Thursday, February 28, 2013

Found in Translation

By now you've probably heard about, if you haven't actually read, a new book that's been drawing a lot of attention to translating, Found in Translation (FIT). The title is yet another take on what's become one of the most hackneyed of contemporary buzz expressions, but never mind: it's a book after my own heart. Because its avowed purpose is to make ordinary people aware of the universality of translating (in the broad sense that includes interpreting) and of its importance in human affairs.

It's made up of a collection of true stories, with some comments, about translators spread over place and time. Each item is only a few pages long, and the reader can pick up and put down anywhere among them. So it's easy reading and ideal for filling in time on short journeys.

Though there's a common educative purpose, there is however a fundamental difference of approach and emphasis between FIT and this blog. The authors of FIT are both Professional Experts and they write as such. I've followed one of them, Jost Zetzsche, for a long time as a blogger who runs a very useful blog on translation technology (see References). He's an accredited English-German translator. The other author, Nataly Kelly, is a certified court interpreter for Spanish in the Boston area. No doubt because of Nataly, the first item is a ‘day in the life of’ description of a Professional Telephone Interpreter. This is followed by a story with the intriguing title 'The Seventy-Million-Dollar Word', intended to support the contention that Professional Expert Interpreters (PEIs) should always be called in for doctor-patient medical communication; and that despite the cost, it may be much more expensive in the long run not to do so. I agree in principle, although the PEI's and the funds to pay them aren't always available, even in these days of telephone interpreting for covering emergencies.

Take as an example the story 'And the Oscar for Best Interpreter Goes to...' (p. 167). It begins with a couple of paragraphs about how an Expert Sign Language Interpreter, Jack Jason, became an infant trilingual in American Sign Language, English and Spanish. There's also a paragraph about him as a Language Broker (p. 168). But then, "Fast forward to today," and the rest is about his Expert and Professional work:
"One moment you'll find him rendering an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. The next you'll see him standing next to Hollywood stars at galas and charity events. Turn on the television, and there he is, speaking to Larry King, Ellen, or Donald Trump [or] President Obama."
This blog would have been more interested in his trilingual language brokering.

But the difference is only one of emphasis, and in fact FIT has stories of Native and Natural Translators too. For instance, the young Japanese hotel employee who created a welcoming environment for visiting Japanese businessmen in Detroit (p. 87). Or the Chinese mothers who have
"formed online groups at websites such as, where English-speaking mothers can translate children's books into Chinese for their children. Many of the translations have been used by publishers to produce actual books. And because the mothers ask for input from the children, kids actually have a say in which books get translated" (p. 72).
It's very debatable, however, whether "Most translation is not done on a volunteer basis" (p. 73), even Expert Translation, because paid translation is measurable ($33 billion a year, p. 73) whereas the unpaid translation is not; and with the advent of crowdsourced translating, the proportions are shifting.

Another plus, from my viewpoint, is that FIT attributes due importance to the translation of religious texts, Buddhist and Muslim as well as Christian. And yet another is its chapter on 'Waging War and Keeping the Peace'. As long-time Followers know, religious and military translation are two of the bees in my bonnet.

For laughs there's a good sprinkling of translation howlers.

It's a pleasure to recommend this book, both for personal reading and as a present to give to others. For more academic and more affluent readers, it's not in the same league with Translators through History (see References), but then it's not addressed to the converted. Indeed my only gripe is not against the authors or the content but against the publishers. I wish there were a hard-cover edition printed on decent paper and with some illustrations. The book deserves it.

  • Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetszche. Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. Foreword by David Crystal. New York: Penguin-Perigree, 2012. 270 p. Preview here.
  • Jost Zetzsche. Tool Box Newsletter. 219th Basic Edition, 2013. See it here.
  • Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth. Translators through History. Revised edition. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2012. The Benjamins catalogue page is here.


  1. Hey Friend,

    This is really interesting take on the concept. I never thought of it that way. I came across this site recently which I think it will be a great use of new ideas and informations. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Thank You.
    Henry Fenald
    Russian culture

  2. Just gone through your blog and find it very interesting. Your post is very knowledgeable. I'll surely come back to your next post.

  3. Thanks for the compliment to NAATI translation and (belatedly) to Henry. Glad you're enjoying it.

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