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How Translation Transforms the World

By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.

Found in translation

KELLY, Nataly and Jost ZETZSCHE, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, New York: Perigee/Penguin, 2012, 270 p., ISBN 978-0-399-53797-4

Authors Nataly Kelly, a certified court interpreter (Spanish and English), and Jost Zetzsche, a working translator (German and English), are based in the U.S. Their fascinating book compiles a host of examples of how translation shapes our lives and transforms the world on a daily basis.

¡Me va a matar!

As a result of the expanding Latino population, there is a growing need for Spanish interpretation and translation services in the United States. Nataly Kelly works shifts as an interpreter on the phone, receiving calls from emergency dispatchers. In one hair-raising story, she describes a distress call transferred to her by an emergency dispatcher. “Find out what’s wrong,” he barked at her in the middle of the night. Nataly could barely make out the caller’s chilling words, “Me va a matar.” Nataly promptly translated this as “He’s going to kill me,” which resulted in police officers being dispatched to the scene.

The $71 million word

In a hospital setting, it can be risky not to use the services of professional interpreters because misunderstanding may lead to misdiagnosis. An amount of $71 million was awarded to a Latino patient in a malpractice suit after he was misdiagnosed by a doctor who misunderstood information provided by the patient’s family. They said he was intoxicado, which meant that he had food poisoning, but the doctor believed that he was intoxicated and gave him the wrong treatment.

Translation played an important role in assisting international cooperation for the disaster in Haiti, where the main language is Creole. A huge international team crowdsourced the translation of messages after the devastating earthquake in 2010. The translation project developed by linguist Rob Munro at Stanford University was named Mission 4636 after the free phone number used by volunteers from 49 countries. In the first six weeks, more than 40,000 text messages were received and translated. To read more about this subject, visit:

Translation and interpretation can also help prevent accidents. Responsible companies should translate safety procedures. An example given is McDonald’s, which translates procedures in every country in which it operates into the local language to ensure employee safety. In fact, costs to the entire healthcare system are higher when the services of translators and interpreters are not used.

Don’t believe everything you can’t read

Once when Jost Zetzsche was working as a tour guide in China, a German tourist picked up some balm for her skin condition. It worked, so she asked Jost to buy 10 more tubes for her on his next trip to China. After reading the Chinese label, he realized that the “miracle cure” was hydrocortisone, but he didn’t have the heart to tell his client.

Clairol’s Mist Stick curling iron didn’t sell well in German-speaking countries. Why? “Mist” means “manure” in German. Nestlé’s is so popular in Latin America that some Latinos think it is a local company. The founder changed his German name Nestle, which means nest, to Nestlé to make it more French-sounding when he opened the Swiss-based company. Nestlé adapts its approach to the linguistic reality of the U.S. Hispanic market with a bilingual and bicultural website. “The best nest” refers to the corporate logo used around the world of three birds in a nest, which never changes. Americans drink coffee for a kickstart in the morning, whereas Latinos drink coffee as a social activity and prefer milder blends, so Nestlé introduced its Suave (smooth) brand to cater to the Hispanic market.

The authors state that brand names may be adapted, but they rarely change, even when crossing borders. It is noteworthy that more and more businesses in the United States feature signs and product information in both English and Spanish, despite no official bilingualism.

Los huevos verdes con jamón

In conclusion, the authors cover an array of topics ranging from how to translate Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to copyright issues so complex that they seem to “warrant the skills of Hercule Poirot”. They also dispel a few myths along the way.

According to linguist and author David Crystal, it is telling that “underappreciated” came up in a survey of professional attitudes about translation. Found in Translation sets out to rectify the lack of appreciation of translators and interpreters, saying “Because of you, the world communicates.”

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