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Why is translation into the mother tongue more successful than into a second language?

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It is commonly believed that translators are better at translating into their native language than into a second language. The underlying reason for this assumption is that translators have a more profound linguistic and cultural background of their mother tongue than of a second language which they have to learn in order to be well-versed translators. By the same token, the translator who translates into his or her native language has a more natural and practical knowledge of the various linguistic elements of his or her native language, such as semantics, syntax, morphology and lexicology than the translator who translates into a foreign language. In addition, translation into the first language enables translators to render cultural elements such as proverbs, idioms, metaphors, collocations, swear words and others into proper equivalents in their mother tongue because such translators are born and bred in the culture into which they translate these culture-bound aspects. In fact, the translators' first language is naturally acquired in a culture and environment where the first language is naturally acquired and practiced. On the other hand, their second language is, for the most part, learned, rather than acquired, later on in the course of their life. As a result, the linguistic and cultural knowledge of their second language is always in progress and never complete. In this respect, James Dickins (2005) points out:

Translator training normally focuses on translation into the mother tongue, because higher quality is achieved in that direction than in translating into a foreign language. (2005: 2)

On the linguistic level, translation into the first language provides the translator with some advantages, such as an instinctive knowledge of morphological, semantic, syntactic and lexical aspects of his or her mother tongue because the translator acquires these linguistic elements naturally in the course of time. These various aspects constitute the translator's increasing linguistic reservoir. In contrast, translation into a second language not only provides the translator with some kind of bookish knowledge, but it also puts him or her at the mercy of references, such as grammar books, and general and specialized dictionaries as the translator's second language is, in most cases, learned outside its natural context rather than acquired. Every time the translator is unsure of the morphological, semantic or lexical rules of the second language into which he or she translates, he or she will have to refer to references and dictionaries for help. Sometimes, he or she consults more than one reference or dictionary to decide on the right meaning of a certain word or phrase, and the search for appropriate equivalents in the target language may take even a long time. In this respect, Katherine Reiss (2000) argues:

Due to the fact that differences between the grammatical systems of languages are frequently quite great, it is the morphology and syntax of the target language that clearly deserve priority unless there is some overriding factor either in the nature of the text or some special circumstance. (2000: 60)

As far as the morphological aspect is concerned, translation into the mother tongue tends to be more successful than translation into a second language because of the translator's inherent knowledge of the morphological rules of his or her first language. The following invented example in Arabic may illustrate this point. The sentence is hwa akbaru waladin fi ala'ila. This Arabic sentence corresponds to the following English sentence: he is the eldest child in the family. Such a sentence may confuse a novice translator whose first language is Arabic because "akbaru", which is morphologically equivalent to the comparative English form "elder/older", is, in fact, used here to refer to the superlative degree. For a translator whose first language is English, such a sentence will not pose any challenge because his or her morphological competence will automatically lead him or her to the right choice. Furthermore, the semantic knowledge of the translator who translates into his or her mother tongue is an added asset to good translation because he or she does not translate words in isolation but meaning in a given context. In some languages, one word can be used to refer to more than one thing and only those translators who translate into their native language are aware of such a semantic feature. This, however, may cause confusion or translation loss when translation is done into a foreign language. Michael Hanne (2006) highlights this point by stating the following example:

European cultures traditionally make a firm distinction between emotional and intellectual activities, attaching them to the heart and the head respectively. In traditional Chinese culture, I understand, no such distinction is made, since the heart is referred to as the location of mental activities of all kinds. Take these sentences from Herman Melville: "I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head. I had rather be a fool with a heart than Jupiter Olympus with a head" (2006: 209)

Despite the fact that translators' best friends are assumed to be monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, the translators who translate into their first language perform well even without the help of such dictionaries because, by intuition, they are more aware of the lexical aspect of their native language than that of a second language. In addition, they are fully equipped with the lexical knowledge of their first language which will help them match correct lexical items in both the source language and the target language. By virtue of this knowledge, for example, they can decide what verbs collocate with what nouns, what adjectives collocate with what nouns, what adverbs to use before what adjectives, what tense to use, whether a feminine, masculine, singular or plural should be used, and other important lexical information . Roman Jacobson (2001) further illustrates this point by providing an example form Russian:

In order to translate accurately the English sentence "I hired a worker," a Russian needs supplementary information, whether this action was completed or not and whether the worker was a man or a woman, because he must make his choice between a verb of completive or noncompletive aspect…and between a masculine and a feminine noun. (2001:116)

It is worth mentioning that both the linguistic and cultural elements in the source language and the target language should be well-observed in order that translation is carried out successfully. However, the transference of cultural elements into cultural equivalents tends to be more daunting for the translator who translates them into a second language than for the translator who translates them into his or her first language and culture. Eugene Nida (2001) asserts the existence of this dividing line between linguistic and cultural challenges facing translators:

