The Rumpus Interview with Nataly Kelly


For a country of immigrants, we seem to have a pretty monotone way of looking at language. Our cities and public schools are brimming with multilingualism, but for some reason, our society has a flagrant attitude towards accepting any of it.

This was the main concern I had when I spoke with Nataly Kelly, the recent co-author, with Jost Zetzsche, of Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. The book celebrates the unsung role of translators. It is flooded with examples of instances of where we overlook the hidden-yet-blatant presence of translation, from television shows to emergency hotlines. For most translators, translation isn’t merely a profession—it’s a full-blown passion. Translators are married, emotionally indebted to their second languages.

Kelly is one of these translators. She is the Chief Research Officer at Common Sense Advisory, an independent language research firm in Boston. She is also a Fullbright recipient, former court interpreter, and translator for María Clara Sharupi Jua, an indigenous poet from the Ecuadorian rainforest who writes in her native Shuar. We talked about Kelly’s journey from growing up in an only-English-speaking household in Illinois, to becoming a bona fide Spanish interpreter. We also discussed the difficulties of translating across cultures, the emotional barriers that interpreters face, and what it really means to be fluent.


The Rumpus: What made you want to be a translator, and what was your path to becoming one?

Nataly Kelly: Well, I grew up in a very small, rural town in Illinois. We had very limited diversity. Not many languages were spoken in that little town—it’s about one square mile—and most of the people who live in the community are living in the countryside. They don’t live in the town—if you want to call it a town. So, I guess it’s one of these things if you’re not exposed to something and then when you’re exposed to it…it really makes you hungry, one of those.

I had a lot of pen pals when I was growing up, in different countries, and I was starting to see that they spoke multiple languages and were writing to me in English. They were in places like Malaysia and Costa Rica and Switzerland, and they all spoke English, and I was thinking, Well, I don’t speak their languages. So, when I started high school, Spanish was available, and I began taking Spanish. And I started to go insane with Spanish, I just became obsessed. I started to read every book I could find in Spanish and listen to music in Spanish. It was kind of hard to find those things. I would have to drive to a city, and even in major cities nearby, there weren’t a lot of Spanish materials. I started to volunteer at this migrant workers council nearby in Peoria, Illinois, and then I started to meet people who spoke Spanish, and some exchange students who spoke Spanish, and then I was speaking Spanish all the time. When I went to college, I was already pretty fluent in Spanish, and they told me, “You should go and study abroad because we don’t really have any courses for you here—your levels are at a senior level, so you should go and study abroad.” So, I did. I went to study in Ecuador, and I took most of my Gen Eds at an Ecuadorian university, and I transferred them back to a university in the States. I won a Fulbright to go back to Ecuador, and I did sociolinguistic research. I fell in love with Ecuador.

Rumpus: You mention fluency. It is such a tricky term to define. Many people believe that once you’ve got the grammar down, then you’re “fluent.” I, for one, do not believe this to be the case. In Found in Translation, you talk about the journalist, Rob Gifford, who is a foreign correspondent for China and has been working in China for more than twenty years. Yet you say that he still “relies on professional translation and interpretation when it comes to specialized topics—like economics.”  In your experience, what are the qualifications to be determined fluent?

Kelly: Rob is fluent in Chinese. To me, fluency means you can express and say whatever you want to say, you know. But there are different degrees of proficiency in a language. And there is actually a scale of proficiency. Somebody who might be a native speaker might take the proficiency exam and they might not get the highest possible score, maybe because they don’t have high levels of education. It’s not really based on grammar, but it’s their ability to use the language—can they discuss politics? Can they discuss high level concepts? Can they talk about things in more than just a simple way? So there are actually guidelines that can measure proficiency. But fluency is an ambiguous term for sure.

As for being a translator or interpreter, many people are fluent in multiple languages—some people even speak two different languages natively—but they might not be able to pass a translator or interpreter exam because you have to have depth of knowledge. In the case of Rob Gifford, he might have been able to interview and does interview other people, but in certain domain areas in politics and economics, he doesn’t have all the cultural knowledge and the context and depth of terminology he might need to understand someone. So that’s the real difference. Even though I was fluent in Spanish, I wouldn’t have been able to pass an interpreting exam at that point because I didn’t have enough specialized terminology, and at that point I didn’t have any practice at interpreting skills, so I wouldn’t have been able to pass it for that reason either.

