The Institute of Translation & Interpreting's members can only translate into languages that are their mother tongue or they habitually use. And the Chartered institute of Linguistics favors the language of habitual use. So native speakers are essential in their opinions, but it's also worth noting that the language of habitual use is just as important in this discussion. The term 'dominant language' is also used in place of 'habitual use' by many associations including the ATA.
Language of habitual use vs. mother tongue
What is the mother tongue or native language of someone born in France to a Spanish father and Portuguese mother who moved to Germany aged 7? This is hard to define and it varies so much depending on the individual. This is why language of habitual use is the more measurable benchmark to work from. The language of habitual use in the example cited here could well be German if this person is now 20 years old, having lived in Germany since the age of 7.
But are native speakers always the better option? Are there situations where one will be the preferred option over the other? Let's take a look at these in more detail.
Are native speakers always better translators than a non-native ones?
Just being a native speaker doesn't guarantee that the person has strong translation skills. Translation demands study, discipline, and continued practice. Being a native speaker does not bless you with these skills or qualities.
When choosing a native speaking translator makes sense
In the majority of cases within the translation industry, a native speaker has an advantage over non-native speakers -- that cannot be debated. Their innate knowledge of terminology and idioms will guarantee a higher quality of professional translation.
Consider the task of translating legal, technical or medical documentation correctly if the target language isn't your dominant language. Although the information may be translated sufficiently, technical terminology and idioms will always be a real challenge.
Does the industry discriminate?
It's also worth considering that most translation services have stringent testing and screening processes for their translators. I think that non-native speakers don't need to be discriminated against during this process; after all, it's simply a person's linguistic ability that is judged during this screening process and this is what should matter most.
When you may want to consider a non-native speaker
In certain situations it can be difficult to find a translator that has experience in a specific rare language pair. In this instance a non-native speaker will be a good option.
In the past, sourcing a native speaker to translate in certain countries was difficult, therefore many non-native speakers were used for a wide range of work. The boom in online services has solved this problem. With a few clicks of the mouse anyone can find a full range of translation services worldwide.
The focus on sourcing native speakers for professional translation services is understandable. It's not discriminating against non-native translators because, put simply, everyone has a dominant language they can work in. The translation industry, clients and everyone involved is better served by working with native speaking translators.