Book: A Translation State of Mind

Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Every time I take the train from Boston to New York, I cannot help but mentally play the song, “New York State of Mind.” I had the good fortune to travel to New York several times over the past 12 months. I can’t deny that I love New York and that this nearby city is often in my thoughts. But during my most recent visits, there was only one word that could describe my state of mind: translation.

Translation has been on my mind a lot lately – often in conjunction with New York. For starters, my new book with Jost Zetzsche, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives, is being published this October by Penguin, which is headquartered in New York. Jost and I made our way to New York to meet with our editor last spring. Little did we know at the time that New York would also make its way into our book, and in some ways that might surprise you.

New York is the capital of the American fashion industry. In fact, a company called StyleSight actually employs numerous full-time translators for various languages. These colleagues spend their days scanning fashion magazines and websites from around the world to spot the latest trends. They then translate important keywords and content about those trends. You might even say that these translators are in fact fashion trend-setters. We found their work so fascinating that we devoted an entire story to it in the book.

And of course, who can think of New York without conjuring images of Wall Street? New York is an important financial hub, not just for the United States, but for the world, given that financial markets are so interconnected. Did you know that translation can make the stock market tumble? Yes, a translation error regarding a currency valuation actually once caused panic on the trading floor and caused the markets to fall. Of course, we had to share that story in the book as well.

New York is also a welcoming home to the arts. Every time I visit, I try to take in at least one museum. I’m always pleasantly surprised by the array of languages represented in the brochures available for tourists and international visitors. Even the opera, which so many New Yorkers and visitors love to frequent, often includes a libretto translation. In fact, there are translators dedicated to this type of translation as well, and we discuss their unique and interesting work in the book.

While in New York, Jost and I also visited the United Nations headquarters, where we sat down for an interview with Mr. Hossam Fahr, the Chief Interpreter. He humbly recounted a hilarious story of making such a magnificent blunder while interpreting that the entire General Assembly erupted in laughter. That story too ended up in our book. For the book, we also interviewed a Japanese<>Spanish<>English baseball interpreter who interprets for players from the New York Yankees. We also tell the story in the book of the interpreter for Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is currently in New York, filming the next season of the Apprentice, with iconic New Yorker Donald Trump. I began to ask myself, “Where can’t you find translation in New York?”

Indeed, in a city as diverse as New York, where you can hear hundreds of different languages spoken, it’s nearly impossible to make a move without bumping into translation. There are dozens upon dozens of translation agencies in the city. There are interpreters working in hospitals, courts, schools, and government offices. There are translators working both in-house at businesses and freelance from home. Walk outside, take a look around, and in a city like New York, you’re sure to see the impact of translation nearly anywhere you go.

This – the idea that translation surrounds us all – is at the heart of Found in Translation. New Yorkers have it lucky in many ways, because linguistic diversity is a bit easier to see in this amazing city than it might be in other places. However, translation also touches our lives in many ways that are not so visible. From the news reports of events in distant lands, to the religions people may choose to practice, to the food we eat, the sports teams we follow, the technologies we use, and the products we buy – translation affects every aspect of our lives.

Jost and I wrote Found in Translation not just for translators or interpreters, but to help the general public – the mainstream reader – understand why translation is so important. Translation is a thread that is invisible to many, but is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Our hope is that, through the book, we’ll encourage many people to adopt a new state of mind – one in which translation plays a more prominent part than ever before.

Who knows, maybe before too long, we’ll see throngs of people wearing T-shirts that say “I heart translation.”

Nataly Kelly is the co-author of Found in Translation, published by Perigee/Penguin USA and available from booksellers everywhere starting in October. She is a court-certified interpreter for Spanish and a translator of poetry. She works as the Chief Research Officer at the Boston-based market research firm Common Sense Advisory. Contact: nataly@commonsenseadvisory.com