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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Most lucrative languages

Translation business booming - terrorists' languages most lucrative
Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, November 2, 2007

The more people refuse to shut up, the more money there is to be made in the translation business.

And the world is a more talkative place than ever, say the 1,800 members of the American Translators Association, who are in San Francisco through Saturday to talk to each other in 13 languages as part of their annual convention.

The most lucrative languages to translate, the translators agreed, are those spoken where the most soldiers are.

"The languages of terrorists are the hottest, and they're going to remain the hottest," association President Marian Greenfield said. "And the Chinese market is exploding. It's a very hot language. Business is booming."

A translator picking a language to translate must be familiar with the future tense, as they say in the language business. That's because it takes five years or so for a translator to master a language and, in five years, the world's important terrorists and the business leaders may be from someplace else.

Russian translator Kevin Hendzel said the demand for his talents has ebbed since the end of the Cold War. Hendzel used to be a translator on the emergency hot line between U.S. and Soviet generals, but found other work about the time the two countries started getting along better, which can be a very bad thing for translators.

English-Russian translators make only 15 cents a word these days, according to an association study. But those who speak English and Arabic earn 18 cents for every word they translate.

English translators of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and other languages spoken where people are not particularly sore at the United States make only 12 cents a word.

These days, Hendzel said, the big money is in translating Arabic, Pashto and Farsi - especially tapes, Web sites and other communications from suspected bad guys.

"The United States is flying blind," he said. "There's a huge untranslated backlog of tapes right now."

Even trickier than translating bad guys is translating world leaders, according to expert translator Rut Simkovich of Buenos Aires, who gave a workshop on the special language of politicians.

"Politicians usually need to say things very vague and very ambiguous. That causes problems for us interpreters," she said, as dozens of them from around the world nodded their heads and smiled.

Sometimes a politician will reply to a question at a news conference with an answer that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. It's a habit common to all politicians, not just U.S. ones, she said.

"Don't think you made a mistake in the translation," Simkovich advised the translators. "It's not your fault. The politician is just trying to plug in an answer that was prepared in advance. Sometimes the scripted answer is delivered regardless of the question."

Online resources
American Translators Association:


E-mail Steve Rubenstein at srubenstein@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle