Book review: Found in Translation, by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 5:05pm

Found in Translation
by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche
Perigee Penguin

The US State Department was recently asked to translate a message in Dzongkha sent to President Barack Obama by the King of Bhutan. The translator it found, however, refused the assignment, explaining the text was written in Royal Dzongkha, and his eyes were not worthy to read it. Anxious about possible diplomatic repercussions, the department's translation team eventually found another Dzongkha specialist, who revealed the message wished the president all the best for a happy new year.

Found in Translation is full of stories about translating, but not all of them have a happy ending. In one famous anecdote about machine translation, the phrase "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" was fed into a computer, and emerged as "the vodka is strong, but the meat is rotten" in Russian.

More tragically, a translation error, or perhaps deception, caused the Maori signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi unwittingly to hand over sovereignty over their land to Britain's Queen Victoria.

Translation is as close as we may come to magic. For poet Charles Simic, "translating is like being a medium, standing in the shoes of the person you're translating; one becomes another". Whether translating the Koran or an ad for cornflakes, the translator is a sort of shaman, performing a function that has a spiritual dimension. We should cherish our interpreters and translators.

Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche are both in the translation business. Their book sets out to remind us how much of our lives depends on translation, and to show it at work in all sorts of domains, from vital diplomatic and commercial transactions, to the circulation of information and news, the production of textbooks and technical manuals, the subtitling of movies, and the labelling of safety equipment.

In a rapidly globalising world the need for translation is not diminishing but increasing.

Kelly and Zetzsche might have been employed as the PR team for the translators' trade union. The more efficient the interpreter or translator, the more unobtrusive, even invisible, they are. The authors bring these unsung heroes of communication to the front of the stage and ask them to take a bow. They do so by interviewing hundreds of practitioners of the art and getting them to talk about their job, its triumphs and tribulations, but above all its importance.

The result is a bit of a ragbag of anecdotes, stitched together in a genial style. While the book does raise some really interesting and important issues (language and the law, the future of machine translation), it's forever hurrying on to the next story.

The highly knowledgeable authors assume their readers know nothing and have never thought about anything. For all these reasons, this would make a good present for those people who say they're too busy to read books.