In defence of fuzziness

Nike K. Pokorn

In Translation Studies the definitions of the concepts native speaker and mother tongue have been uncritically adopted from linguistics and are regarded as defined and clarified as far as their meaning is concerned, despite the fact that neither linguistics nor translation theory can offer an objective and water-tight definition of the terms. A similar desire for univocal terms can also be detected in the claims for the need of one, universally accepted term for the same phenomenon where various competing terms already exist and are in use.

Although some linguists have already expressed their doubts in the justification of some of the fundamental linguistic concepts, as Rajogopalan has observed, a lot of them are still happy working with such discreet entities thus making linguistics perhaps the most “19th century” of the academic disciplines taught in universities today. Unfortunately, this could also be stated for some currents in Translation Studies, despite the fact that translation research can and should provide the most suitable field where such axiomatic truths are challenged. The article questions this desire for the univocal and argues that it is high time we all learn to live with more fuzzy definitions.

Table of contents

“No non-native speaker is ever going to tell me how to call something in English”—this comment came up in a recent discussion about certain terminological issues concerning English translations of geographical names used for different parts of Slovenia. The conversation was initiated with an aim of standardising the terminology used in a translation course taught by different teachers. It seemed a trivial enough problem at first: Slovenia as a country is divided in several regional administrative units, some of which have retained in Slovene the names of often much larger mediaeval or Austro-Hungarian districts (e.g. ‘Štajerska’, ‘Koroška’, [ p. 328 ]etc.). Although there exist English translations for some of those old terms (e.g. ‘Štajerska’ corresponds to ‘Styria’), the tendency in Slovenia is not to use them when referring to contemporary administrative units to avoid confusion with the older terms which denoted much larger territories (e.g. the Austro-Hungarian Styria is nowadays divided between Slovenia and Austria), and to use Slovene terms instead (e.g. ‘the Štajerska region’). The above-mentioned colleague, who is a native speaker of English, was familiar with all the arguments found in theoretical works on Slovene toponyms in English, but nevertheless insisted on using the old term ‘Styria’ for the contemporary Slovene administrative unit, her final argument being that if opinions differ she is going to “reserve the right to [her] own preferences as an educated native speaker”.

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price. Direct PDF access to this article can be purchased through our e-platform.


Beeby, Allison Lonsdale
1996Teaching translation from Spanish to English: Worlds beyond Words. Ottawa: University of Ottawa. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Birdsong, David
1992 “Ultimate attainment in second language acquisition”. Language 68. 706–755.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Bloomfield, Leonard.
[1927] 1970 “Literate and illiterate speech”. American speech 2. 232–239; also in A Leonard Bloomfield anthology, ed. Charles F. Hockett. Bloomington: Indiana Press.Google Scholar
Bussmann, Hadumod
ed. 1996Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Campbell, Stuart
1998Translation into the second language. London and New York: Longman.Google Scholar
Cook, Vivian
1999 “Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching”. TESOL quarterly 33:2. 185–209.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Coppieters, René
1987 “Competence differences between native and near-native speakers”. Language 63:3. 544–573.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Crystal, David
1992Introducing linguistics. London, New York, Ringwood, Toronto, Aukland: Penguin Group.Google Scholar
Crystal, David.
[1987] 1994 The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.[ p. 335 ]Google Scholar
Davies, Alan
2003The native speaker: Myth and reality. Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto, Sydney: Multilingual Matters. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Derrida, Jacques
1989Introduction to Edmund Husserl’s Origin of geometry, tr. John P. Leavey. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
Eisenstein, Miriam and Jean W. Bodman
1986 “‘I very appreciate!’: Expressions of gratitude by native and non-native speakers of American English”. Applied linguistics 7:2. 167–185.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Faulkner Larry R. and John R. Durbin
Grosman, Meta, Mira Kadric, Irena Kovačič and Mary Snell-Hornby
eds. 2000Translation into non-mother tongues in professional practice and training. Tübingen: Stauffenburg.Google Scholar
Ioup, Georgette, Elizabeth Boustagui, Manal El Tigi and Martha Moselle
1994 “Reexamining the critical period hypothesis: A case study of successful adult SLA in a naturalistic environment”. Studies in second language acquisition 16. 73–98.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Jakobson, Roman
1959 “On linguistic aspects of translation”. Reuben A. Brower, ed. On translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1959 232–239.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Kelly, Dorothy, Marie-Louise Nobs, Dolores Sánchez and Catherine Way
2003La Direccionalidad en Traducción e Interpretación: Perspectivas teóricas, profesionales y didácticas. Granada: Atrio.Google Scholar
2003a “Reflexiones en torno a algunos conceptos básicos”. Kelly et al. 2003 33–41.Google Scholar
Long, Michael H.
1990 “Maturational constraints on language development”. Studies in second language acquisition 12. 251–285.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
MacKenzie, Rosemary
1998 “The place of language teaching in a quality-oriented translators’ training programme”. Kirsten Malmkjær, ed. Translation and language teaching—Language teaching and translation. Manchester: St Jerome 1998 213–221.Google Scholar
McAlester, Gerard
1992 “Teaching translation into a foreign language: Status, scope and aims”. Cay Dollerup and Anne Loddegaard, eds. Teaching translation and interpreting: Training, talent, and experience. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins 1992 291–298.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Newmark, Peter
1988A textbook of translation. London: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
Paikeday, Thomas M.
1985The native speaker is dead!: An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing.Google Scholar
Phillipson, Robert
1992Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Pokorn, Nike K.
2005Challenging the traditional axioms. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Prunč, Erich
2003 “Óptimo, subóptimo, fatal: reflexiones sobre la democracía etnolingüística en la cultura europea de traducción”. Kelly et al. 2003 67–89.Google Scholar
Rajagopalan, Kanavillil
1999 “Of EFL teachers, conscience, and cowardice”. ELT journal 53:3. 200–206.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Rampton, M.B.H.
1990 “Displacing the ‘native speaker’: Expertise, affiliation, and inheritance”. ELT journal 44:2. 97–101.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Ross, J.R.
1979 “Where is English?C.J. Fillmore, D. Kempler and W.S.-Y. Wang, eds. Individual differences in language ability and language behaviour. New York: Academic Press 1979 127–166. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove and Robert Phillipson
1989 “‘Mother tongue’: The theoretical and sociopolitical construction of a concept”. Ulrich Ammon, ed. Status and function of languages and language varieties. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter 1989 450–477.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Way, Cathy
2005La traducción como acción social: el caso de los documentos académicos (espa ñol-inglés). Granada: Editorial UGR.[ p. 336 ]Google Scholar