In fact, differences between cultures cause many more severe complications than do differences in language structure. (2001:130)

As far as culture is concerned, translation into the first language provides the translator with an in-depth knowledge of the various aspects of his or her culture because most texts are normally coloured with cultural elements such as idioms, proverbs, metaphors, swear words and other cultural features. When translators translate into their native language and culture, they are fully aware of the cultural sensitivities of the target language and can best render the cultural elements of the source language into proper equivalents in their own language and culture. On the other hand, the translator who translates into a foreign language and culture may not be able to see and recognize the cultural aspects of the foreign or second language because he or she is an alien to that culture no matter how many cultural references or phrases he or she memorizes. In such a situation, if any translation were to be done, it would not sound very successful. Peter Newmark (1981) suggests:

He [the translator] will be 'caught' every time, not by his grammar, which is probably suspiciously 'better' than an educated native's, not by his vocabulary, which may well be wider, but by his unacceptable or improbable collocations…For the above reasons, translators rightly translate into their own language, and a fortiori, foreign teachers and translators are normally unsuitable in a translation course. (1981: 173 Check page number)

In general, cultural pervasive aspects, such as proverbs, idioms, metaphors, swear words and others challenge translators who translate into both the first language and the second language as these aspects are not easy to transmit from one culture into another. However, the translators who translate such intriguing features into their native language find them much easier to handle and render than the translators who attempt to transfer them into a second or foreign culture. As a matter of fact, all languages and cultures have these cultural sensitivities, but share with each other only few of them. Besides, it is not very common to find equivalent proverbs, for instance, in languages belonging to different families such as English and Arabic. Yet, it is the responsibility of translators to ensure that there is no equivalent to a certain proverb before they suggest their own translation of that given proverb. An invented example that may illustrate this point is the following English proverb "diamond cut diamond". For a translator whose native language is English and whose second language is Arabic, the accurate translation of this proverb into Arabic is rather difficult, not because the words have no Arabic equivalents but because the cultural dimension and reference will be lost once the English words are replaced by their corresponding Arabic equivalents. Oddly enough, such a translator might be quite tempted to translate the above-mentioned proverb literally. The target audience, however, will make neither head nor tail of that translation. More importantly, the meaning of such a proverb in the target language, which is Arabic, will be distorted once it is rendered literally. On the other hand, the translator whose mother tongue is Arabic and whose second language is English will easily find an equivalent Arabic proverb to the above-mentioned one because his or her cultural reservoir will help him or her find an appropriate equivalent proverb in Arabic. As a result, the translator will translate this proverb correctly into an Arabic proverb which the target audience will readily understand. Interestingly enough, the translator will come up with the following equivalent Arabic proverb "la yafulu alhadida illa alhadidu" which literally corresponds to the following English sentence: "Iron cuts only iron". We notice that in the English culture "diamond" is used while in the Arabic culture "iron" is used instead. The target audience may understand the overall meaning of such strange-sounding sentences, but they will know for sure that these sentences are produced by ill-experienced or novice translators whose first language is not English.  In fact, the target audience will easily identify any translation errors and spot them because the translation is carried out into their own culture. In this particular respect, Katherine Reiss (2000) points out:

The audience factor is apparent in the common idiomatic expressions, quotations, proverbial allusions and metaphors, etc., of the source language… The translator should make it possible for the reader in the target language to see and understand the text in the terms of his own cultural context. (2000: 79)

Furthermore, idioms are another cultural element featuring in most languages. Translators most often find idioms somehow difficult to translate because of their unpredictable meaning. For this reason, idioms should be translated very carefully; otherwise their meaning is distorted. English, for example, is widely known as a highly idiomatic language. When translators whose second language is English translate literary texts into English, the may not be able to translate these texts into idiomatic English because their knowledge of English idioms is not as naturally good as that of a native speaker due to the fact that the native speaker's knowledge of idioms is highly steeped in his or her own culture. Unlike any string of words, idioms should be treated with utmost care because their meaning does not depend on the meaning of their individual words but can only be explained and comprehended in cultural terms. In the case of the translator whose first language is not English, there is a strong possibility that he or she may quote idioms wrongly or use them indiscriminately out of their natural context. On the other hand, the translator whose first language is English and who translates into English is hardly ever likely to make such blunders. Accordingly, when translating idioms, the translator should focus on meaning and not on the search of equivalent idioms in the target language because not all languages depend on idioms for communication. In this case, the translator should aspire to come to grips with the meaning of a certain idiom and put it in a way most convenient for the recipient language and culture. In this respect, Katherine Reiss (2000) says:

