What’s the Difference Between a National and an Official Language for Translation Purposes?

Difference Between a National and an Official LanguageFew countries these days have populations that speak only one language. Sometimes it’s because the country’s boundaries always contained different language groups. Switzerland, for example has had French, German and Italian speakers for as long as the country has existed. For other more recently formed countries, the diversity of languages is due to colonisation or immigration.

So what language does a country use for any sort of communication other than ordinary day to day talking? Most countries choose one or more “official” languages to use. These are the languages used by government departments and generally any documents or official communication will be available in these languages. It is likely that most residents in that country are familiar with all the different official languages, even if they are only fluent in one of them.

Translators will need to be able to translate into and from all the official languages. For example, a German business communicating with a Belgian government department will need to use a German translation service that has translators who can translate from German to both Flemish and French, the two official languages in Belgium.

However, most countries also have what is called the “national” language. This is usually the language of the original inhabitants or the most commonly used language in that country. Sometimes, as in Germany and Austria, the national and official languages are the same i.e. German. It’s easy for an organisation in Australia to just choose a German NAATI translator to translate anything needed when communicating with an equivalent body in Germany or Austria.

But what do you do when there is more than one official language used in a country? The safest strategy is to ensure translations into each of the official languages if the document or text is designed to be used by a government agency in that country, but use the national language if it is for general use.

If the material is designed as a marketing or informational tool, the language of translation should depend on the target group. This might not even be an official or national language used in that country, but a minority language used by an immigrant community within that country. For example, Spanish is neither an official nor a national language of the United States (English is both), but a large community in that country speaks Spanish as their main language of understanding. Businesses marketing a product in the U.S. ignore Spanish at their peril!