Rumpus: What are the specific skills to becoming an interpreter that you had to really study for? Or was it something you just built upon over years of experience?

Kelly: Well, to get my first job, which was as an interpreter with AT&T, I had to take a test. Pretty much every interpreting test is testing for a few things, and one is completeness and accuracy. So, is the interpreter retaining all the information and is it coming across accurately? They’re looking to make sure that you remember everything that was said, which is a real skill that interpreters have to practice. Memory length—that’s something you can grow with time. At the height of my interpreting career, I could repeat back a sixteen-digit credit card number without writing it down. I could remember it temporarily in order to say it in the other language, but if you asked me a minute later I would have forgotten it.

You need your long-term memory as well, because you have to have note-taking skills for consecutive interpreting when you’re listing to a long segment, and then you have to repeat it back exactly as someone said it. I knew my memory had improved a lot beyond what was normal when I was out with friends at a restaurant, and the waitress came up and listed all the specials in great detail, and listing all the details about how each thing was prepared. She left and someone said, “Oh, can anybody remember what the soup special was?” and I repeated it back exactly as she had said it: “It’s a crème du tomate with a dash of sour cream, and it’s fresh roasted tomatoes in a gorgonzola, blah, blah.” I remembered all the detail, and I said it exactly word for word without even thinking. Everybody looked at me like, You are a freak, but that’s when I knew, Oh, that’s my interpreting instincts kicking in. I do this every day for my job, and you don’t ever do it in the same language, but I had just repeated it back because I still had it in my short-term memory.

Rumpus: Do you still feel like you have that skill? Or do you have to keep it up in order to retain it?

Kelly: You definitely have to keep it up. I mean, I haven’t interpreted now for several years, aside from volunteering. If I wanted to interpret professionally again I would definitely have to work on it, I’m sure. I took a court interpreting exam when I was at the height of my career. I’m not sure I could pass it again if I just walked in tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t because I’d have to restudy all of the legal terminology. I’m sure a lot of it would come back to me pretty quickly but I’d definitely have to study again.

Rumpus: So you really can’t apply the metaphor “it’s just like riding a bike.”

Kelly: No, no. You can, to a degree. I’d probably not fall off the bike, but I wouldn’t be a professional bike racer. I’d probably not win the Tour de France.

Rumpus: Do you still feel like you’re emotionally indebted to Spanish? In your book, you talk about how people are emotionally attached to languages they have learned and/or grew up speaking and how that kind of hinders their translation abilities. Did you feel that when you were translating in Spanish?

Kelly: Well, I think when you become really bilingual you have to like using language for different things. I still speak Spanish quite a bit with friends, and I read in Spanish, I listen to radio and watch TV in Spanish. There are just certain things, you know, people who speak both languages speak in Spanglish a lot. Mixing, mixing terms and mixing with some of my friends. I really do mix a lot. There are just certain things that sound better to say in Spanish than they do in English, because there are just some things that don’t translate that easily, and it’s just faster to say it in one language versus another. But yeah, I love Spanish and I’ll always speak Spanish, and just speaking it is not the same as interpreting it, of course. If I wanted to be a court interpreter again, I would have to prepare for a few months to get myself back up to speed.

Rumpus: You mention that a big reason why native bilingual speakers have trouble becoming professional translators is because they have not mastered legalese—can you elaborate on legalese, and how someone can become fluent in it?

Kelly: Yes, so there are all kinds of study guides for interpreters who want to take the court interpreting test, and dictionaries. A lot of it is just simply studying the dictionaries, studying the glossaries, and just studying the legal system and terminology and how to say it. There are also lots of passages that judges will use, and common phrases, especially when they’re sentencing. So, becoming familiar with all of those is pretty critical. That said, you never know what can come up in court. People can commit all very different strange crimes. You never know what kind of things they’ll steal. They might have stolen a bag out of someone’s car that contained all kind of things that you might not know how to say, and it might be something new, like a new product that didn’t exist before—it could be a Scrunchie, it could be something like that. Little things like that—you’d just have to know all of that terminology in order to interpret it. You can never be over-prepared to be an interpreter.

