Posted on June 9, 2016 · Posted in Translation History

When translators watch movies with their fictionalized counterparts, they can’t help but chuckle. The nature of dramatization means that at first sight, Hollywood does not capture the skill and nuance required to succeed in this challenging, multi-cultural field.

But dig a little deeper, and you will find worldwide blockbusters that actually reveal interesting truths about the nature of our industry. Here are 4 movies in which translation and interpretation features prominently, and what they can tell their viewers about professional translation.

Lost in Translation: The Importance of Cultural Nuance

The Oscar-winning move features Bill Murray, who stars as an aging actor who is filming an advertisement in Tokyo. To do so, he has to communicate with his Japanese director effectively, which is only possible through an interpreter that is a constant presence on set. Naturally, this being a comedic movie, everything goes awry and gets, as the name suggests, Lost in Translation.

The interpreter shies away from exact translations of the acting directions given to Murray’s character, which results in agitated exchanges between actor and director. Of course, these exchanges are themselves mistranslated, as the interpreter considers Murray’s rude remarks to be inappropriate and rude.

Look between the lines of these fun sequences, and you will find a very real truth: cultural nuance matters. The interpreter refuses to translate remarks that are rude according to her culture, though they are normal for Murray’s character. Similarly, her idea of simplifying the complex, flowery directions by the commercial’s director backfires because its essence gets lost.

Amistad: The Need for Expertise

Very unlike the above example, Amistad is a devastating movie, showcasing much more serious effects of translation mistakes. The 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed film is based on a true story of a 19th century slave ship journey that ended in mutiny. The runaway slaves are captured by U.S. authorities and face a legal battle, without understanding a word of the language spoken in court.

Their testimonies are translated by court interpreter Professor Gibbs, who almost dooms them by not understanding their language correctly. Eventually, he locates a more skilled interpreter in James Covey, who comes in just in time to prevent a seemingly certain death by allowing the slaves to tell their sides of the story.

As you might imagine, translators usually don’t decide over life and death situations. But their level of expertise can make a crucial difference in shaping perceptions of their audience, which this movie example shows.

The Interpreter: The Role of Intermediaries

Ever wonder just how 200 nations around the globe can talk to each other? The United Nations Interpretation Service has been a fabled office for its mystique and importance, playing the role of intermediaries for some of the world’s most powerful people. In the 2005 movie The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman shows just how important these intermediaries are for making and maintaining global connections.

The movie, of course is a thriller: Kidman’s character gets stuck in an assassination plot planned in an African language, and the suspense keeps audiences engaged throughout the movie. But it nonetheless puts emphasis on the importance of experts who equally understand and speak multiple languages for global operations.

Interpreters and translators have significant influence over conversations that occur across languages. That influence necessitates a responsibility to be as accurate and true to both source and culture as possible.

Hollywood movies are, above all, a fun escape from reality. But when characters in their story intersect with our profession, we can’t help but draw out the lessons that ring true for the real world, as well. Translation is a complex task, one that requires nuance and expertise along with a cultural understanding of both languages in question.

Of course, real-world translation does not always end in an explosion or death. But it’s nonetheless crucial in helping your business succeed, especially if you operate internationally. To learn more about translation services, and how they can help your business, contact us.