Authors: Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

Publisher: Perigee

ISBN: 9780399537974

Like most people, whenever I think of translators – not that often, really – I tend to imagine some sober, suited individual standing just to the side of a diplomat who’s speaking at a podium, a monotone interpreter struggling to find just the right approximation for the word “multi-national.” But from now on, I’m going to think of porn.

That says more about me, perhaps, than about a genuinely fascinating and highly informative book about the act of translation, and the thousands of ways it touches everyone’s life – Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. But amid the unexpected, undetected, and uninflected ways in which language sneakily enwraps our experience of the world, the authors Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche provide this sordid-but-salient vignette: a trained translator sitting in front of a video screen, attempting to translate the dialogue of some X-rated flesh fest. This, as you can well imagine, poses some interesting career challenges:

Because porn is so diverse, translators may feel comfortable with some types of content and not others. For example, a translator might have no qualms about subtitling hard-core films, but may refuse to translate animated pornography out of concern that it is designed for children. Other translators may feel happy to translate content related to heterosexual encounters but not homosexual ones. Some are happy to deal with words, so long as they don’t have to look at the accompanying images.”

What this revelatory and user-friendly book makes abundantly clear is that translation is a lively and dynamic act, not the staid and stoic occupation most people imagine when they hear the word “translator,” no doubt conjuring images of some dolorous drudge running his ink-stained finger up and down the rough-hewn pages of an aged Webster’s. Instead, think of this:

An interpreter working for Mission Control, guiding a Russian cosmonaut through a space flight, relaying real-time instructions from NASA’s English-speaking personnel;

An IKEA catalog copywriter, trying to preserve the cool modernity of the catalog’s spare Nordic prose in the vernacular of a capacious romance language;

A translator striving to preserve the rhythms of a Broadway-show script for an audience of Balinese theater-goers;

A Spanish devotee of Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” aiming to capture the charm and chuff of Theodore Geisel’s metronymic mythos (now known to millions of Spanish speakers as “Huevos verdes con Jamon.”)

True to their subtitle, the authors provide lots of examples of translators making a significant contribution to daily life, from the essential (global health care providers swapping anecdotes about local outbreaks) to the mercantile (helping businesses from Starbucks to Harley-Davidson reach their global consumer). And of course, there is that iconic-but-anonymous corps of translators for the U.N., and at embassies around the world, keeping the gears of government grinding along. “Worth an estimated $33 billion, translation is the biggest industry that you never knew existed,” the authors contend.

Who knew translators were so prevalent, so necessary, to the fabric of daily life? That’s certainly something to think about the next time you activate the subtitles on your favorite…ahem…foreign film.

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