Translators and interpreters in the movies

The lonely and arduous task of the translator is rarely appreciated in the worlds of literature and cinema.

The lonely and arduous task of the translator is rarely appreciated in the worlds of literature and cinema. The life of an interpreter, on the other hand, appears to be far more “glamorous”, to the point that novels and films have focused on this profession. Let’s think of some examples together and draw up a list of works whose main characters are interpreters who just happen to go on adventures that usually turn into more than they can handle. Male interpreters are generally portrayed as easily manipulated, wandering aimlessly with little or no purpose, while women interpreters are seductive, mysterious and tragic heroines.

Tormented Translators

Let me congratulate Argentina, which is where I live, and the talented writer Alan Pauls. Rimini, the principal character of his novel El pasado (The past) (adapted for the big screen by Hector Babenco and starring Gael García Bernal), sinks into a personal hell after separating from his partner Sofía. A professional translator who has been commissioned to translate Derrida, he also works as a French-Spanish interpreter before becoming a tennis teacher and gigolo for older ladies looking for a good time, perpetually unable to escape his vengeful ex-girlfriend.

Then there is the Nobel Laureate for Literature Vargas Llosa, who made an interpreter the narrator of his novel Travesuras de una niña mala (The bad girl). The main character is a nice guy named Ricardo who works as an interpreter for UNESCO and a translator of texts that almost nobody reads.  He must also deal with the “comings and goings of a bad girl,” a seductive and cynical girl from Chile who is only interested in travel and money. Ultimately, she crushes this sentimental and anodyne lover in an instant.

… And Mysterious Interpreters

A very different kind of interpreter appears in both Je l’aimais (Someone I loved) and The Interpreter. In both cases, these are single, successful, cosmopolitan females who work as interpreters and browbeat their partner with their independent lifestyle, its past and its secrets. In the novel by Anna Galvada, Pierre confides to his daughter-in-law Chloe how he became infatuated with Mathilde, an interpreter he met at a conference in Japan (the film adaptation was directed by Zabou Breitman starring Marie-Josée Croze and Daniel Auteuil). In the movie The Interpreter by Sydney Pollack, the secret agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is attracted to the UN interpreter, Sylvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), whose past he discovers to be more disturbing than he imagined. The story unfolds during an attempt to thwart the assassination of the president of the Democratic Republic of Matobo during his visit to the United Nations.

What conclusions can we draw from these four examples? That the daily work of both translator and interpreter can be more dangerous than imagined, for men may lose their souls and women who appear hard and emotionless can have dark pasts.

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