Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lost in Translation

A crazy thought came to mind one morning, as I flipped through the 8 channels of simultaneous translation that were being streamed to us individually via funny ear-shaped headsets. Before I share my thought with you, I must say that the accessibility of these languages is an ideal time for me to test my Spanish, maintain my French, acquire technical words in Arabic, and- when I need a break from the discussions- to start developing a taste for the sounds of Chinese, Russian, German and Japanese.

It so happened that at that meeting, a Korean government representative was speaking in Korean about gender equality in his country. And it occurred to me then and there that there are actually more than 8 languages spoken at the UN. I found my eyes growing wide as I remembered that half the time the delegates weren't speaking in English, such that, even if they were speaking in one of the 8 languages, these languages are then translated into each of the other languages. This isn't just a simple translation from English into 7 other languages.... And the questions came popping out so fast I couldn't control them: How does this translation business actually work?? Are there translators on standby who translate between Korean and Russian and between Korean and Arabic and between Korean and French, and then between Russian and German and between German and Spanish, and between Spanish and Chinese, and between Chinese and Arabic? There are about a billion UN meetings occurring at the same time and each meeting needs translations back and forth between all these languages. HOW MANY TRANSLATORS ARE THERE!? Is it possible that these translator speak 8 languages with enough fluency to translate between them all? And this doesn't answer my question about languages like Korean and Swahili that are not the of the mighty 8!!!

Or do the translators translate from other translations? Such that the translator speaking English on Channel 1 is translating from Korean, and then Mohammad speaking Arabic on Channel 7 who also happens to speak English but not Korean translates from his English friend on Channel 1?? etc etc??

Other delegates have different ways to pass the time, in case you're wondering. In front of me a delegate's head has just jerked back, waking him up from his short slumber. Snoring is not a rarity at these meetings by the way, due to a combination of painfully redundant protocol and exhaustingly lengthy days that roll into nights, culminating over a period of 3 weeks into sheer exhaustion and aching feet.

But you know what my favorite part is? When someone cracks a joke and 30 seconds later, the delegates laugh. I can only imagine the speaker's relief in knowing that his joke wasn't lost in translation, but simply delayed.

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IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.