Thursday, March 13, 2014

Found in Translation. How Language Shapes our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche
Although this title may sound grandiose, especially for people who may not use a second language, it's not as hyperbolic as you may think.

The authors of this nifty little book document well the variety of work translators perform, often undetected by the public at large. After all, being a translator is not unlike being an IT professional: when what you've done is done well, people do not even notice you exist. Mistranslate one word, and the world goes down in flames. Well, almost. It has been known to cause millions of dollars spent in rebranding an image or a moment of highly flammable situations at the UN council.

It's a great book for people who think of translators as working primarily on newspapers, novels or nonfiction books, but it's also a book for translators: it validates our work and made me feel gosh darned good!

Then again, I honestly had a slight moment of PTSD reading about the interpreter who helps 911 callers. The first (and consequently the last) time I have been in a situation like that was when I had to tell a patient about the options she had for the rest of her life--which were counted in mere minutes. My palms were sweating a good half hour after the call, and I retreated back to working with software manuals and chemical labeling. My hat's off to interpreters who make those phone calls.

Luckily, Kelly and Zetzsche are good at switching gears when the topic gets too heavy. As a counterweight to the medical, legal and political stories they cover how translators all over the world dealt with the anagram name Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter; how The Simpsons is translated and subtitled into Finnish and by whom; and why Ikea's bathroom furnishings rub the Danes the wrong way.

Some of my favorite stories about translation challenges in the book are about marketing, such as this iPod Shuffle's marketing image, which was the small device between two fingers and the words "small talk" underneath:

Just two basic words. Easy to translate, right? [...] If you had to describe the phrase small talk to someone who did not understand it, what words would you use? Chances are, you would discuss the importance of exchanging pleasantries. You might describe asking someone about the weather. Basically, you'd be describing something superficial, and perhaps unimportant. How would that translate exactly, and would your explanation of the concept reflect well on Apple? [...] In cases like Apple's, an entire atmosphere of content must be translated to support those customers who speak other languages and want to know how to use their products.

You'll need to read the book to find out the clever solutions!

The book also interviews simultaneous interpreters at the UN and their favorite gaffes, and talks to people taking part in automated translation campaigns that help relief organizations in receiving accurate and current information on disease outbreaks or natural catastrophes in hard to reach areas.

To put the gist of the book shortly, the device you are reading this entry from has either been localized into your language, or into another language, so that a person from another country can access the same information as you. Translation is about leveling the information play field, from ads selling rejuvenating creams and make-up to agreements between warring nations.

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