Lexicon Valley Talks to Author Nataly Kelly About the Unseen Global Machinery of Language Translation

A show about the mysteries of English.
Nov. 1 2012 1:27 PM

How Jews Grew Horns

Listen to Slate’s show about the all-important role that language translation (and mistranslation) plays in our lives.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 20: Death to Potatoes

In the introduction to their eye-opening new book, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, co-authors Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche make the case that translation “affects every aspect of your life—and we’re not just talking about the obvious things, like world politics and global business. Translation affects you personally, too. The books you read. The movies you watch. The food you eat. Your favorite sports team. The opinions you hold dear. The religion you practice. Even your looks and, yes, your love life. Right this very minute, translation is saving lives, perhaps even yours.”

A bad translation may even be responsible for the longstanding anti-Semitic notion that Jews have horns.

Listen as Bob Garfield and I talk with Kelly, a certified Spanish interpreter and former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics.

You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

BOB: From Washington D.C. this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today episode No. 20, titled "Death to Potatoes," wherein we discuss the unseen global machinery of language translation. Hey Mikey.

MIKE: Hey Bobby. How ya doin'?

BOB: Splendid, thank you. You?

MIKE: I'm great.

BOB: Whatcha got?

MIKE: I wanna mention something about Bedfellows that's sort of related to today's topic.

BOB: Bedfellows. When you say Bedfellows you're referring to?

MIKE: [laughing] For those of you who don't know, Bob Garfield—co-host of the public radio show On the Media and of this podcast—wrote a comedic crime novel called Bedfellows that was published just a couple of weeks ago.

BOB: Oh, of course. Now I remember.

MIKE: Yeah, I thought you would. It's about a crime family in Brooklyn that has, like many families in this recent global recession, has fallen on hard times. And they've remade themselves as a kinder, gentler, less violent mob crew. How'm I doin' so far?

BOB: I can't get enough of this. Do go on. Or as the president said the other day to Mitt Romney: Governor, proceed.

MIKE: Okay, so as part of this makeover this particular mob crew adopted a tagline of sorts, which actually made me laugh out loud when I read it Bob: Our thing is to care. [laughing]

BOB: Yeah, Cosa Nostra.

MIKE: Yeah, "our thing" is the little translation of La Cosa Nostra, which is the unofficial name of the Italian mafia taken as a whole. So "our thing is to care" is a clever play on those words—Cosa Nostra—and their English translation. Even more interesting I think is the idiomatic nature of saying, you know, "well, my thing is" or "our thing is." That's an English idiom, maybe even an American English idiom. I'm not sure. And it means "what's important to me is X."

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: So I wonder if you were to translate "our thing is to care" into Italian, say, would you lose that idiomatic flourish. I don't know, I studied Italian for a year so I don't know it well enough to figure that out.

BOB: It's an interesting question and, as you say, it does foreshadow today's discussion. But can I just tell you one other thing that came up this week since we talked about Bedfellows last week.

MIKE: Yeah?

BOB: The last episode was about malapropisms.

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: And I was talking to one of my agents who was reading Bedfellows and she was trying to tell me that my writing is very expository, whatever she might have meant by that, but she didn't say my writing was expository. She said my writing is suppository.

MIKE: [laughing] That's a very different thing. I didn't have that reaction when I read Bedfellows.

BOB: No.

MIKE: So, if ever there was a topic that we've discussed on this show that could spawn its own podcast with endless interesting episodes, it's translating and interpreting. And I think you probably know this as well as anybody Bob because your wife, Milena, has I believe, at times, been a professional translator. Is that right?

BOB: Yeah, a literary translator. You know, she doesn't sit in the U.N. with a headset on but she has translated Spanish to Serbian and I think vice versa.

MIKE: Found in Translation is a book that was published earlier this month. It's a collection of dozens and dozens of stories and anecdotes about the role, the often unseen role as we alluded to before, that translation plays in the world and in our lives and in commerce and in the arts. And this is everything from the divine to the ridiculous. The authors—Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche, who are both professional translators and interpreters—talk about, for example, how Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into contemporary 16th-century German had a really profound effect not just on worldwide Christianity, which is well known, but on the German language itself. Then, you know, a chapter later they talk about a woman who translates English-language couture reviews into Italian for various fashion houses like Prada so that they can read for themselves what the critics think.

BOB: You slipped it in real quick but props to you for "divine to ridiculous." That was a nice turn of phrase. Well done.

