On the Subject of Mother Tongue

Peter Hessel

Again and again I hear the statement from clients, translation agencies, translators and others: "Translators can only translate effectively into their mother tongue".

That may be true in general. Translators with only one mother tongue and "acquired" other languages can only translate effectively into their mother tongue. THAT IS THE RULE. But like most rules, it, too, has exceptions.

One exception: Translators whose "mother tongue", i.e. the language they learned as a child, has not been their main language for a long time. For example, my sons had German as their mother tongue since their mother was German, and our home language for the first five or six years of their lives was German. But that changed as soon as they went to school and grew up in an English environment, studied and worked in English. Their command of their (German) mother tongue is only rudimentary, and they would never be able to translate anything into German effectively.

I'm another exception. I was born and grew up in Germany and attended a German high school. But at age 20 I became "immersed" in an English environment. I studied in English and worked in an English world for 55 years. In my profession as a translator I worked in both directions for over 40 years - from German into English and from English into German. The "mother tongue rule" certainly does not apply to me because I am equally fluent in both languages. It is impossible for me to say in which language I am "more at home". I have written books in English and in German. I have translated books into English and into German.

For almost eight years now, I have been living and working in Germany again, and my "home language" has become German again, but every year I spend many weeks and even months in Canada where my every day language is English. I speak German with my German family and friends, but (North American) English with my Canadian and American family and friends.

In summary: The term "mother tongue" does not apply to me. It is irrelevant. I am equally "at home" in both languages, and the quality of my translations is exactly  the same in both directions. Of course this does not exclude the possibility that I can make mistakes in either direction (after all, who doesn't?) But even my mistakes are equally distributed among both languages.

Peter Hessel

Tel: 04221 97301 52