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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Nuances of the Native Speaker Principle

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Earlier this month, six years after receiving my English-to-Chinese translation certification from the American Translators Association, I learned the great news that I'm now also an ATA-certified Chinese-to-English translator (in the other direction too). There are fewer than 15 translators who are doubly ATA-certified in this language pair at the moment, and I'm truly proud to join their ranks.

With a current pass rate of less than 20%, the ATA certification exam evaluates competency in providing professional translation. Specifically, one needs to demonstrate solid understanding of the source text, skillful usage of translation techniques, and strong writing in the target language. As a native Chinese speaker who acquired English as my second language, I find this certification a meaningful acknowledgment of my hard work.

Now, if you are privy to the world of professional translation, you might question whether this sits right with the native speaker principle. This is something I've been pondering for quite a while, and I'd like to take this opportunity to share my experience and my perspective on this gnarly subject.

What is the native speaker principle?

In the translation world, the native speaker principle stipulates that a translator should only translate into their native language to ensure top quality. The idea behind this rule is that a native speaker has a better instinct, more extensive cultural knowledge, and can generally communicate better than someone who acquired the language later in life. I was a believer in this for a long time and only marketed myself as an English-to-Chinese translator for a good portion of my career.

This year, however, I made a conscious decision to hone my English writing and into-English translation skills with the goal of passing the ATA exam and expanding the scope of my service. This decision was made in light of a new appreciation of my abilities and market needs based on what I've witnessed in the language service industry.

The principle versus reality

As a quality controller (QCer) who has examined hundreds of English-to-Chinese audiovisual translation files and a reviewer of Chinese-to-English tests for an agency's prospective linguists, I have seen first hand 1) the gap between native speaker status and actual writing skills, and 2) the difficulty for translators to develop a profound, nuanced understanding of their source language, which is often their second language.

I have genuinely been taken aback by the rarity of natural, thoughtful, idiomatic renditions that are a delight to read. What's particularly worrisome is that I have seen quite a few translators whose linguistic skills seem to be stuck in between: not advanced enough in their second language to appreciate nuances while also losing touch with their mother tongue and unable to produce skillful writing. And the vast difference between the Chinese and English languages certainly doesn't help.

While a native speaker has the advantage of language sensibilities, one needs solid training and consistent practice to become good at writing. And being a native speaker who writes well is just one side of the equation: one also needs to fully understand the source language, capturing the spirit, energy, and flavor of it all. Besides all that, a translator also needs to be a conscientious proofreader and resourceful researcher. Given the complexity of the translation process, to be obsessive with the translator being a native speaker alone is akin to only trusting a non-skinny chef. There are way too many micro-skills and moving parts involved in producing quality translation.

The proof is in the pudding

Now, if I were to build a perfect translator, the native speaker principle would still apply if the same person is also a great writer who understands their second language just as deeply as a native speaker of that language. Again, it's the combination of these factors that makes a native speaker's translation valuable.

The fact that at least a dozen of the 31 ATA-certified Chinese-to-English translators are native speakers of Chinese should give you an idea of 1) how challenging it is for a native English speaker to develop advanced fluency in Chinese and 2) how entirely possible it is for non-native speakers to work professionally from Chinese into English.

I must mention that having lived in the United States for a decade is key to my confidence in pursuing into-English translation professionally. In my own practice, I'll continue to have my work proofread by native speakers and to hone my craft through continuous learning and practice. My experience has shown that my skills are much needed in the market, and I look forward to serving your needs in both directions.

Update on December 12, 2022:

A little over a week after I initially wrote the post, I received the following note from a client, which felt like a serendipitous nod:

What a marvelous translation! Translating into your second language is no joke, so kudos to you. I've been an English teacher for several years now, and when I see work like this I am reminded how perceptions about the "native speaker" fall apart in the face of competent language users.


Eric Liao
Eric Liao
Dec 01, 2022

Great writing and insights. And congrats! - @EKLinterpret

Sijin Xian
Sijin Xian
Dec 01, 2022
Replying to

Thank you, Eric! That means a lot coming from you.

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