MIKE: Oh, thanks Bob. You know these stories are each on their own an interesting insight into this global machinery, but taken as a whole I think the book reads as a kind of argument for - a kind of advocacy of—access to translation services in society and we'll ask Nataly Kelly about that, who we're gonna talk to in a few minutes. Just a few words about Kelly. Her particular area of expertise is translating between English and Spanish. And she has done a number of different kinds of translating. She has translated Spanish-language poetry into English, but she also worked as a telephone interpreter mediating conversations between first responders and 911 callers who spoke only Spanish. She also, it turns out, mediated conversation between American men and South American women who had found each other through a dating service. And these conversations, as she talks about in the book, would sometimes get sexually and romantically explicit. But of course she had to faithfully translate. That was her job.

BOB: Yikes.

MIKE: [laughing] So we spoke with Kelly and the first thing that we talked about was an anecdote from the book that I thought was really fascinating and one that I hadn't known about. This was the story about Peter Less.

BOB: Yeah this is, uh, to gasp.

MIKE: Just a little bit of background. Peter Less was from Germany and in 1938, as things there were getting ominously worse for Jews, he left on his own at the age of 17 and went to Switzerland. As he would later tell the story, the rest of his family stayed behind because they believed that things would soon get better. Now, after a few years in Switzerland, Less was able to speak—in addition to German, his native language - also French and English. So he enrolled in this special program at the University of Geneva that was pioneering techniques in what is called simultaneous interpreting. This is something we now see at places like the United Nations, but at the time it was really just in its infancy. Training people to, while listening in one language, to at the same time speak the interpretation in a second language. As Nataly Kelly told us, while Peter Less was just about to graduate from this program World War II ended ...

NATALY KELLY: Unfortunately his family was in Auschwitz and they were killed in the concentration camps. His mother, father, grandmother and his only sister, so all of his family was killed. Later on, after he graduated from this course at the University of Geneva, he was hired to go and interpret at Nuremberg, where they tried the Nazi war criminals. So he ended up interpreting for the people who were responsible for the deaths of his family members.

BOB: Oh my God. So he is ... when you translate, in some way you have to put yourself in the head of the person you're translating for. And these people murdered his family. It's hard for me to grasp the position that he was in.

KELLY: It's hard for any of us, even professional interpreters, to grasp the position that he was in because neutrality and independence are a very important part of interpreting. How he was able to maintain impartiality is beyond me. You know, many interpreters were in similar situations because most of the interpreters who were at Nuremberg had family members who were killed in the Holocaust. But many of them broke down and weren't able to do the job. Some of them had to leave because it was so difficult for them to interpret all of the testimony that they were hearing. Peter was able to do it and not many people can rise to the occasion.

BOB: Is it overstating the case to say that he had to become one with them in order to be a fair broker of their testimony?

KELLY: Well, he actually says that himself. You know, he says you have to get inside their mind, you have to be their voice, you have to convey everything that they are conveying. What's very challenging is even if you feel like you're interpreting for a monster you have to make sure that if they sound intelligent you make them sound intelligent. He talked about the fact that these were very intelligent people and it would be a mistake to make them sound like they weren't.

BOB: What a nightmare.

MIKE: Nataly, you mentioned that these simultaneous interpreting techniques are still largely in use today and when most people think of simultaneous interpreting they think of the United Nations. But I think perhaps an even more ambitious undertaking of this sort, which you talk about in the book, is that of the European Parliament.

KELLY: Well, there are 23 languages that are official European Parliament languages. 23 languages doesn't really sound like that much but when you consider all of the different combinations that you're dealing with—so you've got things like Greek into Estonian and Danish into Maltese—you end with 506 different language combinations. And that's just for the 23 official languages spoken by the 736 members of the European Parliament. If we add in other non-official languages like Arabic and Chinese and Russian, we end up with even more combinations. So, the way that the European Parliament does this is that they have 22 different linguistic units with 344 staff interpreters, so full-time interpreters, and they 150 support staff. They in 2010 delivered 109,667 interpretation days.

BOB: Holy moly, at what cost?

KELLY: Well, we interviewed Olga Cosmidou, who is the head of this division, and she says it's about the cost of a cup of coffee, because it costs 2.3 Euros per citizen per year. So it's really not that expensive when you put it in those terms.

