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Dear grumpy Native Speaker

31/05/2012 4 comments

Localization is obviously just a means to an end – the end being the end-user. You know, normal people. So since they’re also part of this process and so that you know I dish out fairly in both directions, not just developers, here’s an instalment which looks at the native-speaking end-user. Because I had a fairly nasty gripe in my inbox. No names but I think we all recognize the type.

First off, I have the utmost respect for native speakers of small languages who have managed to keep their language alive in the face of adversity. Secondly, I do not for one moment believe that any amount of learning can fullyreplace native speaker intuition though I will uphold the argument that in terms of formal grammar and spelling, learners often have a better take on things. Simply due to the differences in process – one learnt at the knee (no flashcards involved), the other using an intimidating array of books (often with too little “knee” involved).  Thus both groups have strengths and weaknesses which can and ought to complement each other. It certainly should not be a dogfight.

A peculiar paradox arises out if this situation though which many of you will recognize. When it comes to breaking into new territory for language X, it’s usually learners who do that. I’m sure you could write entire PhDs on the topic but on the whole, I think it’s fair to say that learners simply don’t put up with the argument that “language X has never been used for technology Y before”. They’ve always used, say, a browser and therefore they want it in their chosen language X. Again the two groups behave differently. On the whole, the native speakers assumes it doesn’t exist and that it can’t be done. The learner will go and look and if there isn’t one, will do something about it. As in, they sign up to a project like Mozilla Firefox and put in hours and hours of their own time to translate it.

Here’s the paradox. In the translation industry you’re usually only hired to translate into your native language because only native speakers are attuned to the nuances of their language. You usually also have to demonstrate competence in grammar and spelling. But in the world of small languages, such people are rare. Very rare. Literacy is usually lower amongst native speakers than learners because the mainstream education system doesn’t cater for the language. But very rarely do you find a learner who can’t read and write the language. So we get a situation where the people with the best linguistic skills are the least likely people to be found on a project like Firefox or LibreOffice.

Before you get visions of linguistic horror – the outcome is usually not that bad. Once in a while you come across real junk but on the whole, translations of software into small languages usually range from ok to good. Some are very good. While learners can go a bit neologism-happy now and then, what native speakers tend to forget is that when any language breaks into a new domain, it will sound a bit weird. Think about a really technical manual in your native language – does that roll off your tongue, does it ensure immediate comprehension by a non-specialist? But we’ll leave that debate for another day.

And before we get too carried away blaming the education system, there obviously are native speakers of small languages with high levels of literacy, especially in Europe. But for some reason, they often don’t get involved. I have my views on why that is but I don’t want this to become a rant. Let’s just say that they don’t, for the most part.

Now, my time is a limited as that of a native speaker. I enjoy the sunshine and going for walks too. My point is, before you send a rather nasty message off to someone the next time complaining that “no native speaker would have ever translated X like that”, albeit in rather lovely, native-sounding, well-spelled and grammar-checked language, ask yourself this question: Have you volunteered your time to the project in question to ensure the outcome is as good as can be? Cause if you haven’t, then I really don’t want to hear from you.