Friday, November 12, 2010

From Natural to Expert Translator, With Essential Definitions

This blog constantly bandies about terms like Natural Translator and Native Translator; and although there’s a side panel telling readers how to find definitions of them, it requires going back a long way. So I’ll take a pause and try to make them clearer. To that end, here's a diagram showing their relative positions in the development of translation ability and skills.

The terms mean what I want them to mean, which may well be different from the way other people use them. Especially the term Professional Translator, which professional translators themselves and people close to them such as translation teachers – including myself back in the 1970s – conflate with Expert Translator. To me now, Professional Translator means someone who does translating as a livelihood, whether full time or part time. The reality is that many professional translators are not well trained or qualified, even though you have a right to expect them to be if you’re paying them well (but not if you’re underpaying them). And on the other hand, there are many people who can translate as well as the Experts but who don’t do it as a profession. They’re common among academics; colleagues have occasionally taken time from their own work to translate an article for me. When Samuel Moore, a lawyer by profession, translated the Communist Manifesto into English for Marx and Engels – surely a challenge with them looking over his shoulder – he did so out of friendship and conviction. (See post of May 2, 2010.)

At first I only distinguished between Natural Translators and Professional Translators, but that was too crude. Now I reserve Natural Translators for bilinguals who’ve had no training, instruction or specific guidance at all in translating and so they do it intuitively and spontaneously. Since bilinguals usually come while still young under the influence of other people translating or are exposed to examples of translation, the best time to catch pure Natural Translators for study is in their early childhood. Once they go to school, it’s difficult to sift out the influences. However, they may be older.

The next level, Native Translators, is that of bilinguals who have in fact been exposed to and influenced by examples: examples of other people translating and examples of translations done by other people. Here too I’ve realised that the categorisation is too crude. There’s a large gap between what a school-age child absorbs and what, say, a literary translator has learnt by years of reading that includes translations. Therefore it’s necessary to distinguish between Beginner Native Translator and Advanced Native Translator.

Language Broker is a term that wasn’t coined by translation specialists but by educationists and sociologists. Language brokers are typically young Native Translators, sometimes Natural Translators, who interpret in a particular social context: that of immigrant communities whose members need to communicate with the host community. The term is new; my own first encounters with the phenomenon came in the 1970s before the term existed. I don’t like the use of broker as if it entailed negotiating a deal – intermediary would be better, as in the German Sprachmittler – but it’s here to stay.

Coming shortly to this blog: A mediaeval tale of alphabets.


  1. Thank you for an interesting blog. I am currently writing a phd on simultaneous interpreter's development of experience and possible expertice. But I find the issue of children as interpreters more and more interesting and would like to devote my postdoc to that (if I survive that far and get some funding :-)). I like your terminology, I have also had some problems with child language brokering since I find that it is a slightly deteriorating. I mean that although you may socially discourage children as interpreters for various very valuable reasons you must still acknowledge their skill.
    I blog at

  2. Thank you for your comment.
    I've looked at your blog. Lots of good advice there.
    Since you've been kind enough to list my blog, I'm going to list yours.
    Let me know if you go ahead with a postdoc on child interpreters. I couldn't see your email address, but if you let me have it I'll send you a very full bibliography.

  3. Thank you for the kind words. My e-mail is paristolken at gmail dot com. I would very much appreciate a bibliography.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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