Translation in Society

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to three very different groups in the Washington, D.C. area about the importance of translation in society. The message I delivered was the same, but as with every talk, the messages I receive back from participants always seem of equal if not superior value.

For the first event, I was an invited guest speaker at the Embassy of France, at an event organized by the Harvard Business School club of D.C., sponsored by Moët (yes, the champagne people). The tickets sold out, and it was a full house. The audience included a mixture of people, but very few were from the translation industry. Most were businesspeople and other professionals. I also asked for a show of hands from translators and interpreters in the audience, after which the audience was directed to give that handful of individuals a well-deserved round of applause.

What struck me about this event was the fact that so many people were interested in translation, even though they don’t work in this field. There were physicians, attorneys, CEOs, and many others in the Embassy that night. A surprising number of people came up to me afterward to say things like, “I never really thought about translation this way before.” That’s exactly the impact I hope for when speaking to an audience of people who are involved in business and other professions. The message I received? People are willing to respect translation, but we need to first open their eyes to how expansive and important translation in society really is.

At a talk the following day, I spoke to a group of students at Towson University. Most of the students were from foreign language programs, although some came from other disciplines, such as history. In contrast to the business and professional folks I had spoken with the night before, most of these students had questions related to the job itself. They wanted to know things like, “What type of interpreting do you enjoy most?” and “How much do translators charge?” They also wondered why, if this industry is so large, there are still so many mistranslations. And, they asked many questions about translation technology, which I was delighted to answer, in order to show them the days of quill pens and scrolls are long gone.

It was a bright group of students, and I’d venture to guess that some of them will be considering translation and interpreting as a profession as a result of the discussion. From them, the message I received was that they, like all young people, want to enter a profession that is tech-savvy and diverse enough to allow them to pursue their varied interests, but they also want work that is meaningful and fulfilling. The professions of translation and interpreting most certainly offer them that.

But the third group I addressed was by far the most memorable. I was invited to speak at Gallaudet University, a place I had dreamed of visiting for many years. Gallaudet was chartered by President Abraham Lincoln nearly 150 years ago, in 1864. It’s the only higher education institution in the world designed specifically for deaf and hard of hearing students. Very few of the students are hearing, although some do participate in specific programs, especially the degree programs in American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting.

What this means in actual practice is that, as a hearing person, when you first arrive on campus, you immediately notice how quiet it is. When classes get out and students flood the hallways, instead of the typical noise of loud voices all talking on top of each other in an auditory muddle, you see hands flying, people looking into each other’s eyes, and communicating animatedly in a visual flurry while they walk. I was amazed. Everywhere I went, ASL was used – English was scarcely heard. Even the waitress at the campus bistro took my lunch order in ASL. I communicated through interpreters whenever interacting with staff or students. I felt that I had entered another universe, one in which I, as a hearing person, was in the minority. I was grateful for that experience, because I could more acutely see that on the outside, the reverse is true – and that the people on that campus are regularly excluded from mainstream society, largely due to communication barriers.

When it came time for me to give my talk, I was asked if a recording would be allowed, and I gave permission. However, it was clear that I was an outsider when I naively asked my host if I was standing close enough to the microphone, assuming that there was one in the room. While my question was reasonable in most other circumstances, obviously, given the audience, the audio would not be necessary for the recording. I had two professional ASL interpreters who took turns interpreting my talk, including the Q&A session that followed. And, even though I felt like an outsider, in the introduction, I was welcomed by my host with the words, “She is part of our family.” Interestingly, this was not because of my interpreting background, but because my brother works at a school for the Deaf and is fluent in ASL.

The message I took away from Gallaudet? While we might all work in the same field of language access, our distinct professional communities can be very separate at times. We come from different places when we think, write, speak, and sign about language issues. It was a wake-up call to experience this firsthand.

And speaking of hands, the more we have on deck out there to spread the message of why translation matters, the less likely we are to miss out on chances to join – or create – a broader conversation about how our industry connects the world. In my short two-day trip, I shared a message about translation and its importance with three very diverse groups of people. But perhaps more importantly, I received distinct viewpoints back about why this industry matters, hearing lots of voices – and seeing many hands that I won’t soon forget.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).