It is often said that real professional translators translate only into their ‘mother tongue’ because only ‘native speakers’ are fully competent in ‘their language’. I wish to question these linguistic myths.
1. What does ‘mother tongue’ mean?
The meaning of the expression ‘mother tongue’ is ambiguous.
Admittedly, the only language that monolingual speakers generally claim to know is that of their mother. They first learnt that language through interaction with their mother, at an early age.
But the world is diverse. Some people first learned their father’s tongue. Some did not have parents. Some were raised by people who spoke different languages.
Moreover, the expression ‘mother tongue’ poses an ideological problem, because some people imply that their mother tongue is the mother of their identity, as if without it, they would not be ‘their true selves’.
Such a claim can bring people together, as in the case of the Irish slogan “ní tír gan teanga” (no land without language).
But we must not forget that Romantic slogans can also be used to discriminate the Other.
The Nazis, for instance, used mother tongue fascism to justify linguistic discrimination towards multilingual Jewish Germans. They claimed that these multilingual speakers were perverting the ‘mother tongue’ because they were not true ‘native’ German speakers.
I will let you reflect on what ‘perverting a tongue’ might mean and move onto my second question:
2. Who’s the ‘native speaker’?
One can only marvel at the term ‘native speaker’. This bizarre expression implies either that we were ‘born speaking’ – a rare achievement – or that we were ‘born into a language’. My non-native instinct tells me we’ve got a metaphor on our hands.
Obviously, ‘native speaker’ does not imply that we are linguistically autonomous from birth. In fact, nothing much happens linguistically in the first year of our lives. Any young parent will confirm this: what first happens with your new-born is communication.
When we use the term ‘native speaker’, we imply that a person has a legitimate competence in a given language.
But how do we make it legitimate? By being born with it or by acquiring it? In other words, does native legitimacy come from innate or learned behaviour?
As sociolinguist Deborah Cameron recently pointed out, UK statistics suggest that the test for British citizenship applicants advantages native speakers of white European ancestry. So it would seem that there are different types of native speakers and that they are not all legitimate.
Interestingly, discourses that promote the ‘native speaker’ concept are often qualified with adjectives like ‘pure’, ‘perfect’, ‘authentic’ or ‘unique’.
3. Let’s take a look at translators
Some of us have developed a high level of oral or written comprehension in various languages, but cannot speak or write such languages as ‘correctly’ as ‘native speakers’ would. Some of us can even write languages that we cannot speak.
Sounds weird? Try speaking with Julius Caesar. While we can read him and write to him, no one really knows what this true native Latin speaker sounded like.
In any case, we don’t need to interact with living people to read or write a language – be it ancient or modern. These activities involve a different type of language use than, say, buying a pint for your mates on a Friday night.
Indeed, it has to do with how we use languages. Since we do not speak like we write, conversation plays a limited role in the work of most professional translators. Speaking like a true native is therefore far less important than having excellent writing skills.
4. The second mother tongue
Using the language of your mother on a daily basis does not make you a professional translator. And English has this in common with many minority or endangered languages that most of its speakers were not ‘born into it’.
While these ‘new speakers’ are often criticized by those who claim to be ‘natives’ — for their mistreat of language conventions, i.e. illegitimate use — some of these new speakers reach a level of competency that is so high that their new language becomes their language of habitual use – a fact that ITI’s Code of Professional Conduct takes into account.
Such competency allows them to claim certain legitimacy, at least in some areas of language use. They may not be able to have a laugh in that language at the pub on a Friday night, but they can translate medical reports that most ‘natives’ would simply not understand.
As a group of intellectuals commissioned by the EU once put it, some people are capable of adopting a ‘second mother tongue’. Language diversity is not about building walls between languages. It is about recognising the diversity of use human beings make of their tongues.