In my opinion, knowing your source language inside out is just as important as being proficient in your target/native language when you are a professional translator.
In order to produce a high-quality translation, a translator needs to understand every subtlety and nuance in the source text, as well as cultural references, play on words, complex grammatical structures, tones of voices and registers, acronyms, common pitfalls etc… They should also be able to spot any errors, typos and inconsistencies in the source text and make sure they don’t appear in the translation!
I came across an example recently where the English source hadn’t been understood properly, resulting in an incorrect French translation which could have had a negative impact on the business if I hadn't caught and corrected the mistake.
It was for a hotel advertising wedding packages, including a wedding breakfast. The translation had already been done and needed to be revised - “wedding breakfast” had been translated as “petit-déjeuner de mariage”.
At first glance this could appear correct - after all, “petit-déjeuner” DOES mean “breakfast” in French!
However, if you have a good cultural understanding, you will know that the wedding breakfast isn’t a regular, morning-time breakfast, but the meal that follows the wedding ceremony. The wedding breakfast is therefore highly likely to be held any time between lunch and dinner and should therefore be translated as “repas de mariage” (meaning “wedding meal”).
Superficial knowledge of language and culture – petit-déjeuner de mariage ❌
Deep knowledge of language and culture – repas de mariage ✅
This is a very small example, but could have led to a loss of business for the hotel, with people assuming the price of the package only included some sort of small breakfast in the morning and not a full meal for guests.
Imagine the same kind of error happening at scale, throughout your whole content?
Knowing your source language inside out doesn’t happen overnight or even after studying the language for a couple of years. It requires a lot of hard work, studying and practice, and ideally, spending a long time living in a country where the source language is spoken, in order to understand the culture as well as the language.
Make sure your translator has an excellent knowledge of their source language(s) and culture(s)!