Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World

I enjoy suspense as much as the next person, and Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, coauthored by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche, contains more than you might think. Right off the bat, there’s a gripping story of when Kelly was a telephonic interpreter on a 911 emergency call. The victim feared for her life and was hiding from her attacker. At times, silence was heard.

As the reader, I found myself caught up in the tale, wondering what was going to happen next and how the story was going to end. I took a moment to reflect that this was not a suspense story, but a real life situation of an interpreter doing her job to help people struggling in life and death situations. Starting off the book with such a powerful example, the authors paint a perfect picture of how language plays an integral role in real life situations. It illustrates clearly how important interpreters and translators are.  

Working in the language industry for over a decade, as an interpreter, interpreter trainer, administrator and now business owner of my own language service company, I thought I had a great perspective on how important language is in daily life. I was pleasantly surprised when this book gave me an even greater appreciation that this industry is fascinating, intriguing and rewarding. My own experiences and the work I do barely scratch the surface of what interpreters and translators provide on a daily basis. My takeaway is that language is an intimate part of our lives; it is woven into the fabric of who we are and how we interact with each other. Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World is a fascinating read, giving those of us in the industry a new take on old ideas, and eye-opening for those new to language services. 

For interpreters, translators, linguists and trainers, anyone contemplating becoming an interpreter or translator, and professionals in businesses intending to reach new markets, this book is a must read. There are stories from amazing people in different industries, providing their perspectives on interpreting and translation, sharing how their work has affected others or even themselves. One such example is that of Carol Hidalgo, an interpreter at the Mayo Clinic, who was seeing an increase in patients coming in with the same symptoms. She approached one of the doctors and shared her observation. He did further investigating, and they found out that the patients all worked as employees at the same meat-packing company. Using interpreters to communicate, it was discovered that the employees were evacuating animal skulls and liquefying the brains. Unfortunately, they had not been wearing shield masks, so they were inhaling particles that had a negative effect on their nervous systems. Had it not been for the interpreter, this matter could have turned into a life or death situation.

The book contains numerous interviews and first-hand accounts, mixed with research and valuable industry data. Through the lens of the translator/interpreter, readers will learn how those in the industry prepare for their assignments. From the examples and interviews readers will find that interpreting and translating are far from easy tasks, nor are they replaceable by machine. Chapter after chapter, through interviews with interpreters spanning from New York, Chicago, Finland and Brazil to The Netherlands and beyond, readers are taken to various cities, hopping from country to country. I was immersed in experiences centered around language encounters, from the Emmys to a sports arena.  

The book also took me on a journey of eye-opening facts. Facebook, Google and other technology companies learned early on that if they wanted to capture a market’s attention they would have to speak the user base’s languages. In an effort to reach more consumers, Facebook is now translated into 77 languages. We are educated on how translations, when conducted by non-professionals, can create costly mistakes for companies, resulting in loss of revenue. Sometimes, there is good old humor in a mistranslation. One of my favorite examples from the book was when a group of users in Turkey decided to change a few phrases on a Facebook page. What they got back was not the intended meaning, but for the select few who saw the translated phrase, it was definitely cause to laugh. They translated “your message could not be sent because the user is offline” into “your message could not be sent because you have a tiny penis.” No real harm came of this message because only a few received it, but it is a great example of how easily and quickly a translation can go very, very wrong.

 The authors deliver a clear and concise message on how language shapes our existence and transforms our world. I was riveted as to how they were able to capture so much information on how and why language is vital to what we do daily. Coming from the health care industry, where most of my client offerings are delivered, I am passionate about equal access to services for those who speak limited or no English. I know that the cost of not having a qualified interpreter could lead to serious consequences. Kelly and Zetzsche bring these facts to life in the book. For example, they recount the story of Willie Ramirez, the young man who used the word intoxicado, which was mistakenly interpreted as intoxicated. His case led to a malpractice lawsuit and the family was awarded $71 million. The same serious consequences that language has in patient interactions were also beautifully illustrated in examples given to readers about the earthquake in Haiti, and the H1N1 outbreak in Hong Kong. 

There’s a particular story in the book about a child who was born to deaf parents. He did not have the same opportunities and life experiences other children had. His parents could not read a bedtime story to him, have conversations with him or lend a soothing voice when he needed to be comforted. The voice he heard most was the television. However, he rose above the challenges presented by his unique life situation and embraced the lessons learned. I felt a personal connection to this story, since his situation reminded me of my own two siblings, both of whom can speak today, though they are about 90% deaf and require the assistance of a sign language interpreter. As I read further, I learned the name of this amazing person and current interpreter, whom I admired even before reading this book for his skills and delivery on the television show The Apprentice. His name is Jack Jason, and I often watched him and wished that I could one day do his job and get paid for interpreting for celebrities. He used the power of language from two worlds to assist his parents, embrace his personal challenges and turn it into a rewarding career.  

The book shares how in 2012, the market for language services is more than $33 billion and expected to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the field of interpreting and translation is expected to grow by 40% by 2020. These numbers demonstrate that we as interpreters and translators are not going away, that although technology is replacing how we deliver our products; the interpreter is still a necessary part of the equation. Simply looking at the numbers, no one can dispute the need for languages. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is translated in more than 300 languages, Facebook has reached over 800 million users, the 2010 version of Microsoft’s operating system is available in 36 languages and depending where McDonald’s is located, you will find different menu items to reflect the culture of the people of that country. Sadly, of almost 7,000 languages and dialects available, over 2,000 will no longer exist in the next hundred years. 

It was a bittersweet moment when I found myself nearing the end of the book. I didn’t want it to end. I was hungry for more insight into our fascinating world of languages and the impact it has on people, communities and businesses. Kelly and Zetzsche could not have done a better job traveling the world through interviews and research to take the reader into the field of translation. Those of us who understand this field will gain a better appreciation for what we do, and those who have not worked directly with interpreters and translators will come to appreciate the value of how they can benefit from languages in their home, workplace, communities and even in outer space. I cannot say strongly enough, go get a copy!