Abigail Dahlberg realized she was a success a few years ago while explaining her unusual specialty -- translating documents about waste- management issues from German into English -- to a wide-eyed listener.
“I’ve heard of you!” the man exclaimed. “You’re Trash Girl!”
He may not have known her real name, but that didn’t bother Dahlberg, whose cheery British accent belies her reputation as an expert in all things ekelhaft. That’s German for “yucky.”
In the burgeoning world of translators and interpreters (translators deal with written documents, interpreters with the spoken word) it’s all about the niche.
“It’s not just having the language skill. It’s also having the expertise in the subject matter,” said Dahlberg, whose story was striking enough that Nicholas Hartmann, president of the American Translators Assn., retold it during the group’s 50th convention in New York last month.
For four days, some 2,300 attendees networked, traded stories and listened in on workshops and seminars at a Times Square hotel.
That’s 1,000 more than attended last year’s conference -- evidence that even in this economy, the industry is healthy.
Hartmann said demand for translators and interpreters is expected to grow by 15% in the coming year as globalization, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worldwide green movement spur demand for information in myriad languages.
E-mail, Skype and other technologies have opened the door to cross-cultural communications, but they alone cannot bridge the language gap.
“It’s so easy to communicate, but once you find someone you want to communicate with, you find they don’t speak your language,” Hartmann said. And as Dahlberg’s situation shows, it’s not enough to simply speak another language.
“There is a wealth of knowledge and background you need in your area of specialty,” said Dahlberg, who speaks French as well as German and English and found her niche while working for a publishing house in Germany that dealt in environmental and waste-management documents.
“Translation is far more than words,” said Hartmann, who specializes in translating German patents. It requires him to understand not only the context of words and phrases, but also the technical and legal issues involved. And his spelling has to be impeccable.
The slightest error can cause extraordinary embarrassment.
During a March meeting in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented a gag gift to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. It was a red button with a word written in Russian that State Department translators thought meant “reset.” The idea was to remind Russia of America’s hopes for resetting the nations’ tense relations. But when Lavrov opened the box and peered inside, he told Clinton the word on the button, peregruzka, translated to “overcharge” -- not the message the U.S. wanted to send.
Whether it was poor translation or a misspelling exacerbated by changing Russia’s Cyrillic into Western lettering, the incident made headlines worldwide and was cited by conference attendees as one of the worst examples of a translation mistake.
It was also a reminder that 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.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Hendzel was involved in interpreting a presidential video message to China’s Communist -- and officially atheist -- leaders. The message included the phrase “God bless you all.”
“We took it right out, because it would have embarrassed him and made us look like idiots,” Hendzel said.
His is a highly specialized niche -- Hendzel has degrees in electrical engineering, physics and Russian -- and one that will be even more in demand as countries such as Iran pursue nuclear programs.
“Trying to find someone who speaks Farsi and knows nuclear issues . . . it’s nearly impossible,” he said.
Despite the fact that niche translators and interpreters are, as Hendzel put it, “everybody’s lifeline,” they remain in short supply, particularly in U.S. government agencies.
The FBI said its translation workload had doubled since the Sept. 11 attacks. Hospitals, courts, schools and other institutions are struggling to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.
But few people have the training it takes to do what can be an excruciatingly difficult job. Hendzel, for instance, once had to translate about 275 pages of Belarusian environmental laws into English in two days. He worked all 48 hours straight.
Some businesses try to save on translation fees by using free computer programs, but those don’t offer the quality needed to avoid stilted and often nonsensical results.
“It might be amusing for some people, but I find it very embarrassing,” said Katrin Rippel, whose Menu International firm provides translation for the food and hospitality industry.
The challenges are particularly acute for interpreters who must match the often long-winded speeches of politicians and diplomats.
When Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi spoke for 96 minutes to the United Nations’ General Assembly in September, his personal interpreter had to be replaced by a U.N.-provided one after about 75 minutes. Hartmann said the usual limit for simultaneous interpretation is 20 minutes, followed by a break and then a return to duty.
Kadafi’s interpreter, Fouad Zlitini, denied news reports that he exclaimed: “I just can’t take it anymore!” and collapsed. But he has acknowledged he ran out of steam during his boss’ speech. “I don’t deny, I may have asked for someone to take over,” he told the New York Post.
Dahlberg -- who has a master’s degree in translation and interpretation from the University of Edinburgh -- worked in Germany before moving with her American husband to Missouri in 2005. Now she does freelance work for, among others, companies that deal with battery recycling and sewage sludge.
“Because the environmental field is so hot right now, I’ve found new customers are coming to me,” said Dahlberg, who nonetheless has a hard time explaining her specialty to laypeople.
“They kind of pause for a minute and then say: ‘Hmm,’ ” she said.
A recent job involved translating a report on the state of Germany’s waste plastics market.
Some words and phrases she frequently encounters include die deponie (the landfill), die abfalltonne (the trash can) and, more recently, something familiar to Americans -- die abwrackpramie, which means “cash for clunkers.”