The examples of ideas lost in translation are both funny (English sign on an Asian restaurant: "For restrooms, go back toward your behind") and dangerous (CNN's recent mistranslation of Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad, which characterized him as being pro-nuclear weapons rather than pro-nuclear technology).

All of which goes to prove that the distance between one language and another is fraught with peril and that all translators are not created equal. That was the message Monday at the first-ever national Translation Summit, held at the University of Utah's Research Park.

The summit, hosted by Brigham Young University's Center for Language Studies, brought translators, corporate executives and government representatives together under one roof to talk about strategies to provide enough qualified translators and interpreters.

"While the naive public often assumes that anyone who speaks two languages is qualified to be a translator, that assumption is no more valid than the conclusion that everyone with a brain is qualified to do brain surgery," BYU's Ray T. Clifford noted in a summit handout.

Too often, "quality is overlooked in favor of the 'right now,' " said Everette Jordan, director of the National Virtual Translation Center, and the result sometimes is that the government gets "just a pulse and respiration" instead of an adequate translator. The center, located in Washington, D.C., was established in 2003 as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It's not enough for a translator to know standard Arabic, for example, Jordan said, because the dialects of modern Arabic can be as different from standard Arabic as Spanish is from Latin. "We haven't paid attention to these things," he said.

It's the nuances of a language, and an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter being translated or interpreted, that make the difference, he said. Only part of a "language event" is the words, he added. The rest includes posture, the tone of voice and subtleties such as irony, sarcasm and humor.

Although the number of interpreters and translators has more than doubled in the past five years in the United States, there is a "huge shortage," said Marian Greenfield, president of the American Translators Association, which has nearly 10,000 members in more than 70 countries.

Greenfield said the shortage exists, in part, because of the U.S. government's "awakening to language needs" but also because of the boom in global commerce and the growing immigrant population in the United States.

"We are," she said, "extremely far behind in the languages of terrorism."


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