One example of a legal term is “arraignment.” A lot of people don’t know what that means in English, let alone in two languages, or how to say it even if they’re fully fluent in both languages and bilingual. So “arraignment” in Spanish, you actually say “lectura de cargos,” which means “the reading of the charge.” So in Spanish, it actually makes way more sense than in English. I feel like, wow, if only we just said that instead it would be much easier in English. Maybe people would understand what’s going on in the courtroom. But, that’s a real difference between languages—it’s just the way that languages are.

Rumpus: You mention that Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham is the hardest thing to translate. What authors or literature are the most challenging to translate?

Kelly: There’s a story in the book about this poet, María Clara Sharupi from the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’m actually her translator. I didn’t say it in [Found in Translation], because I didn’t want there to be too many stories about me, but some of the words in her language are really hard to translate. There’s a word that means “the song that is emitted through the fragrance of a plant.” Whenever there’s two cultures that are so distant from each other, that’s really when you have a hard time coming up with equivalents.

We also mention in the book The Simpsons translated into Finnish. And that particular translator is a comedian, as well as being a translator. There are all kinds of Simpsons references that are a nightmare for a translator. And there’s an episode called “Homerpalooza,” and you think, we know where that comes from, that’s a cultural thing—Lollapalooza. We can’t expect that people in Finland, Korea, or Mexico are going to know what that is. That kind of thing, it’s almost impossible to translate. You have to come up with a different equivalent in that target culture, not just the language. So in that case, “the song that is emitted through the fragrance of a plant,” you know you can’t say all that in English. I had to come up with something that implies it’s a sacred song, but using some of the other words in the poem to bring in the element of nature to try to make sure that’s conveyed without destroying the lyrical quality of the poem. Because if you used all those words to explain it, the poem isn’t beautiful anymore and nobody would want to read it, and people would think she’s a terrible poet and it would all be my fault. You know, so it’s a huge responsibility that the translator has to make sure the translation is done right.

Rumpus: Does the original author usually have complete faith in their translator? Or are there challenges with working with a translator because, depending on the circumstance, they don’t know what has been written or said?

Kelly: Well sometimes the translators don’t even get to communicate with the source text author. In fact, that’s the norm. Most of the time, the translators aren’t able to even ask them for clarifications. There are some exceptions, but the general rule is that they can’t go back and ask them things. They have to research it on their own. It’s just the nature of the business. In the case of The Simpsons—you know, [with] the subtitles, she’s not able to go and talk to the original writers, they’re too busy. They have so many translators that are translating The Simpsons, if they took the time to clarify, the writers would be doing nothing but that. So, it’s really not practical.

In the case of literary translations, sometimes you do get access to the author if the author wants you to translate their work, which is the case for me with María Clara. But many literary translators don’t have access. Like the Dr. Seuss translator—she didn’t get to clarify with him, she had to go on what she could research herself and what she thought would be faithful to the original.

Rumpus: Right, but in your situation, María Clara does verify what you’ve done.

Kelly: Well, I write to her in Spanish and I explain to her, “Oh, I chose this way of saying it, which might not be the exact equivalent but it’s the closest, and it has these connotations.” Especially when it’s something that’s so closely tied to her culture, I feel that it’s very important for her. I’ll always check with her, and say, “I have a few choices in English, and one of them has this kind of connotation and another one has this—what do you think is the most accurate in this case?” She doesn’t know anything about the words that I’m using, but I’ll give her a description, and sometimes she’ll give me more input that will help me make the best choice.

Rumpus: You talked about this in your book and in your NPR interview: that translators often have to be unbiased and go into emotionally dense translation situations completely unattached. How do you deal with this challenge? You talked about this with the Nuremberg trials translator, Peter Lest.

