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Translating Birth, Love and Death

Interpreting for the US Army in Afghanistan

The translation and interpretation industry in the United States is vast and wildly diverse. It’s almost easier to list the areas of our lives—public and private—where it doesn’t exist than where it does.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly, herself a Spanish-English translator and interpreter, has co-written a book with Jost Zetzsche on the industry.

Some of best sections in Found in Translation are Kelly’s own war stories:

  • Interpreting a 911 call made by a Spanish-speaking woman who was whispering: “He’s going to kill me.” The woman said the man in question was outside, with a gun. She was in a bedroom lying on the floor under the bed. Kelly interpreted these details back and forth between the woman and the 911 dispatcher. The woman said: “I can hear him in the hallway.” And then: “He’s at the door.” The line went dead soon after. Kelly never found out what happened.
  • A so-called “cupid call” in which an American English-speaking guy and his Colombian Spanish-speaking fiancée are trying schedule their next rendezvous. Kelly quickly cottons on that there’s a problem: the man wants to make sure they don’t meet at a time when the woman is on her period. He attempts to convey this subtly, but she doesn’t pick up on it. (“Oh, I am all yours. Every last bit of me. Any day you choose.”) Eventually, Kelly intervenes, adding her own words to a sentence that she translates. (“Elena, do you remember back in December, when we couldn’t say good-bye at the end of the trip the way we wanted to?” Kelly adds: “…because you were having your period?”) It worked.
  • Translating the poetry of Maria Clara Sharupi Jua, a Shuar woman from Ecuador. Kelly has translated several poems from a hybrid of Spanish and Shuar, including one that she translated with the help of a group of poets at the Poetry Translation Centre in London. Working as a group, they successfully figured out how to render into English hard-to-translate words like bejuco and seemingly easier ones, like delgado.
  • Translating colors, something Kelly considers the most difficult of tasks. For one job she had to translate a hair dye catalogue. She come up Spanish words for shades of color for scores of different shades—including twenty different shades of auburn! The English versions had names like sunny auburn, glowing auburn. Kelly found it “almost impossible.”

There’s much more in Found in Translation: segments on special challenges of translating religious texts, the language of space exploration, advertising wordplay, pornography and more.

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