The factor of idiomatic usage becomes even more important for translation when no convenient and comparable expression is available, and some form of structural adaptation is necessary to avoid an undue strain in the target language. (2000: 62)

Another cultural element which merits consideration with regard to translation is swear words. As a matter of fact, swear words or taboos are common features permeating all languages and cultures. Native speakers of a certain language can both identify swear words and use them correctly, unlike nonnative speakers of that language whose lack of such knowledge deprives them of such an advantage. These so-called taboos are not easy to translate because their meaning is culture-bound. Besides, what is seen as a taboo in one culture may not be regarded as such in another culture. More importantly, the variation of swear words along with their elusive nature makes their translation into the translator's first language much easier than into the translator's second language. Accordingly, those who translate taboos into their native language and culture will effortlessly find proper equivalents to these taboos in their own culture because they are instinctively familiar with the various aspects of their own culture. In addition, their innate knowledge of what might, or might not, be accepted in their culture will enable them to make up culturally appropriate equivalents to some swear words which originally have no equivalents in their native culture. In contrast, those who translate taboos into a foreign language culture will not be able to provide culturally proper equivalents for these taboos because those translators lack the intuitive knowledge of the foreign culture into which they carry out translation. In this regard, Katherine Reiss (2000) pinpoints the elusive nature of swear words and illustrates that by giving an example of some animal names used as swear words in two different languages. She says:

Swear words pose problems for translation: the emotional elements must be carefully matched with the specific situational context. Animal names are known to be favored as swear words, but different languages have different associations for different animals. When a Frenchman swears at someone with the words "la vache!", the German translation "Die(se) Kuh" (literally "the cow") would miss the meaning completely…while "la vache" as a swear word finds its equivalent in the German word "Schwein!"(English "bastard!") (2000: 84-85)

Not only do words have different meanings and associations in different cultures, but they also express different personal and/or social attitudes. Interestingly enough, some words may sound inoffensive or neutral in one culture, whereas their equivalents in the target culture express social disapproval and disgust. As a result of this discrepancy, the translator who translates such words into his or her native language culture will have to be very careful so as not to use equivalents whose meaning may be emotionally charged, unlike the meaning of their counterparts in the source language. However, for a translator who translates these words into a foreign language, the decision to use neutral equivalents is almost often on an ad hoc basis as he or she is not as fully aware of the customs and traditions of the target language culture as is the native speaker of the target language. As a result, he or she may use equivalents which, in the target language, sound either vulgar or offensive while their corresponding counterparts in the source language are neutral or inoffensive. A good example that best illustrates this point is the one which Mona Baker (1995) gives. She argues:

Differences in expressing meaning are usually more difficult to handle when the target-language equivalent is more emotionally loaded than the source language item… Homosexuality is not inherently pejorative in English, although it is often used in this way. On the other hand, the equivalent expression in Arabic, shithuth jinsi( literally: 'sexual perversion') is inherently more pejorative and would be quite difficult to use in a neutral context without suggesting strong disapproval. (1995: 24)

In conclusion, it can safely be said that the translators who carry out translation into their native language outdo their fellow translators who translate into a second or foreign language because the former are more naturally equipped with both the linguistic and cultural knowledge of the target language than the latter. Besides, in terms of linguistic competence, translation into the first language provides the translator with an intuitive knowledge of the morphology, semantics, syntax and lexicology of the target language which is, in fact, his or her mother tongue. On the other hand, translation into a foreign language deprives translators of such knowledge and puts them at the mercy of references and dictionaries which may or may not be available or useful when needed or consulted. On the cultural level, the translator who translates texts containing cultural elements or references into his or her native language tends to be more successful than the one who translates such texts into a second or foreign language. The reason behind such a success is that the translator who translates into his or her native language will readily recognize cultural elements such as proverbs, idioms, metaphors, swear words and others which cannot be translated literally. Such elements, however, will not be easily identified by the translator who does translation into a foreign language even if he or she spoke and wrote like a native speaker.


Baker. M 1995 In Other Words: A coursebook on translation, Routledge: London & New York.

Dickins J et al 2002 Thinking Arabic Translation: A course in translation method: Arabic to English, Oxon: Routledge.

Hanne. M 2006 'Epilogue: Metaphors for the Translator', in: S Bassnett (ed), The Translator as Writer, Continuum: London & New York, pp209.

Jacobson. R 2001 'On Linguistic Aspects of Translation', in: L Venuti (ed), The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge: London & New York, pp

Newmark.P 1981/1988 Approaches to Translation, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

Nida. E 2001, 'Principles of Correspondence', in: L Venuti (ed), The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge: London & New York, pp

Reiss. K 2000 Translation Criticism- The Potentials and Limitations, ( R, Erroll, Ed ), Jerome Publishing: Manchester.

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