I watched « The Interpreter » last night. A good, sophisticated story and I was impressed that the crew was able to film in the real United Nations. What really spoke to me in the movie was how the Nicole Kidman character, who plays a UN translator, viewed the sanctity and power of the languages she worked in. There were some quotable lines which, sadly, I did not note down quickly enough to remember.
primarily in one language—English—during my day job. But I have a
second job as a freelance translator where my brain toggles between
French and English (I translate both towards and away from the target
language) continually as I work. I translate in two specialty areas:
the pharmaceutical industry and technical manuals for software
(which is the height of irony, considering what a non-geek I am). Both
areas demand critical accuracy (if I were to mistake “voie rectale” for
“voie orale”, the patient would be in big trouble) although I would
opine that translating technical prose is a little less demanding, due to the amount of repetition these manuals consist of.
real challenge and satisfaction for any interpreter or translator is
when we are able to perform the language shift, in the Jakobson sense,
of manipulating not only the words (the signifiers) but (and more
importantly) the intent (the signified) that exists beneath, behind and
inside the logical and grammatical structures of the source language.
This is much more complex than it seems to the layperson, for it demands
a thorough knowledge of both the source and target culture’s history,
politics, and gender dynamics, to name only three domains any good translator has to be able to reference.
Take the example of a simple French word, gare.
Translated into English as “train station” what do those two words
signify? If you are an average American, “train station” will evoke
architecture of another century, of an earlier America. You might even
include, in your mental image, a station master checking a pocket watch and
shouting “all aboard!” If you are young, you may have never boarded a
train in your life, and therefore would have an even more-removed and
antiquated simulacrum of what a train station is, fed by media and Harry
But for the French, whose country’s arteries are made of steel, the word gare
connotes nothing but another of their daily objects. Its appearance in
a text is not remarkable and does not send the reader into a wistful daydream of a
bygone era. (Let me specify here that I am talking about veritable
train stations, and not subway or commuter train stations.) The meaning
of that simple word is something completely different when considered within the cultural context.
I don’t think sanctity of language is limited to the
fields of interpretation and translation. I know that even working in
the monolingual sphere, I often have difficulty making what I want to
say become what my listener hears. So when you are reading my blog and
thinking “what in the world could she possibly mean by that?” just
chalk it up to a grand misalignment of symbols, signs and referents. In
pop culture terms, I’m Venus and you might be Mars.