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The surprising ways translation shapes our lives

Every day, interpreters and translators help doctors and emergency workers save lives. They enable multi-billion dollar deals, oil the wheels of diplomacy, and ease communication at international space stations. They also give a voice to sports stars, actors and beauty queens, and connect social media fans around the world.

Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche’s fascinating book, Found in Translation, explores the often surprising ways translation has an impact on our everyday lives. According to them, it’s the “biggest industry that you’re not aware of”. Worth more than $33 billion, it’s essential for bridging communication gaps between speakers of the world’s 7000 languages.

They take the readers on an exhilarating ride through the world of translation, looking at its role in everything from preventing wars to spreading popular culture. Their numerous interview subjects include the brains behind Google Translate, a NASA interpreter and the translator who brings The Simpsons to Finnish audiences.

Translation has played a key role at many milestones in history. One of the most memorable interviews is with Peter Less, the Holocaust survivor who worked as a simultaneous interpreter at the Nuremberg trials, bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. He had to “leave his feelings at home”, controlling his emotions as he translated the harrowing material.

Translation mistakes can often have serious consequences. A (possibly intentional) mistranslation led to the Maori people inadvertently signing away sovereignty of their land in the 19th century. It was more than 130 years before they would get reparations for this mistake. And a poor translation of remarks by the Soviet Premier during the Cold War led many in the West to believe he was threatening a nuclear attack.

Both authors are very well-qualified to write about their subject – they have more than 40 years’ experience between them, including court and telephone interpreting and advising global businesses on languages and localisation. They share stories from their own experience, with Nataly remembering interpreting emergency calls that were quite literally a matter of life and death. On the lighter side, Jost writes about bridging language barriers for German tourists in China, and allowing one woman to believe her “miracle cure” was traditional Chinese medicine.

And of course there are plenty of stories and anecdotes that will entertain anyone with an interest in languages. Did you know…?

  • Women in Japan buy their boyfriends or husbands chocolates on Valentine’s Day – as a result of a mistranslated advertising campaign by a confectionary company
  • The novel Catcher in the Rye is known as Saviour in the Grass in Iceland and Sharpener of Oats in Hungarian
  • The European Union employs up to 1000 interpreters for events. But its total budget for translation works out at a fairly reasonable €2.30 per citizen – or about the price of a cup of coffee!

The authors have travelled from the Arctic to New Zealand to study the effect translation has on people’s lives. After exploring their subject from all angles, they ask where the future lies for the profession. While technology increasingly helps translators do their jobs, there’s little doubt that building effective bridges between languages is an essentially human skill.

It ends on an upbeat note – a survey of 12,000 translators found they were overwhelmingly satisfied with their chosen profession, although one respondent did say they were “underappreciated”. After reading this book, the reader is likely to agree with him.

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Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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