Is Professional Interpreting Really Like They Show it in the Movies?
Who doesn’t love the movies? They transport us to another time and place… until you watch a movie about something you really know about, that is.
Imagine being a soldier watching a war movie. Yes, certain aspects of battle scenes might be similar to what soldiers experience, but there are also many fallacies embedded in the script and the direction because the writers, cinematographers and directors aren’t soldiers themselves. The same is true for those us who work in the professional language services provider industry. In this blog article, we are examining 3 movies about linguists that we hope you will enjoy this summer – if you have not seen them before.
How accurately is professional interpreting portrayed in the movies?
With popular feature films like Lost in Translation (2003), The Interpreter (2005) and Arrival (2016) becoming parts of pop culture, we are often asked whether or not those films were accurate, or whether being an interpreter is like it appears in the movies.
The answer is both yes and no: yes, there are aspects of translation or interpretation that are similar to what we see on film, but linguists love nothing better than to talk about all the disparities between real life and the Hollywood version when it comes up in conversation.
Here’s our general take on Hollywood’s presentation of our trade:
How would you rate the representation of the interpreter in Lost in Translation?
Not too accurate. We love to refer people to a very particular and classic interpreter scene in Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed movie Lost in Translation to learn what you don’t want in an interpreter. The scene was beautifully translated (which doesn’t happen in the movie if you don’t have the subtitles on) by native Japanese speaker, Motoko Rich, in the NY Times.
The following is a brief excerpt of what is said in that scene, and how the interpreter conveys messages back to Bill Murray’s Character (Bob) as he seeks clarification from the director of the film he’s working on:
DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.
DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in ”Casablanca,” saying, ”Cheers to you guys,” Suntory time!
INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
BOB: That’s all he said?
INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.
As you can read, that is partially what the director said – but not the essence of what he was trying to communicate. Interchanges like this continue throughout the scene and lead to a very frustrated director and an innocently diminished Bob. And, this shows exactly why it’s so important that you perform due diligence before hiring a professional conference-level interpreter. You want to hire an interpretation team that will convey not just the basic message, but all of its nuances.
We see this lackadaisical type of interpreting all the time in our profession; poorly trained or simply uninspired interpreters who translate the basic bones of the message without any of the important meat. You need to ensure the professional interpreters (or translators, for that matter) are as diligent about interpreting feelings, nuance and culture as they are about conveying the basic message.
I want to be an interpreter after watching The Interpreter. It looks so cool!
Yes, it is cool. If you’re good at what you do – you have the opportunity to travel, see the world and work with very inspiring, powerful and influential people – like those in the United Nations. All in all, we’re impressed with the level of homework The Interpreter’s filmmakers did to realistically capture what it’s like to be a U.N. interpreter – as Nicole Kidman’s character is.
Here’s a piece of trivia: did you know that the movie was called The Translator before Sydney Pollack’s team went to UN headquarters in New York City? Kudos to our conference interpreter colleagues who recommended they changed the title!
For the most part, we’d say that this film presents a fairly accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a UN interpreter. However, no real interpreter’s booth would ever be as immaculate as the ones you see there – we need to have resources, documents and glossaries within hand’s reach. We also do a tremendous amount of preparation before we go to work (Nicole Kidman appears to get to work without a hint of prep). She also doesn’t seem to have a chief Interpreter giving her directions, and doesn’t even take any notes when she’s with delegations.
That being said, you will rarely ever see a conference level interpreter helping an FBI agent question a foreign usher. That work would usually be left to community interpreters, which is a whole different segment of the professional interpreter niche.
In other words, the movie’s depiction of professional interpreting was good – but not entirely accurate. If it inspired you to become an interpreter, great – but we recommend you research professional conference interpretation a bit further before choosing it as a career.
Would you be able to figure out an alien language if they hired you to do the job?
Finally, and most poignantly, was last year’s release of Arrival. Starring Amy Adams as linguist Louise, this film explores the idea of how to come up with meaning or context when faced with a completely alien language. In this film, the language she finally decodes is the aliens’ version of their written language, expressed via the heptapods’ ink-like, circular splotches.
First things first, this movie has more to do with translation that it does about interpretation. However, most linguists love this movie because it’s interesting, fun, impactful and there is some realism in how her process played out.
A little background: the movie is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory of linguistic relativity. In a nutshell, this hypothesis states that, “an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.” In other words, if you learn a new language, your thoughts, experiences and how you categorize or judge things will shift accordingly. This experience is why most of us are passionate about languages in the first place.
Arrival takes this theory to fantastical heights and most of us agree that even with an understanding of the heptapods’ language it wouldn’t shift the linguist’s entire world and life perspective. However, an alien encounter might – so this is a film where language + alien experience just might equal a hyper-speed adoption of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. We also appreciated the long hours she worked, the incessant pressure from those who need her services to produce nearly impossible results in a rushed manner, and the fact that a quiet introvert (common personality trait of professional translators) is able to hold her own when her work is thrust into the public limelight.
As we expect it is for all movies, movies depicting professional interpreters and translators (and linguists) have big grains of truth embedded in layers of fiction.
Are you looking for real life, professional translators and interpreters who provide top-notch work, anywhere on the globe? Contact us, Chang-Castillo and Associates, and we’ll be happy to listen to your needs and put together a competitively priced package.