not believe that my writing in German or my translations into that language (done only for fun or pro bono with the rarest exceptions) in any way approach what I can accomplish in English.

Actually, given José's usual precise phrasing, I am very likely reading him wrong. I do agree that a truly competent translator will only translate into a target language that is well mastered, but the real problem is - the reason that it is so easy to misread his statement - so many believe they have this competence but do in fact not.

But I usually avoid throwing punches in the native speaker debate. I figure each person has the right to risk looking like a fool, and that applies to customers as well as service providers.


  1. There was a ProZ thread in response to the relaunch tranfree edition a few weeks ago...


    I managed to keep out of the thread. It seemed like a lot of established translators from western economies agreed with my comment, which was in an article called 18 ways to kill your translation business...

    "16) Working into a language in which you don't have native level ability.

    Just because you can understand a language and translate out of it, doesn't mean you can write at an acceptably good level in it. I can always tell when English is written by a foreigner because the articles are horribly abused or simply not used at all. (The definite article THE, and the indefinite article A). If I tried to write sentences in Polish or French, the readers would be laughing their socks off before reaching the third line of text. Don't do that to your clients. They might not be able to get the work checked until they get laughed out of a meeting."

    I didn't even say YOU HAVE TO BE A NATIVE. But still people objected to it.

    Most of the objectors came from low wage economies as far as I could tell. And oddly enough the thread starter came from Brazil. Perhaps it's a Brazilian thing?

    Anyway, something good came out of it. I finally learned, through the attempted assassination of my text, that when you quote a complete sentence in parenthesis, they should enclose the full-stop (period to you). So it was a worthwhile thread. ;)

  2. Thanks for reminding me of that thread, Alex. I saw it after it started, but stopped following it after the first few posts. It is interesting to note the positions take and who takes them.

    There is, of course, the old argument of the scarcity of native speakers of a target language who have a mastery of the source language. I don't suppose there are a lot of good native speakers of English with an outstanding command of Latvian, though I could be wrong about that. I assume one would have to look for a native Latvian competent in English and hope for the best. But in a common language pair like German/English or French/German it's probably not wise to play roulette in this way.

    Also, when I think about the second-language speakers who have native level competence at a high professional level, nearly all of them have been married to highly literate native speakers of that second language. Exceptions to that are rare; I can think of three (four counting one who only edits and never translates) for my pair in my circle of acquaintances. Those who think they are good enough constitute a group at least two orders of magnitude greater.

    BTW, congratulations on the tranfree relaunch. I've enjoyed it even more than your old material, which was one of the most formative influences on my early translating career.

  3. Thanks Kevin. And since I've been "back" I've really enjoyed your blog. I went away for a week at the beginning of June and came back to see something like 10 new posts. That blew me away a bit.

    I had a glance at José Henrique's page linked above after I posted here last night. One thing that jumped out at me was the use of the word "failproof". Sounds alien to me and I couldn't find it in a dictionary. I did wonder if it might be a modern phrase that has not yet made it into the dictionary, or if it's US usage? But I couldn't find it in dictionary.com and even a google search revealed precious few results - one of them written by a Dutch sounding name.

    Either way, it sounds non-native to me, which is kind of ironic on that page. Still, though it's not catastrophic, but it does dilute his argument slightly.

  4. True on every level, but I noticed it's increasingly difficult to find people who agree on this. Maybe you're right, Kevin, it's the scarcity of native speakers of the target language, but it's more and more frequent also for IT > EN (I work into Italian), which I think is one of the most common combinations in the industry... Maybe the issued are two and in some was intertwined: scarcity of native speakers of the target language AND the surplus of speakers in the source language, which make a lot of people to "take the plunge" and start translating into what should be their source language. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    What José wrote was not simply "Don't fall for the 'native speaker' talk." He wrote, "Don't fall for the 'native speaker' talk. If a translator is truly competent, they'll have mastered the target language, regardless of where they have been born. However, if your material needs catchy wording, use someone actually living in the target language area (either as a translator or for final editing). A native speaker living for decades outside their homeland may be using outdated language, if some slang or wordplay is involved."

    I agree with him, because I happened to have lived in Germany for 14 years and in South America for 7 years. I know how difficult it is to keep up with the development in my country from a great distance, especially when there was no Internet 16 years ago.

    My ideal translation would be having a translator native in both the source and the target languages. But this is scarcely the case. We don't find many translators with such a background. The other ideal way would be having a translator native of the source language translate from the source to the target and having another translator native of the target language proofread and edit the translation. This is also rarely the case its costs.

    Now, how to solve the dispute of "nativity"? Think about this: Why clients choose pretty often non-native translators? Do the agencies cheat them? Not always. So, there must be a reason why.

    I have signed Wendell's petition "Professional Standard for Written English Translations" because I know I am not competent to translate into English/German and his arguments are plausible. I have proofread and edited many translations in Chinese done by non-natives and I know how awful it could be with non-native translations who have not reached a highly professional level in Chinese.

