osetta Stone was born in Italy, the daughter of an English professor and his Italian wife, who had made a name for herself writing poetry. The three had
lived happily in several Italian, British and North American university towns and Ro, as her friends called her, didn’t even remember all the schools
she had attended.
She was fluent in both English and Italian, and could crack jokes in French and Spanish. The British thought she had a slight and sexy Italian accent, the
Italians thought she spoke with a trace of a classy British inflection.
That cool September night, as the red wine flowed lazily, Georg asked her, “Ro, tell me, what is your first language, after all?” She knew what
was coming. She claimed to be bilingual and accepted jobs in both directions, or, as she proudly put it, she drove the bus both coming and going. However,
she knew most of her colleagues did not approve of that.
There is not a single person translating from Estonian into English who is a native speaker of English.
“What do you think?” she asked him. Georg, who could translate anything from English, which he spoke with a heavy accent, into surprisingly
flowing German, replied “Not an authority on that.”
Eric, who was as English as they make them nowadays, commented carefully “You speak
English like a native, Ro.”
“Meaning ‘as only a foreigner does,’ Eric?” was the answer.
“Well,” said the Englishman, “you do have an accent, you know.”
“Well,” retorted she; “My Italian is also accented–or so they say, at least. Does that mean I have no first language?” she
“Point taken, Ro, but you know you are an exception. There are far too many foreign translators murdering my poor language,” lamented Eric.
“People should only translate into their native languages, you know.”
“It is your fault, not ours!”
“Oh, so you admit your first language is Italian?”
“I admit I was born in Italy. Never made a secret of that.
“So what? Somerset Maugham was born in France. Does that make French his first language?”
“Well, at least he was born inside the Embassy,” retorted Eric lamely, but gave up on that line of reasoning, lest she mentioned Nabokov, and
asked “but why on earth do you say we are the culprits?”
“Because you do not study foreign languages. The number of Brits (or Americans, or Australians) capable of translating is not up to the task.”
“Oh, please, not that, again!” said Eric.
Toomas, the Estonian, smiled: “There is not a single person translating from Estonian into English who is a native speaker of English. We have to
handle the traffic ourselves.”
“Point taken, Tom, point taken, but Estonian is an exception.”
“Is it?” asked Georg, who liked to be thorough. “There are over 7,000 languages alive today. Even if we consider, let’s say, the
top 100 most widely spoken, how many of these are ‘exceptions like Estonian?’ Maybe—maybe—the true exceptions are German, French, Spanish,
Italian and perhaps Russian—and that’s it.”
Marcela, a Brazilian who had so far kept her peace, added “Look, this thing of being a native speaker of the target language is very important, but
there are other factors to consider.”
Eric cautiously asked “Such as…?”
“Oh well”, said Marcela, “I know my English is far from perfect and my style is more than a little rough, but some of the
‘natives’ who translate into English read French at the University, took Spanish as a second, learned Portuguese during a vacation in Algarve, Portugal,
and venture translating from Brazilian Portuguese. Their style is perfect, but they miss a lot of what lies between the lines in the Brazilian Portuguese
Eric asked “But, why don’t you at least ask for a native speaker to edit your texts?”
“C’mon, old man” exclaimed José, who was born in Mexico, had lived in several South American countries and was a man of limited
patience, “what client would give you time for that? Not everybody translates poetry, you know.”
“José, yes, you may be right, and I know our schedules are not nearly as tight as those you techies face, but I am afraid Marcela had something
else to say.”
“Oh, well,” said Marcela, “José is right and I must thank him for his support, but there are two more brief points I would like to
raise: first is that not all natives make good translators, and I am tired of seeing bad English written by native English speakers;
and the second is the case of the people I call ‘honorary natives’.”
“Meaning people like me, Marcela?” asked Per.
“No, not people like you, Per. You were born in Denmark, but you came to England so young that you rate as a native speaker.” Eric raised an
eyebrow, but decided to let it go.
José barged in again: “I think I know what Marcie means: I knew a Dutch woman in Peru who translated from Spanish into English. Nobody would
accept her translations into Spanish, because her Spanish was awful, really awful. Her English was worse than mine, but she convinced a few businesspeople
that the Dutch speak perfect English and that she was as good as a native.”
“Exactly,” mumbled Marcela, who did not like to be interrupted.
Ian, a Scot who had married a Russian translator commented “I believe the best solution for the problem is mine: Galina does the first draft and I
edit it. We schedule our work in such a way that I can pick up as soon as she finishes her work and, I believe, we deliver a quality job. And both of us
work in both directions. I think doing a bit of translation into Russian helps improve my into-English work.”
Both Marcela and José nodded their approvals. Rosetta, who felt she had been silent for too long, could not resist cracking one of her jokes;
“It is your luck you translate from a single language. Can you imagine Per, who translates from Danish, Swedish, Norwegian AND German?
Everybody laughed at the joke, except Per himself, a confirmed bachelor, and somehow they silently agreed it was time to part company. A look at the waitress
brought the check, which they shared as usual. They had talked long enough and had not come to any conclusion, as usual. They would soon meet again, go
back to the same subjects, raise the same arguments and, again, come to no conclusion at all.
Editor's Note: You can find an interesting discussion on this subject at http://translationjournal.blogspot.com/2004/08/native-language.html