Why Your Native Speakers Should Not Translate

(But they can still help save you money!)


Anyone who speaks a language can translate or interpret it.


Translation is a very difficult skill requiring many years of training, usually at the college and/or grad school level.


Your organization may have two kinds of people who speak other languages:

  • in-house native speakers such as engineers or sales reps or a person who “comes from there”; as well as
  • overseas distributors or agents.

In an understandable quest to save money, firms often rely on these native speakers to render brochures, websites, contracts, policies, etc. in other languages. IF these sources have expertise in your technical terminology and speak their native language well, they can be great assets in the process. But most likely their training is in Engineering, Selling, etc., not in the art of Translating.

Over 20 years, we have seen many cases where well-meaning, in-house native speakers or overseas agents:

Choose the wrong word…. Such as saying “salad oil” for “motor oil” (Oops!).

Do not speak technical terminology. If your in-house resource arrived here when he or she was 10, how well do you think he or she speaks Telecom, Technology, Wine or Window Dressings in his/her native language?

Write in their native dialect. This may be very localized, such as using Swiss German (which only the Swiss can understand) instead of “High German” which is the standard means of educated communication.

Use non-standard speech. This renders disastrous results when they have minimal education or come from some back-country village which has its own slang and terminology. How do you really know how properly your in-house resource speaks?

Misspell words or write (Chinese) characters incorrectly. After all, how many native English speakers know proper spelling (without using spell-checks)? What does that lack of attention to detail say about your company or image? And how does that negativity magnify if many words are misspelled?

Change your message. Most commonly, native speakers or overseas agents will add to, delete from or modify your original text in the target language … without informing you.

  1. First, those edits detract from any consistent messaging you seek across countries. And unified global branding is a critical part of your marketing image.
  2. And second, you don’t know what has been changed.
  • What if a seemingly “irrelevant” line for the target country is part of your marketing message or contact terms?
  • What if the agent mistakenly makes a claim you are not aware of?
  • Or miscalculates a measurement?
  • Or changes the meaning of a sentence?

In spite of disclaimers that the English version has priority, your company – not a suddenly disappearing employee, distributor or rep – can be liable if an overseas user of your product gets injured or dies.

Acculturate your text for the local market. While those changes are acceptable, without a back translation (into English or the originating language) you are not sure exactly what was changed. And any professional translation services or localization agency should have the in-country market knowledge to acculturate anyway.

Create the wrong meaning. On a promotion highlighting the benefits of garage doors, an in-country agent translated “added curb appeal” as “additional appeal of the curb.” Say what? How does that damage your image of excellence?

Other Obstacles to Success

Reliance on in-country contractors. Your agent may “get it translated” for you and you think you are saving money. But how will you know whether it is done correctly and professionally? Translations (as in any product) can be inconsistent or amateurish — such as when a contractor in China translated a semiconductor “wafer” as a “biscuit.” How does a poor version in one country damage your brand? What if that is replicated across other countries?

Reliance on Machine (Software) Translation (MT). This method is valid for certain kinds of texts in certain instances. Advertising – such as for your brochures, promotions and websites — is not one of them. For the most part, MT renders comical, imprecise, incorrect and often horrible results. While it may be better than nothing, MT too can damage your brand, image and reputation. What’s that worth to you? Do the savings of a few dollars offset the price of doing it correctly the first time?

DIY. Your agent may do the process him/herself. But agents do not have the software tools to ensure that terms are translated consistently throughout your piece or to discount projects that have lots of repeated text. And the agent may not understand nuances as well as you think.


Best Practices in the language business are for:

  1. (if desired) your qualified in-house native speakers who know your technology not to do the job themselves but to review a professional translation service’s submissions and to mark their changes on a .doc file.
  2. for you then to submit those changes back to the professional translation agency for evaluation. Most edits will be stylistic, i.e., alternative ways of saying the same concept. While those are acceptable, they slow the final approval process.

In short, the expertise of language agencies is Language. They know how to render your concepts quickly and accurately and with proper subject-specialized expressions, acculturation, nuances, term consistency and discounts for repeat text. Agencies welcome partnering with your qualified native speakers, particularly to learn your in-house word preferences. But you will save money and bolster your image when you use your native speakers (if any) to review rather than to implement language projects.