    However, there are different communication needs. Accuracy of the content and elegancy of the style, for instance, are not always exclusive. But a native of the target may have an excellent writing style, while he might not catch the nuances in the source. This could lead to inaccuracy of the content. A translator native of the source language may translate accurately, but his writing style in the target might not be at a professional level. Clients decide on these issues against their budgets.

    Translators tend to argue with "quality." Well, quality is, like taste, a matter of attitude. It’s in the eyes of the beholder. For instance, when I read José "fail proof checking," I understand perfectly what he means, though it sounds a bit extra-standard. I wouldn't regard it as a flaw in quality. Besides, there are always new expressions coined in a language. What is that "long time no see" in English? But everyone uses the expression.

    As said, there are different levels and different needs of communication. This is why clients decide on hiring non-native translators, non-native either in the source or in the target, against their budgets for the communication. However, if an agency maintains that they always hire native translators of target languages and if they don’t, it is a sheer lie.

    For me, it is perfectly all right, if a non-native translator convinces his end clients to hire him for translations into his second or other languages. If this happens, it means that his clients believe that he can fulfil their communication needs. If the results are really bad, he loses the clients.

    Translators do not want peanuts. Clients do not want monkeys. Either clients pay decently or translators hide their tails. As I see it, most translators started with tails and shed them along their careers. To the survival and revival of translator generations, God is gracious to have created so many clients who hire tailed translators and so many translators who are flexible enough to take huge amounts of peanuts for peanut butter on their breakfasts. Just wonderful!

    - Wenjer

  6. I don't have a problem with "failproof" any more than I do with the more usual term "failsafe". If anything, it sounds better.

    I think I have read arguments from José or others in the past pointing out the cases where an absolute command of challenges in the source language requires a translator who is a native speaker of that language. I've seen source texts in German so heavily influenced by dialect or other factors that most non-native speakers of German wouldn't have a chance with them. However, an alert translator will generally recognize the traps and seek appropriate counsel. The list of persons to whom I am indebted for such advice is very, very long.

  7. Hi Kevin,

    Your remark on "failproof" against "failsafe" reminds me of Wendell's "Come Si Dice" (Wie heißt es) test, mentioned in his interview by Andrea Spila of The European School of Translation. There are thinkably more non-native translators who fail the test than translators native of the target language.

    And, yes, there are a lot of challenges in the source language. That is why we need from time to time native colleagues to help us understand the nuances of their language.

    It is almost impossible to have a perfect translation without absolute command of both source and target languages. But how many translators can assert this claim? When I read my comment above, I find myself editing again and again, because I know that I haven't expressed myself properly in English. The same happens when I read anything I write in German. I don't have absolute command of both English and German. But is this fact disqualitfies me from translating from English or German into Chinese? I am sure my clients would say something quite different, especially the ones who pay me decent rates.

    The dispute between native and non-native translators can be solved by trying to understand each other and helping each other. If native ones collaborate in some way with non-native ones and share the earnings, the quality will be essentially improved. However, it depends on what rates clients reward translators. When we do linguistic validation jobs, the clients usually give us a decent budget for consulting both natives of the source and the target languages. There is no problem for sharing earnings. But we usually don't have linguistic validation jobs. Clients, that is to say, agency clients expect us delivering translations compliant with certain requirements and the costs shall be as low as possible. With a rate of $0.08 or €0.06 per word, there is hardly room for earnings sharing. Quite a dilemma, isn't it? My strategy to solve the problem has been involving either the clients or the clients' clients in the translation process, so that they endorse the quality of my translations. In a sense, this practice -of course, with consent of the clients- is kind of doing "crowdsourcing" among the clients' employees or among the clients' clients. Otherwise, I would ask for a decent rate to cover the costs of engaging a native translator in helping me ensure the accuracy of my translation.

    Our problem/dispute with/of "nativity" is actually a matter of translation theory. I would suggest reading Anthony Pym's Translation as a Transaction Cost and Transferre non semper necesse est as well as his discussion with Douglas Robinson, Guiding the Invisible Hand. There are a lot more factors that affects translaiton quality than "nativity." And I believe we freelance translators, natives or non-natives, will find solutions to satisfy their needs within their budgets, no matter how big or small they are, one way or another.

    Translators shall not be lone wolves. The chances of survival for lone wolves are less than those in packs, unless they are "domesticized." When wild/free wolves hunt, they act collectively in hordes. If native and non-native translators can collaborate/cooperate in some way, the chances of survival will be highly enhanced. This is how I see the matter. The list of those natives to whom I am indebted is as well very, very long, including my ex and present.

    - Wenjer

  8. One statement I cannot agree with is "Don't fall for the 'native speaker' talk. If a translator is truly competent, they'll have mastered the target language, regardless of where they have been born."

    Please, please, please: regardless of where THEY WERE BORN.

    Need I say more?


  9. Unquestionably there are people who translate extremely well into their second or even their third language, just as there are authors who create outstanding literature in their second language.

    Are good non-native translators relatively rare? Probably, but I know plenty of them.

    Are there lots of people who *think* they can translate well into their non-native languages but can't? Sure. But there are also tons of people in our profession who overestimate their ability to translate into their native language too. That doesn't mean we should ban translation entirely.


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