Tag Archives: interpreter

How do you say ‘shutdown’ in Spanish or Chinese? Crisis leaves translation contracts in limbo

Antonio Guerra, Cetra's Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command's 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command’s 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Here’s a guest post from Philadelphia-based reporter Yowei Shaw

The US Pacific Command has canceled its 16th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference, scheduled for Oct. 21 to 24 in Honolulu — much to the chagrin of Cetra Language Solutions, a small foreign language services company that was contracted by the federal government to provide interpreters at the event.

“We are directly affected by the government shutdown,” says Cetra’s CEO and President Jiri Stejskal, who founded the Philadelphia-headquartered company in 1997 when he started getting so much work as a freelance translator, he couldn’t handle it by himself. He learned of the canceled conference last week, 13 days before the event was supposed to start.

“It was canceled last-minute,” Stejskal says. “The equipment has been shipped. We have about 25 interpreters who have flight tickets and everything. It’s just a total nightmare.”

The company is counting on the $141,000 federal contract, which is now a big question mark.

For the past several years, the language industry has been booming, due in large part to an uptick in federal contracts for defense and intelligence agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Globalization and the federal government’s recognition of an increasingly multilingual US society have also contributed to this growth. A Common Sense Advisory report found that federal spending on language contracts skyrocketed from nearly $14.9 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in 2009.

But the continuing government shutdown has put foreign language companies like Cetra in a hard place. “It’s been a little bit of a downer, to put it bluntly,” says Thaddeus Thaler, director of federal services at Cetra.

Thaler has been working hard on the situation at Cetra’s northern Virginia office, trying to get reimbursed by the federal government. He says, luckily, Cetra’s contract with Pacific Command included a 100 percent refund policy if the conference was canceled within 14 days of starting.

“And the reason why we have a 100 percent cancellation policy at that point is to make sure our interpreters are paid for those days regardless of the situation, because it’s so difficult for them to go out and find new work,” Thaler says. “Otherwise they’re going to be out several hundred dollars — if not more — for those number of days that they missed.”

But even with that policy, it’s not yetclear that Cetra will get all of its money back or that the federal government will cover the cost of the interpreters’ fees. The Defense Department notified Cetra that the conference was canceled due to the shutdown, much to the surprise of Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s director of interpreting services.

“I was very shocked to find out that this was considered nonessential military activity,” Guerra says. “It’s a very important event. It’s a very important conference and I’ve seen it year after year.”

This year would have been Guerra’s fourth time at the high-level conference, which brings together the chiefs of defense from 37 Asia Pacific countries on a yearly basis to promote cooperation and stability in the region. Guerra says that in the past, the conference has focused on issues like climate change, the economy and the political climate in certain countries, including terrorist factions in Indonesia, in addition to disasters like the Fukushima crisis.

In a somewhat cruel twist of irony, the very same day that Cetra got news of the canceled conference, an auditor from the General Services Administration came to the office to do a biannual audit, to ensure the company was reporting its sales properly.

“So he spent three or four hours in our office,” Stejskal says. “So that piece of government seems to be up and running happily.”

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

So far, the chiefs of defense conference is the only federal contract that has been canceled for Cetra. But the company is closely monitoring its other federal contracts. And even with the looming threat of a U.S. debt default, Cetra is in a better position than other foreign language companies that provide services only to the federal government. Federal contracts make up roughly a third of Cetra’s business, but Stejskal says he’s thinking of reducing that number in the future because of the shutdown — which was the last thing he expected to happen.

“We’ve been serving the federal government for close to 15 years now and even though it’s a difficult client, given all the bureaucracy and red tape, one of the reasons we’ve been doing it for the past 15 years is because we knew we would get paid,” Stejskal says. “And that’s changing now.”

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Global leaders speak English, occasionally

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

In the podcast I set Marco a quiz. I play him five current heads of state speaking English. He identified two of them. Go on, you know you can do better…answers at the bottom of the post.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Aaron Schachter.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke at the UN General Assembly last week, he started with this: “At the dawn of the 21st century, we had every reason to be optimistic about the future…” And then he stumbled. But it didn’t matter. He had made his point already.

