THE NATIVE-SPEAKER BIAS

A consequence of the nativist bias is its perpetuation of the very same stereotypes that translators have so assiduously sought to overcome. BY SEAN MICHAEL DODD

HELP WANTED: Chef, French Restaurant. Must be native of France, less than two years out of country, specialized in haute cuisine. Parisians preferred. Creoles, Africans, and Polynesians need not apply.

In this post-racial era of equal opportunity, most Americans would blanch at an ad like this one, and yet such job postings are all too familiar to translators, conditioned as we are by our profession’s taboo against working in non-native target languages.

Flouting the national-origin protections of state and federal antidiscrimination laws, translation clients routinely use nationality as a qualification in their job announcements. One recent example, re-edited here for brevity:

WRITER / TRANSLATOR (contract)

This attractive position requires the following skills:

  1. Native fluency in X language.
  2. Undergraduate degree from X country.
  3. Less than 3 years away from native country

It is hard to see how native fluency, foreign diplomas, and limited time abroad amount to “skills.”

DISCRIMINATION OR FREE ASSOCIATION?

Defenders of nativism argue that such postings are not actually offers of employment per se, but rather private contracts between free agents, and as such, exempt from equal-opportunity regulations, falling instead in the realm of constitutionally protected free association. Such a defense is dubious, however, belying the unequivocal spirit of federal antidiscrimination laws and the broad applicability of the term “employment” as used in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The antidiscrimination protections set forth in that act seem to cover any number of paid service relationships, including work offered by employment agencies, and by extension, negotiated between subcontractors, agents, and freelancers:

USC 42, § 2000e, Title VII, § 703

(b) Employment agency practices
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Similarly specious is the argument that native language is somehow distinct from national origin. Obviously, the languages of the world are demarcated by national and regional boundaries, and just like nationality, one’s native language is a geographical accident of birth.

MERITS TO THE ARGUMENT?

But setting the legal questions aside, does the nativist bias have any merit on purely technical grounds? Are language and translation not academic disciplines in their own right, worthy of the same serious consideration as any other professional field? Can we imagine banning all left-handed pitchers from baseball? Or denying male doctors entry into the field of gynecology? Or, as in the first example, barring all non-native chefs from cooking ethnic cuisines?

One obvious consequence of the nativist bias is its perpetuation of the very same stereotypes that our profession has so assiduously sought to overcome. Through the awarding of translator certifications, our professional associations promote a standards- and performance-based model that seeks to elevate objective, empirical evidence over fuzzy assumptions. ATA does not require candidates for the certification exam to prove native fluency, but only education and experience. And through client education and public awareness, our profession continually strives to correct widespread misconceptions, including the commonly held notion that mere bilingualism is qualification enough to work as a translator. The nativist bias only reinforces such ignorance.

But nativism is also a snake eating its own tail. For no longer is it sufficient to be a native speaker, but heritage in particular dialects is fast becoming the norm. Native speakers from France lose out on projects requiring the Quebecois dialect, while native speakers from Spain, Chile, and Colombia are shunned in favor of Mexican candidates. And now on the heels of dialect, the latest trend requires candidates to be freshly native, having not strayed away from the home country for more than a year or two. Before long, we will all be wearing ankle bracelets with our fluffy slippers.

Granted, common sense dictates that a native speaker is likely to have more mastery of the language than a nonnative one; but it is important to note that professional translators are not debutants, but language experts par excellence. Translators typically devote long years of intensive study toward reaching a mastery level, often earning advanced degrees in the language, living for extended periods in-country, and developing subject-matter expertise in niche specialties like patents, engineering, law, medicine, or information technology. It is not uncommon for a translator to know the second language as well, if not better, than many native speakers. That the nonnative translator might trip over the odd preposition or slip up on a verb tense is no reason for disqualification from working in the language. Native speakers also commit plenty of mistakes. Mistakes are why God made proofreaders.

PRODUCTION OVER COMPREHENSION

In emphasizing production over comprehension, the nativist bias also overlooks an essential component of all translations; comprehension of the source document. In this respect, one might just as reasonably insist that a translator also be a native speaker of the source language and an expert on the topic at hand; in which case, the snake’s tail becomes even shorter, leaving us with only the smallest pool of candidates who were born into fully bilingual households of certain dialects, with language and technical degrees from both countries, and who have not strayed from either of the home countries for more than two years, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

We quickly see how such extra “qualifications” spiral into absurdity. In translation, like any profession, what matters most is performance. And for translators, like other professionals, competent performance requires a combination of training, experience, subject-matter expertise, time management, and peer review. As professionals, we need to be more honest with ourselves and with our clients about the true nature of our work. Native fluency might be the cherry atop the sundae, but of cherries sundaes are not made. SMD

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This article has 4 comments so far!

  1. Randall Cook says —

    Sean makes a strong case, aptly put! I would think that writing skill and knowledge of subject matter are as important and as necessary as knowledge of the source language.

  2. Steve Vitek says —

    If one insists on the criterion of “being native” for translators in a given language, it would only be honest to insist that a truly native translator would have to be native both in the source and in the target language. Based on the meaning of the word “native”, every translator would have to be born at least twice in one lifetime. So far I have not met anybody who qualifies.

  3. The Importance Of Being A Native « Patenttranslator's Blog says —

    […] issue of native versus non-native speakers is often debated among professional translators. Native speakers sometime say that translators should be allowed to translate only into their native … However, for example in the United States, some 60% of the members of the American Translators […]

  4. Jayme says —

    Sean, this is a really great post. If you’re interested, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on our business. Part of our model at English Edits is partnering with non-native English translators who translate documents, and then editors at English edits smooth it over to make it sound like “native English.” For us, and the translators we partner with, it seems like a win-win — they can guarantee to their clients that the final document will sound “native” without losing any context from the source document. However, after reading this post, I wonder if by doing this (and ‘conforming’), we’re also — in some small way — enabling native-speaker bias to continue, which is definitely not our goal. If you have any thoughts or perspective on this, we would really appreciate it!