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International English: Should content writers and translators intentionally write with ‘errors’?

In the world of professional translation, you often hear about the importance of the native language: no matter how proficient a translator is in a foreign language, a native speaker translator with good writing skills will always be better than the foreigner in bending his or her own language to the needs of the text. This is because his or her relationship with the mother tongue is immediate, in the sense of “un-mediated”, almost emotional and primordial: a native speaker feels his or her own language, does not decline it according to learned rules. It goes without saying, therefore, that a person or a company that wants to communicate effectively with its target audience abroad must inevitably rely on a native translator with strong writing skills.

But what happens with a language like English, which is used by millions of people as a vehicular language, even when native English speakers are not involved? This variety, which is often referred to as International English, is not only free of cultural references but also has simplified vocabulary and grammar. A closer look at Euro-English, for example (the emerging variety of English used by multilingual speakers in the European Union), also shows that this lingua franca contains constructions and terms that standard English does not have or uses differently.

This was an issue I had never paid attention to, perhaps partly because as a native Italian speaker and a translator who adheres to professional standards, I tend to translate texts into Italian only, except for texts that are intended for simple comprehension, such as an email between colleagues, and not for dissemination.

A few weeks ago, however, I decided to accept a request to translate a brochure into English, but did so in collaboration with a native speaker colleague. The client complimented the quality of the translation but wondered if it wasn’t “almost a little too English”, since the brochure was aimed primarily at people who speak English as a second language when travelling. Hence, the client requested simplification of language that was perhaps a little too polished and sophisticated. English English, in short. As much as I could point out that a well-written text can actually highlight the professionalism, quality and uniqueness of a brand, the client’s observation is correct and calls into question the axiom that (marketing) translations must be performed by a native speaker. The simplification associated with the naturally ‘poorer’ knowledge of the language by non-native speakers can make it difficult for them to understand a well-written text with rich, accurate vocabulary. While a native ear would find it pleasing, a non-native speaker may miss its nuances or not get it at all.

Given the widespread use of English among non-native speakers, the question then arises: who are the best translators to work on texts aimed at an international audience whose native language is not English? Should the translator in this case intentionally include what might be “errors” according to the linguistic norms followed by native speakers, but which are part of the normal usage of the others?


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