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Interpreters In Movies: How Are We Perceived?

Interpreters In Movies: How Are We Perceived?

Films, we’ve all watched them, the good and the bad ones. We all appreciate them when they are interesting, innovating, creative and most importantly, relatable. We might find films relatable, when it comes to certain situations we could have experienced, or characters that look or act like we do, or even because the movie was filmed in a location near us. But we, as interpreters or translators, have we ever appreciated a movie because it represents what we do? 

When it comes to movies about interpreters and translators, they are usually made in a style, which could be attractive for the public and viewers, in other words, they tend to do everything more dramatic than it should actually be, but some of the situations portrayed in certain films and short films might be true. Could this have an impact on how other people – who are not related to the languages field – perceive us? The answer might be yes. This is purely based on the fact that many people also learn from movies, despite the topic, there is always something that you can take from it: motivation to play a new instrument, maybe start practicing a special sport, advice, lessons or just have a good time. 

The truth is that, according to Pascal Flury, the way we perceive fictional characters in films has a direct impact on what we expect reality to be like. Films tend to change our perspective on things and as a result we have a distorted notion of reality. So, films could give the viewer an insight on what this field could be, but of course we need to avoid the Hollywood style movies, because of course, we know interpreters are real people, they are not robots, they do not secretly talk alien languages and they are not chased by special agents for hearing something they should not have. Talk about distorted reality.

This reality change in movies occurs more often than we think, even in small details, like in well-known interpreter-related movies such as Lost in Translation (2003) or The Interpreter (2005). Even though the directors had good intentions in making those movies to let others know about this difficult task – interpreting – they might have exaggerated a bit with their “perfect interpreter” character, and might have got things wrong in their movies. For example, in Lost in Translation, the interpreter interrupts the communication flow, talks to the speaker often, changes ideas and it carries on like that in several scenes, or in The Interpreter, they modified all interpreting booth scenes, they are not big and spacious, she doesn’t take notes and doesn’t prepare material before working, which is technically impossible, or at least, wouldn’t enable an interpreter to perform adequately.

I am certainly not saying they are bad movies, because they are not, they give an insight on what an interpreter does. However, there is one movie that was made for interpreters and for people to understand the important role interpreters have regarding communication between parties and building a bridge between them, Wes Anderson’s movie: Isle of dogs (2018).

Isle of dogs is a movie that takes meta-elements of storytelling and makes them part of the main narrative. For example, translation. We are used to the fact that translation is an element that surrounds information regarding a movie, let us say, final credits, posters, or subtitles. However, in this movie, translation is part of the story, and without it we would not be able to understand certain characters, unless we spoke Japanese. 

In this movie, the majority of human characters speak Japanese, which requires in-screen interpreting. This places the viewers in the dog’s shoes – because they only speak English – and as they cannot understand what humans say, they have to infer the message based on actions, intonation, and other aspects, just like we would do in a real situation where we do not understand a foreign language that is being spoken. Except for one dog, that has a device to communicate with humans, being the only one able to communicate between those two parties, dogs, and humans. Representing then, an interpreter.

When there is not in-screen interpreting, the viewers have to understand the movie according to what is happening, but when there is interpreting, it is very similar to what would happen in a real situation. In conferences, we would have real-time voice interventions coming from a small interpreting booth at the end of the conference room, in documents, we would have subtitles to understand what it says, and in a speech of a young child, another young child is interpreting what it is being said. 

The usage of language interpreting and translation in this movie is clever because it allows the viewers to understand what it would be like if we did not really have interpreters to help us understand what is being said in certain situations. This really makes the viewers understand how important these two professions are in a world where many languages are spoken.

Even though the scenario shown in this movie is completely unrealistic, the actions performed by interpreters and all scenes where an interpreter is needed, is real. Real in a sense that this is exactly how this would be done in “real life”, as mentioned above.
In conclusion, do films affect how others perceive us? The answer might be yes. Even though the situations proposed and shown in movies could be odd and might vary from reality, most of the time interpreters – and translators – are portrayed as smart, reliable, and professional people, who always end up saving the day. And of course, demonstrating that communication between foreign countries, people, and even animals is possible, when there is an interpreter on duty.

By Catalina Belen Tapia 

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