Translator – know your mother tongue inside out

  • Translator – know your mother tongue inside out

    Translator – know your mother tongue inside out

    Translators are known for their useful ability to communicate in more than one language. Some of them are polyglots, which means they speak many foreign languages. It is a well-known truth that to become a translator you have to know foreign languages very well. But not all know that knowledge of your mother tongue is equally or even more important.

    As I  already mentioned in my previous post (What does it take to be a translator?) knowledge of one or two foreign languages does not make you a professional translator yet. First, you have to know your mother tongue inside out. I know, I know. You already know it. You were born and raised in your native country, you went to school there – so what am I talking about? Of course, you know your mother tongue well. But let me ask you this – can you spell difficult words in your native language correctly? Do you know the exact wording of idioms in this language or do you sometimes mix them? Do you know all writing and style rules in your language (punctuation, grammar, style etc.)? These are things that you have to learn fast because when you start your first translation project you will waste much time looking for the right answer instead of translating.

    So what you actually have to know about your native language? Actually everything plus how is it different from foreign languages you use. Here are the most important things you have to think about while translating and writing in your mother tongue:

    Sentence structure

    Remember that many languages have different sentence structure so you have to be careful how you build sentences in your target language. For example, the following phrase the following provisions shall apply  will have a different word order in Polish. We will say: zastosowanie będą miały następujące postanowienia. It is also true for time clauses that sometimes have a different place in Polish.

    Punctuation and Grammar

    I cannot stress enough the importance of punctuation and grammar in translation. It is so different in many languages it is important to know at least the most important rules (at the beginning). For example, use of commas in Polish and English is different. In English, commas are inserted after such words as however. There is no need to insert them in Polish.

    Spelling and often misused words

    Do you know spelling rules for your native language? Do you know often misused words that you should be careful about? Sometimes spellcheck can fail to find another spelling mistake or it will simply not recognise it. It sometimes happens in such languages as Polish in which nouns have to be declined. Your computer does not “see” all mistakes. So you have to be smarter.

    False friends

    You should be also aware of false friends in you mother tongue and target language. If you are not sure about a word, double check it. It is always better to check twice even when you think you are right. False friends  can be tricky and some people don’t even know they use them every day incorrectly. See my last article about English and Polish false friends Epic vs. epicki.

    Together or apart

    Sometimes we write as we speak which can lead to many mistakes. Be aware of words that are written together or apart and when it is correct to use them. For example, in Polish abroad is often misused as we have to choose between zagranica (noun) and zca granicą (adverb).


    Every translator knows them but sometimes our memory fails us and it can happen that you can easily mix two idioms into one. It is also a mistake. It is always useful to have your dictionary with you, if you work at home. Of course, you cannot take it with you for interpreting assignment so it’s always a good idea to refresh your knowledge.

    Why a good command of your native language is so important in translation

    A good command of your native language is a prerequisite to good translation. “Why?” you may ask. Well, because when you use your native language correctly it means that you care about what you are doing and your clients. It means that you are a real professional. Because your tool is not a laptop or your PC, mobile phone or a microphone – it’s your language and how you use it. Just imagine a situation when a potential client is searching for a translator like you, finds your profile page or website on the Internet, reads information about you and suddenly finds a spelling or grammar mistake. What would you do if you were in his or her place? Would you choose yourself for a job, for example, translation of company’s documents that are intended for its clients? Definitely not. I saw many websites of professional translators with mistakes they are not even aware of because these are not obvious mistakes, which means they don’t know their native language inside out. And if they don’t know it, who should, then? Remember that people who you offer your services to are not linguists themselves so they need someone who knows their job so they can take care of their business. They trust you, so you have to do your best not to let them down.




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    Hanna Gembus

    Hanna Gembus is a professional Polish English and Polish German translator and communication specialist based in the United Kingdom providing translation, content, interpreting and market research services to small, medium-sized and large companies and organisations. She specialises in business, marketing and e-commerce, using linguistic and cultural knowledge to help both start-ups and established companies improve their presence on the market and increase sales.

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