Is Your Translator Really a Native Speaker?

Why does that matter?
January 18, 2020 by
Is Your Translator Really a Native Speaker?
Maria Apgar
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A quick online search of the words “native speaker” shows language classes offered by native speakers, professional translation services that claim to only employ native speakers, and qualifications for what makes someone a native speaker or a non-native speaker. Deciphering what really matters when it comes to being a native-speaker requires an understanding of the linguistic concepts of language acquisition and development. This is tricky, as there are as many definitions of these terms as there are language researchers.

First, we have to pin down the elusive meanings of “native language” and “mother tongue.” Making this distinction is crucial, especially when it comes to picking a medical translator for a healthcare organization. Traditionally, mother tongue is regarded as the language acquired during early childhood. In other words, it is the language a person learned from their parents and spoke at home. If their parents spoke more than one language with them, this might make the person bilingual, but not necessarily a native speaker of both languages. The native language is the language learned at school, while in a country where that language is used in society. According to this definition, a person becomes proficient in a language when they receive instruction on the rules that govern meaning, phrase and sentence structure, the relationships between words, phrases and sentences, and their interpretation within context. For instance, second or third generation Hispanics in the United States may have learned Spanish at home and be able speak it, and yet still have difficulty writing it properly. However, they will have received their education in the US school system and therefore will be proficient in English. Two research surveys confirm that 61% of Hispanic immigrants are more proficient in speaking and reading in Spanish than they are in English, whereas Spanish is dominant in only 6% of second-generation Hispanics and not dominant at all in the third generation. Although as many as half of them are bilingual, English dominance increases from one generation to the next.

Furthermore, language acquisition can occur in different ways and in multiple countries. What happens if the person has attended school in different countries where different languages were spoken? In a case such as this, it should be considered what level of education was achieved in each country. Looking deeper into this example, if the person came to the US when they were eight years old, the language proficiency will generally remain at the level where the formal language education was interrupted.

Exploring the different scenarios in which people become bilingual gives us some insights as to why it is important for healthcare organizations to rely on professional translation services, and not merely on their bilingual staff or the family members of patients. Professional medical translators have received advanced education in both languages, have expert knowledge of medical terminology, and translate written documents into their native language. The final point, that of translating into one’s native language, is important not only in terms of language proficiency, but also to avoid language interference.

Language interference is a term language researchers use to describe how bilingual people borrow phonetic and grammatical expressions and structures from their native language to render ideas in the second language. This is why the direction in which the translator works is important. In other words, if the translator translates into their second language, errors can be traced back to structures of the native language.

Errors and readability in medical translation have a clinical impact. There are countless examples of life-threatening mistranslations, which is all the more reason why making sure medical translators are educated and have health literacy in the language into which they are translating is so important.

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