Each year on Sept. 30, a holiday is observed by people all around the world that has been celebrated since 1953. It’s a feast day that was originally designated for a patron saint (Saint Jerome), but it has grown to transcend all barriers of religion or geography. This year, I am personally sending out greetings to thousands of people in 70 different countries in observance of this important day — that’s far more than I send out for any other holiday.
Yet, if you’re like the majority of people, you’ve probably never heard of this cause for global celebration until now. It’s International Translation Day. You might not think about how translation affects your everyday life, but in reality, there is hardly anything in your life that isn’t touched in some way by translation. As I explain in my new book, Found in Translation (co-authored with Jost Zetzsche), here are 10 reasons why translation is so significant:
1. Translation saves lives. Did you know that right this very minute, a massive translation project is scanning the international news to catch words that help identify and contain global health outbreaks, protecting the lives of you and your loved ones? And, countless medical interpreters work in health care facilities, whether it’s a wealthy patient visiting from overseas and paying for treatment at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, or a refugee who is being treated after surviving violence and other horrors.
2. Translation prevents terror. Intelligence gathering is critical for terror prevention, but no matter how helpful the information obtained, it is useless if no one can understand it and analyze its potential impact. Just consider the fact that the words “Tomorrow is zero hour” were intercepted in Arabic on Sept. 10, 2011, but were not translated until Sept. 12, the day after the 9/11 attacks. As you read this message, foreign media analysts are scanning all kinds of information from Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other important hotbeds of potential conflict. They translate that information in order to help prevent terrorist attacks from actually being carried out.
3. Translation keeps the peace. International diplomacy would simply not be possible without translation. The interpreters and translators at the United Nations and the Department of State do far more than just convert speeches and official documents. Translators are often involved in helping draft the exact wording to be used in peace treaties so that it will be agreeable to both sides. Interpreters are involved in conversations and communications between world leaders, and have the power to nurture relationships, providing insight and guidance to prime ministers and presidents, preventing them from making cultural faux pas and helping them to make the best possible impression for themselves and the nations they represent.
4. Translation elects world leaders. In many countries — such as the United States, where one out of every five people speaks a language other than English at home — translation plays a significant role in politics. It’s no accident that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have translated versions of their websites in Spanish, and routinely rely on interpreters to communicate with voters who speak other languages. The U.S. government also requires precincts with large percentages of non-English speakers to provide ballots in other languages. These language specialists have the important task of safeguarding democracy by helping people vote correctly, even in situations where a term like “hanging chad” can barely be understood in English.
5. Translation creates jobs. The translation market is worth $33 billion in 2012, as a recent report from Common Sense Advisory shows. There are more than 26,000 companies throughout the world that sell translation and interpreting services. Most of these are small businesses, a vital contributor to any healthy economy. Not only do these companies employ translators, but people who work in finance, sales, technology, marketing, project management, and even engineering.
6. Translation fuels the economy. Global businesses cannot sell their products and services without translation. Pick any Fortune 500 company, visit their website, and chances are it’s multilingual. If not, those companies are likely to employ workers who speak other languages, even if they only cater to domestic markets. Without translation, these companies would be unable to meet the expectations of customers — and shareholders.
7. Translation entertains us. Whether you’re a fan of soccer, baseball, hockey, or some other sport, just look at your home team, and chances are you’ll find an interpreter or translator on the field or the court. Sports are becoming more international than ever before, and geography is no barrier to recruiting the best possible athletic talent, but language is. That’s why professional athletes rely on interpreters when moving from country to country. But other important sources of entertainment, like movies and books, also require translation. How successful would The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have been if everyone were forced to read it in Swedish?
8. Translation tests our faith. Many people read a translation every night before they go to bed, in the form of a sacred text. While some holy books are read in their original language, most followers of religions are not able to access those sources of spiritual information without translation. Indeed, translation is often the source of controversy in religion, whether it’s a discussion of whether the Quran should be translated or left in its original Arabic, or whether a new translation indicates that Jesus was married.
9. Translation feeds the world. The people who work in the fields where food is grown often speak different languages from the people who buy the produce picked by their hands. The same is true of meat processing plants. And, major food and beverage companies like McDonald’s, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks sell their products globally, but only thanks to translation. All of these businesses rely on translation to communicate with workers who speak other languages, which means that human resource manuals, training software — and sometimes, worker’s compensation cases — must be translated to put the food on the table.
10. Translation makes us fall in love. Yes, people fall in love thanks to translation. Whether it’s thanks to a translated love poem by Pablo Neruda or a translated Hallmark greeting card, translation can help ignite a spark between two people. Having worked as an interpreter for countless “cupid calls,” in which two people in love defy the odds by engaging in sweet talk across languages, I can attest that love knows no barriers — as long as there is translation to hold people together.
And speaking of love, this word seems to be an appropriate way to describe the translation profession. When we polled translators and interpreters for our book, we saw that they love their jobs — 96.4 percent of respondents reported that they were satisfied with their work.
So, to do your part for International Translation Day, take a moment to consider this profession that is often overlooked, but critical to society as we know it. And perhaps even say thank you to a translator or an interpreter. They’re out there, each day, touching your life in ways that are unseen, but that truly make the world go ’round.