BOB: Yeah, but what if you put it in the terms of the total budget in Euros? Is it hard for institutions to justify the highly labor intensive cost of translations?

KELLY: You know, the other option would be to force members of the European Parliament to speak a common language, such as English or French, but that would really limit people's ability to participate in the political process. And then, you would have to assume that all of those conversations and all of those political debates would only be in English or French, or whatever other language, and then none of the citizens would be able to understand them.

MIKE: And I imagine that within the European Union there were many countries who were reluctant to give up their national currency, let alone their language, and when language is so tied to identity and often national identity it's hard to imagine that a common language would get popular support.

KELLY: Right, it's just impossible. That would never work.

BOB: Huh. Esperanto, just sayin'. Put you outta business Nataly.

KELLY: [laughing] Well you know it's funny because I went and I spoke before the European Union about the translation industry and I said a few words in Irish Gaelic at the start because it's a language that I speak a little bit. My husband speak Irish. And when they found out that I was going to speak in Irish because I had some words on my slides in Irish, the head of the interpretation unit came up to me and said, Ms. Kelly we're so sorry, we didn't arrange for an Irish interpreter today. I said, oh, well I wasn't expecting you to get an interpreter for me, I was just gonna read a few words in Irish and then I was gonna give the interpretation myself. It amazed me that they were going to go out of their way to get an Irish interpreter for me.

MIKE: That would up the cost probably from two-and-a-half Euros per citizen per year to, what, you know five.

BOB: We're talkin' mochaccino.

KELLY: [laughing]

BOB: Where does the European Union find the Maltese-Estonian translators?

KELLY: [laughing] Well, that's a great question. They're actually having difficulty finding interpreters who speak all of these different languages and these combinations. What they do when they don't have interpreters who speak those combinations, like Maltese-Estonian, is they have somebody interpret from Maltese into English or Maltese into French and then another person interprets from French into Estonian or English into Estonian.

MIKE: And there's another sort of large-scale, ongoing translation effort that you talk about in the book that operates in a much more sort of behind-the-scenes kind of way than, presumably, in the European Parliament. This is one that has the potential to actually save lives. I'm talking about the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or as it's more often called GPHIN.

KELLY: So, basically what this system does is it scans news sources in eight different languages plus English and, translating these articles automatically using what's called machine translation or automatic translation. Once all this information is translated humans can actually review the information and spot trends. So they're looking for symptoms and looking for things like terms that indicate that there is an epidemic or that there is a possible outbreak. This system actually discovered swine flu and the SARS epidemic and those alerts launched the response process that decreased the severity of the outbreaks.

MIKE: From what I understand, this system scans about 4,000 or 5,000 articles every day and looks for these key words. And if some critical mass of key words is detected then it will flag that article and a human will then look at it and the article, if it's in English, gets translated into the eight other languages and if it's in one of those other languages it gets translated into English.

BOB: And this is done by machine?

KELLY: Well, humans are involved. So humans are actually training the machine and fine-tuning the machine. So what they're doing is, if they come across a term that has multiple meanings, they have to add code to that algorithm to make sure the next time it comes across that term it knows to flag it or it knows to maybe translate it a different way.

So one example that we mention is a Chinese term for AIDS called aizi bing. And the first part, aizi, is actually a transliteration for "AIDS." The second part is a classifier for "disease." There are many other terms that the locals use that are pronounced the same way but they mean something slightly different. So one of these terms that is pronounced aizi bing but it's written differently in Chinese characters means "the disease caused by love." And there's one that means "the disease of loving capitalism" and there's one that means "the disease of loving oneself." The system has to pick up not just the official term, with those official Chinese characters, but also the slang terms and it has to be able to translate them properly as well. That can only happen if there are humans constantly reviewing the output and looking at the local terminology and how it's evolving, because terms are evolving all the time, and making sure that the system can recognize them.

MIKE: And yet, you can still imagine this algorithm getting tripped up. You give one example in the book about an article in the Tampa Tribune in 2003 titled "Yellow Fever." There's a sentence in the article that says, "An epidemic of penalties has thwarted many drives, resulting in a three-game losing streak and essentially leaving the Bucs' season on life support." There's of course a bunch of terms in there that would alert the algorithm but it was an article about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the football team.

KELLY: Exactly, so it has to know, when it comes across some of these terms that are not really indicating a disease, it has to know to ignore them.


