NPR logo Finding the Jelly Doughnut, Smelling the Sulphur

Finding the Jelly Doughnut, Smelling the Sulphur

Everybody remembers the moment at the United Nations when a translator had to communicate that Hugo Chavez thought, well, that President George W. Bush was the devil. Listening to her — "It smells of sulphur, still today!" — it's hard to tell exactly what she's feeling, but there is a bit of surprise in her voice.

It's a special kind of translating — niche translating — and in the Los Angeles TImes today, there's a fascinating piece about it. My favorite is the explanation about handling jokes.

...if you're going to make a joke, make sure it translates well, said Kevin Hendzel, an ATA spokesman whose specialty is translating nuclear documents from Russian into English.

In the early 1980s, Hendzel was chief of the White House translation staff responsible for the top-secret hot line used for direct contact with the Kremlin.

He has little patience for high-level linguistic gaffes. If a leader makes a joke that doesn't elicit laughs, Hendzel said, a good interpreter will say in the listening audience's language, "It's a joke that does not translate — please laugh."

I can't wait to start using that line — in English.

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