by Jon Persson
When a 911 operator receives an urgent call from a Spanish-speaking citizen, a national service of interpreters is immediately called upon. Within 30 seconds, the caller is able to describe her dire situation; an intruder with a gun, outside her bedroom door—an immediate threat to the caller’s life. The operator responds that the nearest police officer is a block away, and then, the phone goes silent. The operator thanks the translator, who never knows the final outcome of the call.
This story, read aloud by author Nataly Kelly at New London’s Monte Cristo bookstore, opens her newly published book, Found In Translation. She goes on to detail the importance of accurate and timely translation and interpretation of various languages in a global community.
“Translation,” she clarifies, “is written; interpretation is spoken.” Often, she continues, people who translate written language have difficulty interpreting spoken language, and vice versa. Thus, most language professionals specialize in one field only. And, while it is a common perception that translation of languages occurs mostly in popular literature or entertainment, this is not so, says Nataly.
Translation is a “33 billion dollar industry, mostly working in technical and manufacturing areas,” says Nataly. She goes on to list “religion, politics, businesses, manufacturing, courts, hospitals, mental institutions, schools, police, sciences, NASA, and automotive industries” as places where translators are needed.
“Does anyone own a foreign-made car?” she asks the audience as an example. “The owners’ manual had to be translated from the language of origin,” she points out. The example extends to everything imported, with the quality of translation of great importance to us all.
But the importance of accurate interpretation is most profound in medical and legal interactions. Nataly tells the tragic tale of “the 71 million dollar word,” where a young man in Florida was left a quadriplegic when one word was mis-interpreted by an attending nurse. A member of the audience offers the story of Connecticut’s last lobotomy patient, a Czechoslovakian man brought to Norwich State Hospital when his unfamiliar speech was mis-diagnosed as mental illness. These are the rare yet costly cases which highlight the need for clear and expedient interpretation.
Indeed, this imperative has long been codified in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which mandates the right to an interpreter. This includes all public agencies, from police to hospitals to social workers, and the Department of Justice is tasked with seeing this right is upheld.
Nataly is herself a Spanish translator who “lived in Ecuador for several years.” While there she participated in a project involving “relay interpretation,” where a poet who writes in an indigenous language would translate her work into Spanish, from which Nataly would translate into English.