Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Unemployed? Looking For A Job?

From The Wall Street Journal - April 30, 2010

Icelandic Translators Enjoy Their Moment in the Sun

Masters of the Unpronounceable Shine; No Word for CDO? Make It Up


Vantar þýðendur úr íslensku á ensku—næg vinna!

If you know what that means, then Iceland has a job for you.

Iceland's banking system has collapsed, its economy is in turmoil and its volcano has blotted the sky with ash.

As a result, things have never looked better for the small cadre of Icelandic translators who render the North Germanic tongue of 320,000 island-dwellers into something the rest of the world can understand.

The remnants of Iceland's three major banks conduct creditors' meetings in Icelandic. Many of the creditors are foreign. Interpreters are needed.

Among the assignments: bankruptcy cases, criminal probes, fraud suits and, earlier this month, a 2,000-plus-page report on the banking mess—solid gold for a translator—produced by a "truth committee" of the Alþingi (that's parliament).

"A big uptick for me," says Daniel Teague, an American translator who has lived in Reykjavík for decades.

"I don't think I ever did bankruptcy before," says Keneva Kunz, a Canadian-born translator working in Iceland for more than 20 years. "In the last year and a half, I don't think I've done anything else."

Business erupted last fall when Iceland rushed its application to the European Union. The Icelandic currency had sunk with the banks, and the island's leaders were suddenly anxious to ditch their króna for the euro.
Vantar þýðendur úr íslensku á ensku—næg vinna!

Translation: "Translators wanted from Icelandic to English -- plenty of work!"

The EU application might have been devised by a sadistic college dean. It included 2,500 questions. (Chapter 24, question 69: "What is done in the field of crime prevention? How is this linked to the threat assessment model and identified priorities?") Government officials answered them in Icelandic. Then the translators took over. The responses ran 8,870 pages.

A decade ago, Iceland didn't have much of a banking sector to speak of. A privatization campaign changed that. Add a bit of Viking derring-do, and soon the banks were wheeling and dealing in Britain, the U.S. and Asia. Eventually, assets of the three big banks reached 10 times Iceland's annual economic output.

The trend was great for practically everyone. Translators, too. The banks produced lush reports, which needed to be put in English for foreign investors.

Jón Skaptason did a lot of that. After the banks collapsed in 2008, his translating gigs waned. But there was a bright side. "Many of the freelancers who formerly worked for the banks are now busy working for the people who are suing the banks," he says.

Icelandic students learn English in school, and a visitor to Reykjavík will find coffee-bar cashiers, hotel attendants and fishermen who speak like the British Queen. But Icelanders are fiercely proud of their language, which has changed little in 800 years. They've resisted the Anglicization of officialdom. Everything is done in Icelandic.

To jobless Americans looking to break in: Good luck picking up Icelandic. There are three genders, four cases and a bewildering rubric of declensions. Not to mention two letters absent from the Latin alphabet.

Even the best translators need special skills—especially in areas like finance. Icelanders may have imported their banking fervor, but they made up local words to reference the sector. Like skuldavafningur. (That's a collateralized debt obligation, to Americans.) Occasionally several people made up words. That explains why some Icelanders call a CDO a skuldabréfavafningur.

Translator Páll Hermannsson prefers the crisper-sounding skuldavafningur for CDO. Literally, he says, it means "debt wrap."

After the financial collapse, each bank got a skilanefnd and a slitastjórn. "Meaning what?" asked the Anglophones who lent gobs of money to the now-defunct banks. No one could agree. A few finance specialists huddled with the central bank's translator and came up with English definitions: "resolution committee" and "winding-up board."

Messier still were the many ways Iceland bailed out its underwater homeowners. They might have gotten greiðsluaðlögun (payment mitigation), or greiðslujöfnun (payment smoothing), or skuldaaðlögun (debt adjustment), or skuldalækkun (debt reduction), or niðurfelling skulda (cancellation of debt). The list goes on.

"The debt is not a problem," says Ms. Kunz. "But what to call it is."

Native English speakers fluent in Icelandic command a premium. There aren't many. It is an axiom of translation that the work is best done from a foreign language into one's mother tongue.

"For many years, I told people [learning Icelandic] was the most difficult thing I did, bar none," says Mr. Teague, who was a New York lawyer before moving to Iceland in 1979.

He fell into translation in the 1980s. Þorgeir Þorgeirson, an Icelandic film director and intellectual, had been convicted of defaming civil servants and fined 10,000 Icelandic krónur (then about $250). His crime was writing two newspaper articles about police brutality. (He called the cops "wild beasts in uniform.") Mr. Þorgeirson wanted to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which works in English and French. He needed a translator.

"His English was a little patchy," Mr. Teague recalls. Mr. Þorgeirson won. And the judges gave him 218,160 krónur for translation costs. Mr. Teague had a career.

Gauti Kristmannsson, an associate professor of translation at the University of Iceland, trains the next generation. Fifty students take his two-year masters' program. He's expanding next fall, to meet the expected demand from the EU. If Iceland gets in, he says, the bloc will need 100 translators to shuttle between Icelandic and the 23 current official languages.

To Mr. Kristmannsson, the world is lost without translation.

"Why do people struggle with this Eyjafjallajökull?" he asked, on the topic of the misbehaving volcano.

He patiently coached foreign journalists on its pronunciation, which requires a flutter of staccato gurgles and alveolar gymnastics beyond the ken of ordinary Anglophones.

"They should have translated it!" he said. It means "island mountains glacier."

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