The general rule about translation is that a translator only works into their mother tongue. The foreign language is only the source and translating into it is usually regarded as not a good idea. There are translators who speak more than one foreign language and therefore translate from those languages into their native language. The combinations can vary broadly as each person has different skills and interests.
Interpreters, on the other hand, translate in both directions and this is one of the main differences between interpretation and translation.
There is one important clarification that is to be made – the golden rule to translate only from the foreign into your native language is predominantly valid for the English-speaking countries like the USA and the UK. In the majority of the cases, translators are trained to work only into their mother tongue, even in Master degree courses (as it is the case in the UK). For many other countries, especially those that are smaller or have a more exotic language, quite often translators are trained to translate into the foreign language as well.
The debate on whether you should translate into a foreign language or not is very broad and there are supporters of both ideas – that you should and that you shouldn’t. Given the fact, that being a translator is a renowned job, no matter if working with an agency or as a freelancer, each professional must decide for themselves what is right or wrong.
The main goal is to be able to provide the customer with a high-level, consistent translation that meets all the requirements and standards in the industry. Below, you will find a few guidelines, as to when it is acceptable to translate into a foreign language that aim to give guidance to both new and experienced translators.
When the Translator is Truly Bilingual
If you are brought up speaking English and German, for example, by parents who are native speakers of those languages, you are considered truly bilingual. Both languages count as your mother tongue and therefore you can easily translate in both directions – from German into English and vice versa. Those people can easily work as translators or interpreters, or even both, even though it is not common to practice both professions at the same time. Bilinguals may also add another foreign language into their portfolio and translate from it into their two mother tongues.
When the Foreign Language Becomes Habitual
If your mother tongue is French and your second language that you use professionally is English, then the usual combination is to translate from English into French. This can change in case English becomes the language of your habitual use. That can happen if you move to live and work in an English-speaking country and stay there long enough to be able to state that your English feels almost like a mother tongue. It is advisable, though, to have some certification that proves the level of English that you speak. It is also good to have a native speaker as a proofreader of your translation, at least in the beginning when you start offering the service. With time, it may turn out that you feel more comfortable to translate documents in a given topic into the foreign language (English in the case) rather than into your mother tongue (French).
When the Translator is Formally Trained in All Languages
As we already mentioned, in some countries translators are trained only to translate into their mother tongue, while in others the university courses include training in both directions. If you have received official training and certification that you can translate in both (all – in case you speak more than two) languages, then you can offer the service without any hesitation.
The overall aim of each translator is to provide a high-quality consistent service following the best practices and trends in the industry. As long as you feel comfortable with your work and you are confident in the final product you send to your clients, translating into a foreign language is acceptable.
It should be noted that these are just the basic suggestions for knowing when translation into a foreign language is a good idea. As a professional, you can decide if you are able to provide the service your customers require, depending on your experience and knowledge. Many translators work only informally into a foreign language – for friends or relatives but not for external customers. Others work quite successfully in both directions and are valued experts in their fields. As a whole, the choice depends a lot on the language combinations and the domicile of the translator, who always strives to provide a high-quality service regardless of the language (foreign or native) they translate into.