Kelly: Oh it’s very, very difficult. Interpreters are often interpreting for people in really difficult situations. You know, the situation with Peter Lest of the Nuremberg trails. You have interpreters that are interpreting in Abu Ghraib, military interpreters in combat zones. There are examples right and left, even interpreters that are working in hospitals, or in prisons—I have interpreted for prisoners over the phone. But yes, you interpret some pretty rough things. If you’re interpreting for victims, sometimes you’ll interpret really traumatic, horrible things that were done to them, cases of abuse. I have interpreted for an abuse hotline where people can call in to talk to a counselor about things that have been done to them, and you’re saying these words in the first person, you’re saying them aloud as if they happened to you, and it’s hard not to imagine them when you’re saying them. It’s really, really difficult, some of the things we have to interpret. I had a colleague who was interpreting on a 9-11 call, and she actually heard a murder taking place while she was on the call. She could hear it in the background, people screaming and crying, and she could hear the sounds of people being stabbed because [the caller] was screaming, “He’s stabbing me,” and trying to get help. Interpreters really do deal with horrific situations a lot of the time.

Rumpus: And do you find those situations draining or empowering?

Kelly: You know, they’re both. You feel at the end of the day, maybe you’ve helped them in some way. In the case of interpreting for victims of violence, I always feel relieved that they were able to share their story, because I know it’s important for their healing. In the case of that 9-11 call, I know it’s horrible for that interpreter, because she never knew what happened to the victim. She was pretty sure that they died. Sometimes, when you’re basically a witness to a crime, that’s not something you’d anticipate. I can’t think of any real rewarding side to that—it’s just a horrible experience—but there are definitely rewarding moments.

I have also interpreted for an organ donation bank. Basically, after somebody dies, they will call the family and these people have a very tough job. Somebody has just found out their loved one has died and is being asked to donate their eyes and other organs, and you have to ask them specifically. I’ve interpreted for people who’ve said, “Well, will he be without eyeballs in the casket?” And like, these questions, I thought, I never knew people had to think about these things. I’ve had to interpret these things and people crying, screaming, and saying, “No! Don’t ever call me again!” Some people are actually willing to, because you know that will benefit another human’s life or it could save another person’s life. So that is fulfilling when you can work with someone and make it happen, but I really do not envy the people who have to make those calls every day.

Rumpus: You talk about translator, Peggy van Mossevelde, who translates Harlequin novels into Dutch. But there was one instance where she left out a sentence about a woman being unable to live without a certain man in her life. And she said, “I don’t know about other countries, but I felt that Dutch women wouldn’t like such a an extreme degree of surrender.” On the topic of cultural translation—how often do you face situations like this, where it’s not just the words but the cultural context that needs to be amended?

Kelly: There are so many, that interpreters and translators come across them all the time. I had a situation once where I was interpreting for a patient from Latin America, and I could tell from the mothering accent and the way she was using Spanish that she wasn’t very educated. She was mispronouncing words and not using correct grammar—things like that. She explained that her son was blacking out, and the doctor asked, “Well how long has this been happening?” And she was like, “Oh, since was a baby,” and he [the son] was fourteen. The doctor was in shock, because he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t brought him to seek medical attention sooner.  I had to explain, “Well, in some parts in Latin America there might not be access to a doctor. It might not be possible if people don’t have the money to take someone to a doctor to seek treatment. This might be the first chance in her entire life to bring her son to a doctor,” but that, for the Western doctor, it was unbelievable. His judgment was, What kind of parent wouldn’t take their child to a doctor? He’s so far removed from the reality that she was from, that he couldn’t even begin to identify what it took for her to even get him to the doctor and probably to immigrate to this country.

Another time I had another major cultural barrier, I was interpreting for a woman who had a stroke and she was recovering, and so the speech therapist was giving her exercises and simple questions to help her with her memory and also with her pronunciation. She [the therapist] was asking, “Who brings you the menu in the restaurant?” and she [the woman] would reply, “The waiter.” “Now, who takes care of the flowers at the park?” And she would say “the gardener,” and [the therapist] was trying to get her to say these things. Then the speech therapist asked, “Who do you borrow a cup of sugar from?” We know the answer to that, but nobody outside of the United States would understand what the correct answer is. So, I tried to interpret the question and she was like, “Why would I need a cup of sugar?” So I had to interpret back to the therapist, “Well this is not a common tradition outside of the U.S.” So, she tried to ask, “Well if you needed to borrow something who would you borrow it from?” And the woman said, “My family?” And so it was a major cultural difference and in that same conversation. The therapist basically gave up on that question and moved on to another question.

