Is your answer to one of these four questions a yes? Then I’d say that a native speaker is the way to go*:
- Is it a marketing text? If you want a piece of writing that will push your customers’ emotional buttons, you need someone with an excellent feel for the language. Someone who understands all the nuances and connotations – as well as the culture in the target country. There are a few exceptions, but in most cases, a native speaker is the best bet.
- Will the text be printed? If the translation is going to be printed, there’s a good chance it’ll be around for the long run. Whether it’s an article, a book or slogan, this is a text that will be re-read. Readers also expect a higher level of quality from printed texts. Slightly odd Facebook posts might not be noticed – mistakes in a book will be. Your text needs to not only be accurate, but to flow and sound natural – as well as be a pleasure to read.
- Will it be read by other native speakers? If your readers are distracted by awkward language – or, at worst, cannot understand the translation easily – your message will not get across. Good writing skills are still a sign of professionalism and show that you take yourself seriously. If you’re aiming to attract an international readership, this isn’t something to cut corners on.
- Do you want to target a specific country? Different grammar, different expressions, different spellings. There are so many details (small and not so small) that make sure that your translation is at home in its country of publication (the USA? Britain? Canada? Australia..?). If this is important, your best option is a native speaker. They probably won’t know how to write any other way!
Is your answer to one of these four questions a yes? Then a non-native might be a better bet:
- Is it a legal text? In this case, a perfect understanding of complex sentences is vital – and an excellent knowledge of legal systems doesn’t hurt either. With legal texts it isn’t a problem if the sentences stick closely to the original. In fact, a similar sentence structure can be an advantage if people at a meeting are reading the text in different languages. The easier it is for everyone to find the same sentence, the better!
- Is it simply about communication? If your client has an important query, your priority will be to provide them with the right information as quickly as possible. If you have a native speaker on hand to get the job done, then great. But this certainly isn’t a must.
- Are the technical details more important than style? With a complex technical text, your priority will be to find someone who truly understands the content and is familiar with the terms in both languages. So your go-to translator might be a native speaker – or they might simply be a talented expert in the relevant field.
- Does your firm need internal documents translating? Finding a competent native speaker isn’t always easy or quick. And in this case, it’s important to find someone who is familiar with the company jargon. An internal translator may not be native – but they can make sure that office news hits those inboxes as quickly as possible.
*Of course there are always exceptions – some people are non-native but brilliant (you know who you are)!