BOB: Nataly, as technology gives us things like Google Translate, we get the notion that in a few years human intervention will be more or less unnecessary, that algorithms will be able to do what you do now. But there's so much nuance, there's so much subtext, there's so much tone of voice and body language behind a spoken sentence. Will the digital world ever get us to where we are with human translators?

KELLY: I think it's highly doubtful. You know I've interviewed some pretty important futurists and technologists and the people behind Google Translate, as well as Ray Kurzweil, who, as you probably know, is interested in this topic.

BOB: Singularly interested.

KELLY: [laughing] So, everybody that we've interviewed agrees that machine translation will have an important role in the future but humans will always be needed, even if it's just to tweak the algorithms and to make sure that that algorithms are current, because machines will always be a little bit behind the curve. You know, my husband the other day sent an email to some friends of his about my book and he said "apologies for the spousal spam." And of course as a translator and an interpreter I'm thinking "spousal spam," how would I say that in another language. You know I asked him is that a common term? Have other people used that? He said, oh no I just came up with that. And so humans are always creating new terms and a machine will look at that and "spam" is already a hard word to translate into many languages. But "spousal spam," you know I can only imagine what a machine translation tool would do with that [laughing]. Humans can kind of figure it out better because we have context. We have cultural knowledge. In this case I had relationship knowledge. It's very unlikely that machines will be able to get all the context and the nuance anytime soon. Humans still have an important role there.

BOB: That was a very good example but I wonder if you have one where the stakes were a little bit higher than the hubby promoting your book, where nuance made a huge difference and the failure to detect it created problems.

KELLY: I have plenty of examples of that. One that we often see in the news is we see signs in Farsi that protesters are holding that say "Death to America." We're told that that's what they say. The reality is that that particular phrase is often mistranslated as "Death to America." Now we have lots of phrases like this in English that don't mean death but have the word "death," like "he came in dead last" or "you're killing me."

BOB: "I just love her to death."

KELLY: Oh, exactly! "I love her to death." That could be a phrase that could get you into a lot of trouble when it's translated incorrectly. So these kinds of phrases are often a challenge for machine translation and even for human translators because sometimes they're translated literally or directly without taking into account context. So the phrase "Death to America" actually means something more like "Down With America." There is an example that we mention in the book where Ahmadinejad was handing out potatoes to protestors because they were complaining and protesting about prices going up. And so he was handing out potatoes to the crowd to appease them and they started to shout "Death to Potatoes," which basically means "Down With Potatoes." Of course they didn't want to kill the potatoes but were complaining that this was not a good enough way to appease them.

BOB: So there's no intrinsic Persian hatred of tubers, you're saying.

KELLY: [laughing] Exactly Bob.

MIKE: And this gets at the point that you make continually throughout the book, the consequences sometimes of getting translation wrong. There's one example that I really love because it's, you know, as if Jews didn't have enough stereotypes to contend with there's this anti-Semitic  notion that Jews have horns, which is very likely the result of a mistranslation.

KELLY: Exactly. This particular word - it's a Hebrew word for "radiance" and sometimes I've seen it translated as "halo," karan - and this particular word, St. Jerome, the man who translated this, actually translated it as "horned." As a result, this led to many, many artistic depictions of Moses with horns, including a famous statue by Michelangelo in a relief that's in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives. So this anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews with horns is really due to Jerome's mistranslation.

BOB: You mean but for the translation, today people might be saying, "Those fucking Jews, they're so radiant!"?

KELLY: [laughing] Well, you know, maybe they would have a picture of Jews with halos instead of horns.

MIKE: You suggest and maybe you even say it explicitly, I don't remember, that we should view access to translation and interpreting services as a kind of right. You may even use the phrase "human right." I think that I agree with you but I'm not sure that I could personally articulate the case. What is the case for that?

KELLY: Well, the reality is that when people can't communicate they're not able to access basic services. They're not able to get healthcare in many cases. They're not able to have access to justice. You know, they're not able to participate fully in society. I'm not just talking about immigrants who might come to the United States. I'm talking about everyone. Let's say we have a tourist from Japan visiting New York and he gets into a accident or he witnesses a crime. How is he going to be able to provide testimony in a court if there are not interpreters available or how's he going to get medical care? The reality is it affects all of us.

MIKE: And in fact there's an example of medical care gone wrong in the book with a guy named Willie Ramirez.

