I’ve worked as a freelance translator for close to five years now, but I’ve never actually translated anything but single lines into English before. That in itself is not uncommon; a lot translators usually stick to translating into their own language, and for good reason. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to reach the same level of understanding of a foreign language that you naturally have of your mother tongue. Native speakers may not consciously know the rules, but they can still pick up on things that sound ‘off’ in many cases.
Having studied English extensively for twenty years, I feel quite competent at producing English words myself. I’ve surprised many a native speaker by revealing that English is not my first language. Still, speaking a language and being good at translating into that same language is far from the same thing. I learned that the hard way when I started freelancing. The job I thought was going to be a breeze turned out to be quite challenging at times. It’s so easy to be influenced by the structures and the words that you’re seeing, and produce a stilted translation as a result. The more you translate, the more proficient you will be at divorcing yourself from the actual words on the page and come up with a translation that sounds natural. You remember things your proof readers have pointed out in the past, what you’ve seen others do, certain turns of phrases that work in this or that context. Most of all, you learn to take a step back and think for a moment about what you would actually say.
But then someone asks you to reverse the process, and it’s like being a flailing rookie again. Suddenly you’re faced with structures and expressions that are more drilled into your head than those of a foreign language could ever be, and you’re second guessing yourself to high heaven. Would a native English speaker say this? How on earth do I convey the meaning of this phrase which is so obvious to me but sounds so strange in English? Honestly, it’s enough to make me wonder if I even speak English at all.