I recently interview Jost Zetzsche, noted translator and author of the incredibly useful newsletter The Translator’s Tool Box has just co-authored a book on translation, Found in Translation with industry guru Nataly Kelly. Word is (actually had this conversation with someone other than the publisher last Friday) that this is the kind of title that requires multiple purchases by people in the translation business, since it is a great give-away to clueless clients who need to learn some respect for our trade. (I’m sure there’s a nicer way to put that, but I’m on a deadline.)
Jost, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about Found in Translation, the new book you’ve authored with Nataly Kelly on translators and how they shape the world.
But first, let’s talk about me.
When I’m talking to monoglots about what I do, the conversation will go in one of two directions. Either blank-based incomprehension, or a job pitch for someone’s cousin in their third year of high-school French to work as a translator. How do you handle those encounters?
Since I’m not from New York like you, I assume that I would respond more kindly, though I’d probably be equally determined not to hire the candidate based on that pitch. Responding to the incomprehension is a little more complex, but that’s exactly why we wrote Found in Translation—to bridge the gap between that lack of understanding and the truly amazing work that translators and interpreters do!
To write this book, you and Nataly talked to a lot of different people. Since I never got a review copy, I haven’t read it, so tell me about your favorite interview.
The most touching and impressive interview was with Peter Less, one of the interpreters for the Nuremberg trials whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis. It blew my mind to hear how he spoke about the leaders of the regime that killed his family. He was determined to treat them as humans rather than monsters.
For me, the most intellectually stimulating interview was with former New Yorker literary editor and translator Linda Asher — a brilliant woman who challenged my own ways of looking at translation.
And the most fun juxtaposition of interviews began with an interview with Te Taka Keegan, a Maori language activist and translator in New Zealand. The very next day I spoke with Julia Demcheson, an Inuit translator of Inuktitut in Nunavut, Canada. Geographically these two individuals could not have been farther apart, yet it was so stimulating and fascinating to see and hear the many parallels between their work and their outlooks.
So what’s Nicole Kidman really like?
Great question, Ken. I think she’s really, really beautiful—at least on the big screen. For our book we focused more on actual translators and interpreters, like Jack Jason, the ASL interpreter for Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin. The interview with him was another highlight that gave us lots of material for a fascinating story in the book. Incidentally, Marlee and Jack both participated in the Youtube video we made for the book.
You’ve described “Found in Translation” as not just a book, but as a movement. Are you referring to declining price point, or are you talking about something else?
Fortunately, the movement that we hope to spark is one that goes even deeper and has an upward trend. As you said in your first question, when translation and interpretation are mentioned we are typically confronted with blank-faced incomprehension. And yet we—you and I and the hundreds of thousands of translators and interpreters around the world—are making cross-language and cross-cultural communication happen, and we’re changing the world and language in the process. I think not even translators realize how essential that is, and the general public certainly doesn’t. Changing that perspective requires movement, and we hope our book starts that momentum. That’s why we tell stories from all imaginable angles—but all related to translation and interpretation.
Translation can be a bit mysterious to the uninitiated, and hand-puppets can take you only so far in helping people to understand. Do you think awareness of the role of translators is changing?
Yes. And right now is the time to push the doors wide open for everyone to see what we do. Why now? Well, aside from the publication of our book, translation is on everyone’s mind because of the presumed and actual progress of machine translation. It’s not a coincidence that all of the science fiction classics—from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey—all shared the idea of a universal translator. It’s something that people have longed for for a long time. With the media attention that machine translation is receiving, the general public assumes that we are right on the verge of having access to a device or an app like that. So what better time to redirect some of the attention that these technologies are receiving to the human translator? One of our most interesting interviews was with Franz Och of Google about Google’s machine translation efforts. He shares our realism when it comes to the achievements of machine translation technology. The advances are remarkable, but we’re very, very far from a Babelfish or a Universal Translator that would take the place of you and me. So it’s time to look at what remarkable feats translators around the world are doing.
Is it fair to describe your book as a shocking expose of the seamy underbelly of the translation industry?
Absolutely. Especially shocking were the exposés dished out by TranslationGuy’s butler about his boss. Decency concerns prevented us from publishing them, though.
There is not a shred of truth to those allegations, accept for the video footage posted on TMZ, which is not me anyway. But I suppose it’s good for your sales and more importantly, will increase traffic for TranslationGuy.
Seriously, you and Nataly’s efforts mark a milestone for the trade. Thanks to you both. Readers can order multiple copies of Found in Translation here.