KELLY: Yes, this story is actually a pretty well-known story in the translation world. The word intoxicado, which is a Spanish word, was mistranslated by a bilingual nurse. Now this was a gentleman who spoke Spanish and English, the nurse who interpreted this word, but the problem is that even people who are perfectly fluent in two languages often don't have interpreting skills. And it's very easy to make a mistake, especially when two words look alike, if you're not a trained, professional interpreter. So this nurse interpreted the word intoxicado as intoxicated, but it doesn't mean intoxicated.

MIKE: It means poisoned.

KELLY: Yes, sort of. I mean it's hard to just translate that one word with no context because the word intoxicacion means some type of poisoning. So intoxicacion solar is "sun poisoning," intoxicacion por alimentos, "food poisoning." But you can't just say someone is poisoned in English. It doesn't really make sense. You wouldn't say that. But you would say, he has food poisoning. So the interpreter ideally would have clarified in this particular case but the interpreter didn't and just said intoxicated. As a result, he was given the wrong course of treatment and this led to him becoming quadriplegic. It also led to a $71 million settlement.

MIKE: So, do you think then that the "English only" or "English first" movements that have existed in this country for 200 plus years, that they are fundamentally misguided?

KELLY: Well, the fact is that we have a federal law that basically ensures that people can have language access. So what that means is any government agency, any government body, has to provide information in a language that people can understand.

MIKE: You're referring to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

KELLY: Exactly, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act guarantees that information will be provided to people in languages that they can understand. So this English only, English first movement is really not in keeping with reality. You know, there's a federal law that basically protects those rights of individuals who do not speak English fluently. Now, if we want to be able to compete and have a workforce that can compete with workforces in other countries where they grow up learning several languages in school, we can't just pretend that we live in a bubble and that English is the only important language in the world. We are reducing our linguistic resources and that leads to major problems like we experienced after 9/11 and before 9/11 with critical languages that we don't have enough students who have learned them. We don't have enough even people who learned them growing up that have retained them because our language policy is so shoddy.

BOB: Nataly, we were talking about higher stakes of translation errors. I wanna play you a little move clip here.

CLIP from "Fail-Safe":

THE PRESIDENT: Buck, I'm going to talk to the Soviet premier now. You'll translate what he says to me. He'll have his own translator telling him what I say, but I want something more from you.


BUCK: Yes, sir, whatever I can do.


THE PRESIDENT: I think the premier will be saying what he means. He usually does, but sometimes there's, there's more in a man's voice than in his words. And there are words in one language that don't carry the same weight in another. You follow me?


BUCK: I think so, sir.


THE PRESIDENT: It's very important the premier and I understand each other. I don't have to tell you how important. So I want to know not only what he's saying but what you think he's feeling. Any inflection of his voice, any tone, any emotion that adds to his words, I want you to let me know.

BOB: Now that was fiction but is there any anecdote that is common in translation circles which is meant to express the ultimate example of why translation really, really matters?

KELLY: In fact, there is an anecdote about a Soviet premier [laughing]. Most of us know the phrase that Nikita Khrushchev uttered - "We will bury you" - when he was discussing the advantages of communism over capitalism.

BOB: Yeah, and it was deemed very threatening by more or less the entire West.

KELLY: Well that's what people thought, but what he was actually saying was something that means more like: we'll be here even when you're dead and gone or we will outlast you. In other words, "we will be here when you're buried." So, it wasn't a threat to say we will kill you. It was actually more of a comment that communism would outlast capitalism in his view. That was what he was trying to say, but Americans of course thought that this meant that we were going to be buried with a nuclear attack.

BOB: You mean all those air raid drills that I went through when I was in first grade were based on Nikita Khrushchev boasting about the superiority of his economic system?

KELLY: [laughing] You could look at it that way. There were other reasons to believe that there was a credible threat but that particular phrase really put fear into the hearts of many Americans and that was due to a mistranslation.

MIKE: Nataly, this has been great. Thank you so much.

KELLY: Oh thank you. My pleasure.

BOB: Thank you Nataly.

KELLY: Thank you both.

BOB: Can I leave you with one thought?

KELLY: Sure.

BOB: Death to potatoes.

KELLY: [laughing] That's one of my favorites.

MIKE: Nataly Kelly is coauthor with Jost Zetzsche of Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. As always, if you would like to send us a comment please do so at slatelexiconvalley@gmail.

Mike Vuolo is senior producer of podcasts and editor of @lexiconvalley.