Where should translators live?

The fabled in-country translators

“We only work with translators who are native speakers and live in the country you want to connect with!”

That is a standard line often found on translation agency websites or in how-tos for choosing the right translator. Buzzwords such as “in-country” or “in-market” are usually lurking close by.

In most cases, the in-country translator requirement seems to be part of a standard repertoire of quality claims geared to gaining clients’ trust. It most often applies to marketing translations, but often functions as a blanket quality statement. The reasoning seems to be as follows: Languages change. Clients want translators to produce the best possible translations. And that means translators should be experts of their native language in its current form. For this, they need to be immersed in that language.

Do you have to be an in-country translator?

I’m not (which is why that requirement irks me). And I know several successful translators who aren’t either. We could be exceptions that prove the rule, I suppose. Then again, translators come from all walks of life and bring many different skill sets and experiences to their work. I haven’t discovered the one right way of becoming and being a translator yet and I’m pretty sure no one else has either. Still, let’s take a few minutes and ponder the merit of such a location requirement.

Why should it be essential to reside in the target-language country? Let’s have a closer look.

Good reasons to live in the target-language country

Living in the target-language country can

  • keep you up to speed with linguistic and cultural developments in the target language and culture.
  • help you achieve the culturally appropriate tone in your translation, especially if it deviates from the style of the source text.
  • keep you closer to the target audience of the translations you are creating, i.e., the people actually reading your translations.

The last point is important. Yet I don’t think that’s what the in-country-translator rule refers to. Living in the target-language country doesn’t automatically make you highly familiar with the target groups for a translation. Translations by specialized translators are not usually intended for general consumption, but for a specialized readership.  Specialized translators need to have mastered their native language (and their source language) beyond the general, every-day use. More on that later.

Why the in-country rule needn’t be set in stone

The need for in-country translators may also be based on outdated assumptions. Internet and cheap travel have changed the rules of the game. For language combinations that are both freely available in spoken and written form, you don’t need to be a permanent resident to stay in touch with the target language (your native tongue). Think newspapers and books, TV shows and movies, MOOCs and courses, trade magazines, blogs and specialist publications. You can also stay in touch with your home country via Skype or Google Hangouts. Smaller languages with less of a global reach may prove more difficult to track from abroad, though. (Another point in case that it’s really difficult to make general claims for all translators.)

Good reasons to live in the source-language country

Living in the source-language country can

  • keep you in touch with linguistic developments of the language you are translating out of.
  • keep you fully immersed in the culture and help you understand the mindset of your clients when they write the texts they want you to translate. This will also ensure that you correctly understand cultural concepts and assumptions contained in the source text and know what to do with them in your translation.
  • keep your spoken source-language skills well oiled, facilitating communication with your clients and allowing them to use their native language to communicate with you.
  • keep you close to your clients, especially the high-end ones. You can go meet them at industry events or at their places of business, fostering a more personal connection. This is more challenging for translators located further away.

Focusing on how translators need stay close to the language they translate into elides how translators need to stay equally close to the language(s) they translate out of. Truly understanding the original text is a fundamental requirement for a good translation. And translators who let their source-language skills go rusty will lack that deep understanding.

Most professional translators translate from a foreign language into their native one. It’s makes just as much sense that linguists should live in countries where the languages they only acquired later are spoken so as to gain lived linguistic experience. I also imagine that it might be easier to stay in touch with your mother tongue from abroad than with your non-native language(s).

What about subject-matter expertise?

A heavyweight objection to rating translators based on their location is that it steals focus from translators’ subject-matter expertise. Translation isn’t just about being proficient in 2 languages and specialized translators aren’t just translating anything that comes their way. There’s that image again of the unskilled nerd with the dictionary that the translation community keeps battling.

As we all know, successful translators are specialized and bring extensive hands-on and theoretical knowledge in their subject fields to the table (or they are working very hard on acquiring these skills). Subject-matter expertise is not necessarily tied to where translators are located. However, retaining and expanding subject-matter expertise is inextricably tied to keeping translators up-to-date with linguistic developments in both source and target languages because it requires spending A LOT of time hitting the books and talking to experts instead of coming to a (linguistic) standstill.

Subject-matter expertise trumps location.

A final remark

All else being equal, choosing an in-country translator over one living abroad might make sense. But when is all else really equal? Giving location too much consideration as a mark of quality oversimplifies the process of translation. There is no one way of determining how good a translator is.

