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MELTING POT : The Real L.A. Speak

June 13, 1993|Jan Lonsdale

Drive any major L.A. thoroughfare and see marquees in Mandarin, flyers in Farsi and handbills in Hebrew. Attend "Back-to-School Night" at a Torrance elementary school and find students speaking more than 30 different languages. Ask the L.A. city attorney's office and learn that expenditures for courtroom linguists have tripled in the past five years.

As the non-English-speaking population has boomed throughout Southern California, so has the area's need for translators and interpreters. These multilingual professionals are called upon to translate anything from Romanian birth certificates to Japanese operating manuals, Arabic business contracts to Spanish love letters.

"L.A. is a microcosm of the translating world," says Michael Mulligan, executive vice president of New York-based Berlitz International.

One of the few Southern California companies that offers both written translation and spoken interpretation services is Interpreting Services International of Van Nuys. It has grown from a one-man operation in 1978 to a current roster of more than 700 free-lance translators. The company has a second office in Oakland and a third is scheduled to open in New York later this month.

Among the translating tasks: transcripts for television news crews, technical manuals and workplace safety signs and instructions. One of the company's most difficult jobs involved assisting a Ph.D. candidate with research on primitive weaponry. The language? Ancient Greek.

Company president George Rimalower says he's seen a lot of botched jobs, like a church newsletter that turned "our Lord in heaven" into "our guy in the sky."

And he tells of the time one inexperienced interpreter, who had been hired to introduce a visiting French dignitary, mistakenly asked a VIP to please expose himself.

Even in Los Angeles, you gotta watch what you say.

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