So, yes there are tons of cultural differences like that and in some cases, you’re trained to identify whenever there is a cultural difference and explain that sometimes the gaps are so big that it’s almost impossible to get the two people to understand each other because the gap is far more than linguistic—it’s cultural.

Rumpus: In your book, you quote David Crystal, who claims that 3,000 languages will die in the next hundred years. That’s one language every two weeks, and a language is considered dead when the last person speaks it. What are you thoughts on dying languages? Do you think there is a strong enough campaign to save them?

Kelly: I don’t think there is a strong enough campaign to save them. It’s an issue that is very close to my heart because many people who speak, it’s not their fault that they’re born to a community that speak a given language. And because of globalization and because of different dynamics of power in different countries, their language is seen as something less than another. Especially if they’re in a minority group, often the only way they can have any success economically or politically in their country is to learn another language. It’s not a bad thing to learn another language—that would be great if that’s all that were happening—but far, far too often they’re not learning the other language. They’re giving up their other language and then they’re not teaching it to their kids. So, what happens is, when a language dies humanity loses knowledge. So, in the case of the rainforest where María Clara is from, a huge percentage—I believe it’s one in every four—pharmacological products that we use in the United States actually come from the rain forest. Only about twenty percent of the rainforest plants have actually been categorized, and people like María Clara—who have knowledge of the traditional healing practices, and they know which plants the animals eat when they’re sick with a certain condition—they have observed what plants can heal different things, and many, many cures for diseases have come from the rainforest. So, if there’s a cure for AIDS or cancer or many of these societal illnesses that plague us, chances are that’s where they will be found—the cures will be found in the rainforest. But if you have a language with a word for a specific remedy or plant, people can no longer refer to that. The children lose that knowledge, not just of their language but of their culture, and so humanity is impoverished when languages die.

Rumpus: Do you think people are encouraging their children to learn Spanish and only speak Spanish so that they can be stronger participants in a more global sense? What do you think the reasons are for why those aboriginal languages are disintegrating?

Kelly: Well, in many places it’s because the people of power speak a different language, a colonial language. In the case of Latin America, it’s Spanish. There are some strong holds in different parts of the world. We got billions of people in Latin America that speak languages like Quechua and Aymara, so there are millions of people speaking those. Those are not really endangered languages, but there are some languages that only have a couple of speakers left, and others that only have hundreds and those are the ones that David Crystal is mostly referring to. The ones that will die because they have so few speakers left, that in a couple generations there just won’t be anymore speakers. Usually these are very poor people in very poor communities that don’t have much chance of developing new campaigns to teach their languages to others.

There’s this misconception that a lot of parents have, that if they try to teach their kids both languages that they’ll somehow be missing out in both languages. It’s not a fifty-plus-fifty-percent-equals-one-hundred-percent. Children’s brains can absorb many languages, but many parents don’t understand that. I heard just the other day, a woman, and she was probably a Chinese speaker, and she was struggling to speak English with her son with an accent, and he was correcting her when she tried  to order something at a Starbucks. When she tried to pronounce something he corrected her in front of everybody, and he was a teenager and you know, I was thinking, How sad he can’t communicate with his mom in Chinese, and she’s obviously only speaking to him in English. Here he is correcting her, and yet her language is probably the most important language of the future. I was thinking how sad this is, he’s almost treating her as if she’s dumb because she’s bilingual and he’s not.

Rumpus: Well, hopefully someday he’ll get it.

Kelly: I hope in this country we will have a more enlightened attitude towards language-learning, because that’s happening right here in the United States. We are linguistically poor in a lot of ways because we have all these natural linguistic resources in our country, but we’re not making the most of them. We’re not harvesting them and really having a plan, which is why when we need to recruit people who are bilingual, we can’t find enough, even though we have enough immigrants we should be able to produce a pretty multilingual population of young people. But no, we encourage them to just learn English in school only.

Julie Morse lives in San Francisco and is a poetry teacher. She can be found @JulieMorse16. More from this author →