This also might be obvious, but it’s still worth saying: Translators live where they do for a variety of reasons, not all of them necessarily related to their profession. It’s a big world and there are many beautiful places to live. Quite a number of translators don’t live in their home countries. Most will settle in one location, at least for the medium term. Others are globe trotters or digital nomads who live in countries where their language combinations aren’t spoken at all.

Being closer to one working language comes at the price of being further removed from another. So we take steps to make sure that our language and subject-matter skills stay up-to-date (Forced to travel for the job – it’s a tough life as a translator.). We all bring our best to our work, as we should.

And, hey, locations can change! I can think of two successful translators who just relocated to Canada, and – no – they don’t translate into Canadian English.

Sources that offered some common-sense thoughts on pros and cons of various locations:

  • 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know, WLF Think Tank
  • The Prosperous Translator: Advice from Fire Ant and Worker Bee, Chris Durban (ed.)

There are 11 comments on this post

  1. magda

    I couldn’t agree more, Else. I even think that some translators have chosen this career as a result of the fact that they live away from their SL coumtry! Or this career has somehow chosen them… 🙂

    1. Else Gellinek

      This does seem to be a career choice that chooses you, doesn’t it? 🙂

  2. Milica

    Good post, Else. I understand when someone is born in France, for example, but his/her native language is Serbian but they don’t speak it well, but if I’m born in Serbia and spend more than a few decades there, and then I decide to move to another country, nobody can tell me that I’m not competent enough to translate into my native language. It’s not that you suddenly forget it. The changes aren’t so big that your knowledge about your native language is fundamentally changed. Every professional must keep up to date with eventual new grammar rules, changes etc.

    1. Else Gellinek

      Hi Milica,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I agree that there are so many ways to stay in touch with your native language from abroad that gradual language change won’t pass you by or sneak up and surprise you.

      Besides, even if you are living in your native country, who’s to say that you’ll keep up with every aspect of language change? For example, the way we speak will always be a sign of our age and the generation we belong to. Try as I might to keep up with language change, people younger than me will always speak slightly differently than I do.

      Happy Holidays 🙂

  3. Rannheid

    That was a very nicely balanced blog about an important topic. Often the most useful combinations is when the translator lives in one country and the editor/proofreader in the other (SL/TL – TL/SL), because that makes it easier to pick up any misunderstanding of the SL, and at the same time it keeps the TL language current.

  4. Emeline Jamoul

    I completely agree, Else! Location shouldn’t be a rule or a metric used to measure how well you master your native language. To me, living in the source country has more advantages for translators business-wise – but maybe I’m saying this because I still live in my target country and sometimes feel like it can be hard to establish a real connection with prospects.

    In any case, amazing article you wrote there 😀

    1. Else Gellinek

      Hi Emeline,
      Glad you liked the post!

      I agree that living in the source-language country can make it easier to connect with clients. Living in the target-language country has its own advantages, though. (And at the end of the day, we all have our reasons for living where we do and availability of clients may not even feature on our list.)

  5. Marie Jackson

    Great post! I currently live in my home country, but I love to travel to ensure that my languages are still sharp — which means I won’t always be here. In fact, I stayed in Austria for five months last year for this very reason. I’m also currently single and childless, which means I can go where I want. If and when I have a family, it might make all the sense in the world to move abroad; I’ll just have to work harder to maintain my mother tongue.

    Where we live is such a personal choice that our careers shouldn’t dictate it 100% — and in such a small world there’s no need for this to happen. I completely agree that this should be a non-issue for people with more common languages, especially with the Internet. I think the key is ensuring that you really are keeping your hand in with the languages you don’t actively use, because your skills can and will deteriorate otherwise. As long as you stay committed to this, I see no problem. After all, we love languages don’t we? It’s hardly a chore 🙂

    1. Else Gellinek

      Hi Marie,

      Thanks for your comment! I wrote this post from the rather fortunate situation that it’s really easy to keep up with English while living in Germany.

      Still, I don’t like comparing language professionals to professionals in other industries. While a German dentist who moved to the US may lose touch with German after a while because he or she is surrounded only by English, I would argue that professional translators will use their working languages no matter where they are living and keep their language skills sharp. It’s more a case of comparing apples and oranges 🙂

    1. Else Gellinek

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for suggesting I read that blog post. I’m curious though: I can’t find any information on the blog about who the author is. Can you point me in the right direction?


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