Just by speaking in English, Gul conveyed his support for the US, says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“When choosing whether to speak in a foreign language … you have to balance symbolism, on the one hand, and the need to be understood on the other,” Singh says. “Speaking to a foreign audience in their own language can be a very powerful gesture of outreach and respect, even if frankly the phrase that you use or the attempt to speak the language is not particularly fluent.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke English every chance he got, with a heavy accent, and pretty basic vocabularly — certainly more basic than when he spoke Hebrew. Many Israeli officials — and Israeli citizens — see speaking English as a sign of their importance on the world stage and their friendship with the US.

But English can send the wrong message for some leaders, and separate them from their people. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks English, but rarely speaks it in public. And never in a diplomatic setting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a charity fundraiser.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” in English at a charity fundraiser.

Phillip Seib, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says sometimes diplomats refuse to speak English out of national pride.

“They have their own language,” Seib says. “Why should they speak someone else’s language? Particularly in developing countries, this is a way to assert themselves. And they just don’t see any reason to conform to others’ linguistic abilities.”

And there can be risk in speaking English. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spent several years earning his Ph.D. in Scotland. And you’d think that if he can understand and speak that English, he could easily speak English to an American TV audience or at the UN.

But when the issues are so nuanced, and the relationship so fragile, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni, Iranian leaders like Rouhani want to play it safe. So they use their native langugage, “just because it is the one in which they’re most forcefully articulate, polished and can have the most sophisticated statements and arguments.”

And there’s an added benefit from using an interpreter. The time waiting for interpretation gives you a few extra seconds to think. And if you’re seen as saying something controversial, you can just blame it on a bad interpretation.

Answers to the quiz on foreign leaders speaking English:

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Manmohan Singh
3. Angela Merkel
4. François Hollande
5. Rafael Correa

Listen above or on iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .


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A Call for English Only at the European Union

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

Here’s a guest post from Brussels-based reporter Don Duncan…

The Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the founding event of what is now the European Union, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of nationalism in Europe. But over a half-century later, walking through any of the EU buildings in Brussels, it feels like nationalism never went away.

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union – at a current cost of $1.4bn per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union.

You might wonder then, when most if not all EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master – English?

“It’s tempting of course, with English you get through everywhere in the whole world,” says Andrea Dahman, head of communications for the Translation Unit of the European Commission. “On the other hand, I’m always saying, if you want to do business you’ve got to speak the language of the client.”

Interpretors of various languages work interpreting a presentation at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

In the EU, in order to speak the “language of the client” – that is the languages of the 27 member states – a long, costly and time-consuming chain of tasks needs to happen.

Once a delegate or bureaucrat delivers a speech in his or her native language, it is then taken up by dozens of interpreters, who simultaneously translate into their respective languages, or tune into the English interpretation and work from that.

Meanwhile, an official release of the speech is produced and this is sent to the translation unit and – again – either directly, or via English, a separate group of text-based translators gets to work.

Within the EU institutions, ideology trumps pragmatism, and the founding ideology of the Union is “Unity in Diversity.” Back in 1957, when there were only six member states and four languages, it was an easy credo to follow. But fast-forward to today and things are not so easy: 27 member states and 23 official languages. It’s costing the EU a lot of money, it’s having a negative impact on its global competitiveness and it will only get more complex as the union continues to enlarge. In July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU, and Croatian the 24th official language.

As the EU gets larger, critics of the multilingual system are becoming more vocal. For Shada Islam director of policy at Brussels think thank Friends of Europe, the process is costly, unproductive, and most of all, unnecessary.

“We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue,” she says. “The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.

While more and more respected public policy organizations are calling for establishing English as the language of the EU, the idea remains politically toxic. English is the language of the most eurosceptic country – the UK. What’s more, France and Germany are very touchy when it comes to having their languages eclipsed by English. Regardless of sentiment, EU officials argue that using any single language wouldn’t be democratic, or in the shared spirit of the union.

“Europeans believe or at least they think they should believe very much in diversity and in inclusion and that everyone is equal,” says Shada Islam of Friends of Europe. “It’s an artificial mental set up, if you like. Everyone is not equal. There are big powers, there’s Germany, there’s France… so we’re not all equal.”

But despite the growing cost and complexity, and the growing skepticism from outside the EU institutions, the Union is holding course and shows no sign of shifting. When Croatian becomes the official language in July, the cost of the union’s commitment to multilingualism will nudge up to an estimated $1.5bn a year.

Patrick Cox adds: Here’s a link to John Crace’s excellent Digested Read podcast that I mentioned in the pod.

Other podcasts on this subject:


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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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Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.


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