Expanding outside your home market? Make sure you’re aware of translation’s golden rule
Why use a native translator?
If you are expanding outside your home market then you are likely starting to think about translating your marketing copy and material. If this is all new to you, then you may be surprised by the golden rule of the translation profession: professional translators only translate into their native language (or dominant language).
As an Italian to English translator, I can’t count the number of times I have been asked to translate something into Italian. After all, I speak Italian, so it would make sense for me to be able to also create marketing materials in Italian, right?
Wrong. I grew up speaking, thinking, and dreaming in English. I was 18 before I even learned to roll my rrrs. If you are targeting an Italian audience, then a native Italian translator – one who grew up speaking, thinking, and dreaming in Italian – is your perfect choice.
So why is it so important to use a native translator if you are expanding outside your home market?
1. A polished style is much more likely to convert customers
Customers expect a lot from brands. These days we are surrounded by digital and offscreen clutter, so only the most polished copy will do.
You have spent time and money crafting the perfect copy or content. It has brought strong results in your native country. The translation needs to be equally stylish to have the same effect overseas, especially when marketing your brand. And it’s much easier for a native speaker to do this.
My parents were recently looking into wine tours in Italy. There was a choice of two tour operators, and they checked out the websites of each one.
The first boasted of their ‘excellent attention to details’. This small slip-up (and many others) immediately put them off. They felt the company was only paying lip service and probably quite slack when it came to detail. What if the tour bus failed to turn up? What if it broke down en route?
The second website, although less visually glossy, was a joy to read. Captivating and perfectly tailored to English-speaking tourists, they immediately booked their tour, excited for their upcoming trip.
If the first company had invested in a professional native English translator, then perhaps they would have secured my parents’ custom straight away. Instead, they were swept off their feet by the competition.
My parents aren’t grammar nazis, nor are they the kind of people who go around adding missing apostrophes to supermarket signs. A study found that 82% of Brits would not use a company whose website was incorrectly translated into English. Ouch.
Would I have liked to save some money by attempting to create the Italian version of my website myself? Sure! Who wouldn’t? But I knew that the end result would be a hindrance to my business instead of a boon. Instead, I worked with a native Italian translator-copywriter to ensure that the end result was professional and pleasant for the Italian market.
2. Using professional native translators goes beyond simply speaking your customers’ language
It proves you truly care about their experience. And what customer wouldn’t want that?
Translation is much more than converting words from one language to another. A good native translator will write for the new audience in a way they can relate to and clearly understand.
Italian favours long sentences and long words. A professional Italian to English translator will know how to turn this wordiness into the shorter, punchy sentences that English speakers prefer. Formal-sounding Latinate words become simpler Anglo-Saxon ones.
When you translate from your native language to another, it is very difficult to gain enough distance from the original to achieve a natural-sounding piece of copy in the new language. The result can be stilted, overly formal and clunky:
Experience at the didactic farm suggests students lifestyles and appropriate food choices, facilitates the understanding of the interdependence between food, health, agriculture and land and spreads knowledge of regional products, creating a fruitful relationship between school and the world of production.
Not only is this sentence grammatically incorrect, it difficult to understand. The structure, word choice and super long sentence are so distracting that many English speakers would struggle to finish it.
But, by moving away from the original Italian, it can be easily rewritten with shorter, snappier sentences which clarify the message and involve the reader:
Over the years, we have developed a rewarding partnership with schools. At the teaching farm, we introduce students to positive lifestyle and food choices. They learn about the relationship between food, health, agriculture, and the land. They can also find out about regional produce.
3. Native translators are quicker and more efficient, which influences your bottom line
Language proficiency and style issues aside, it is much easier and quicker to produce good writing in your native language than your second language.
Most translators work out their per word rate based on how quickly they can translate, so, unless they are completely underselling themselves, it would generally cost more to translate into their second language.
If you find out through a customer that the translation isn’t fit for purpose, then you will incur an extra cost by having to retranslate it. Or you’ll pay in other ways by failing to gain the trust of potential customers.
Neither is an attractive option – what client would want to pay extra when you can get it right first time by using a qualified native translator?
4. The native principle is such a widespread rule that it’s a red flag if a translator doesn’t follow it
The translation professional is unregulated – anyone can decide they are a translator and start advertising tomorrow. We don’t have to pass language proficiency tests; we don’t have to study translation. It is relatively easy to find cheap non-native translators on online portals.
And of course, it goes without saying that native translators, as well as non-native translators can produce translations with errors.
This is why it is also really important to ensure that the translator you work with is sufficiently qualified, whether through qualifications, testimonials, or years of experience. The ITI has put together a guide which helps you know where to start when commissioning a translation.
Since the golden rule is to translate into the native language, you need to be very careful when a translator claims to translate in both directions. It can be a red flag that indicates a lack of professionality, a lack of familiarity with the industry, or just someone desperate to make a quick buck on a freelancing platform.
Does the translator proofread their work? Do they claim to translate all topics? Most translators specialise in areas in which they have trained or have prior working experience – would you want someone with no knowledge of medicine to translate detailed patient notes?
There are truly bilingual translators who are qualified to translate both ways, and should be able to prove it through qualifications, testimonials or their portfolio. But they are in the minority.
5. Google prefers well-translated quality content
Did you know that Google rewards original, well-written content by placing it higher in search results? Duplicate content ranks lower because it is not considered original – and this applies to translated content too. If the translation sticks too closely to the grammar rules and wording of the original, then it could be considered a duplicate.
Other than ensuring the translation is good quality, working with a translator familiar with search engine optimisation (SEO) can help you identify appropriate keywords. These might not necessarily be a direct translation of the original ones.
When is it ok to break the golden rule and use a non-native translator?
Wait… I’ve just spent a while telling you to use a native translator… and now I’m saying it’s sometimes ok?
There are some languages where it may not be possible to use a native translator. I’m thinking particularly ‘smaller’, often non-European languages. But you should always make sure the output is checked by a native speaker.
In this case, a non-native translator may be the best choice. But do make sure you check out their credentials. For instance, if they have passed a rigorous exam like the Chartered Institute of Linguist’s Diploma in Translation into their non-native language then they’re probably the real deal.
My sister-in-law is one such rebel. A native Japanese speaker, she translates patents from Japanese to English. The subject matter is so technical that native English translators in this field are near inexistent. It also follows strict formulae and rules and is checked thoroughly by native English proofreaders. Needless to say, she leaves the marketing material to the native English speakers!
Documents for company internal use (although not your staff newsletter!), and one-off interactions such as email replies can get away with non-native translations.
But a client newsletter, company website, or brochure, where the objective is to get customers to part with cool hard cash? Play it safe, protect your brand, and use a native translator.
After all, you don’t want to appear in a listicle of ‘bad translations’, do you?
What if the native translator doesn’t understand the original text?
Finally, one concern that Italian brands sometimes have is whether a non-native Italian speaker can have the in-depth understanding of the original material that a native Italian would have. This is a valid concern – Italian is a complicated language and can often be tricky to decipher.
But this is also the case with native language – I often read things in English where the meaning is not always that clear.
Any translator worth their salt will ensure that they have sufficient understanding of the original. Working with someone who is a specialist in your field – whether that’s marketing, patents, or medicine – also helps. If something proves too tricky, then they can consult their network of specialists, or contact you for clarification.
Working with a professional who holds the Diploma in Translation or an MA in Translation will have reached the standard required for translating challenging texts.
So, there you have it, five reasons why working with a native translator should be top of your list, plus a license to break the golden rule if you need to! Have you ever commissioned a translation from a non-native translator? Were you happy with the result, or did it leave you feeling disappointed?