Interpreters in movies.

PresentaciónSilvia Broome: I’m for peace and quiet, mister Lud, it’s why I came to the UN, quiet and diplomacy.

Nils Lud: But… with respect, you only interpret.

Silvia: Countries have gone to war because they misinterpreted one another.”


This was supposed to be my favourite but unfinished post, but then I chose the wrong moment to watch the wrong movie, and here I am, not sure about how much of what I am feeling will come out instead of my knowledge. From the beginning, my apologies for that. The aim of this article is to analyse the image of the interpreter in movies, and to see if this image is correct or if there are mistakes. The reason why I said “unfinished” is because I will be talking about three movies, but I plan to write more as soon as I find more of them.

Of course, one of the movies I will talk about is Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter”, and here come the problems. I watched this movie long time ago, and I tried to avoid watching it again since then. It is not a bad movie, simply it is one of those you cannot watch too many times or, at least, I cannot. After deciding I wanted to write this post, though, I just knew that I had to go back to it, and so I did yesterday. Now I know it was a bad idea or, at least, a bad timing, because the movie shows too much of what I don’t need to see right now and too little of what that title makes me suppose. Who knows me can think that the problem is Nicole Kidman, but no, not this time. I think there is just too much implied in this movie that is painful for me in this exact moment of my life.

Anyway, alea iacta est, I watched it again, I have swallowed the bad feelings and the questions are ready. The other movies I will analyse are Peter Howitt’s “Johnny English Reborn” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel”. Let’s start!

 The Interpreter

Silvia Broome is an interpreter for the United Nations, she works at the Headquarters and she is part of the English booth. Her combination seems to be Spanish-French>English, but we immediately discover that she also speaks Ku, an African language which will be crucial for the plot. We can see several interpreting scenes during the movie, although not too many. One of the first ones is a speech at the General Assembly, and we can directly see something that is not really convincing. The speaker is addressing the audience in Spanish, and we can hear the different booths going into the other five official languages; we start and end with Silvia Broome. In this case, she is anticipating the speaker (we are at minute 6:25). This can happen (even if it should not), but it is kind of unlikely at the beginning of a sentence. We can assume they are implying she has the script in front, because the other interpreter has a document and she is reading it. In that case, an interpreter could anticipate the speaker, but she would and should be even more careful and leave a bigger gap, especially in an ideal situation in which the speaker is going to such a comfortable and easy to manage speed.

Around minute 15:00, Silvia is asked to interpret Ku during a private meeting. In this case, there are some things of which I am not convinced, and I hope some of my readers can clarify them to me, since some of them work for the UN. We see the interpreter standing, with a notebook on her hands, taking notes but doing a mix of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting. These conditions are often common in the market, but I do not expect the UN to have the interpreter standing while taking notes if she can be comfortable and do her job properly. Just because Francine Kaufmann did not stand for the rights of interpreters when they took her umbrella to give it to Madame Mitterrand does not mean that we should all accept this kind of treatment or that everyone treats interpreters without the respect they deserve! Moreover, she is not doing a consecutive, which is the way it should be done, since she is the only interpreter for both parties; she is simply doing a kind of “out loud chouchotage”. Is this normal in this kind of meetings?

The most puzzling moment is when, at minute 52:50, a janitor is speaking Portuguese and the interpreter from the French booth is interpreting into English for the policemen, and she shows us some of the “don’ts” of the profession:

–         He says he wasn’t here, I think.

She does not speak Portuguese, because she cannot understand a basic statement that even I understand, but they still choose her to interpret, instead of any of the other UN interpreters who, no doubt, have Portuguese among their working languages. Moreover, she uses the clauses an interpreter should never use because they make him visible (the ones I put in bold.)

What surprises me are not the mistakes by themselves, but the fact that a director, who for the first time obtained from the Secretary General (at that time, mister Kofi Annan) the permission to film a movie at the UNHQ, could not have an interpreter supervising the scenes and correcting the mistakes. How is that possible?

Johnny English Reborn 

This is the second episode of the parody of James Bond which sees Rowan Atkinson as one of the British secret agents. Towards the end (1:21:30), English ends up replacing one of the interpreters during the meeting between the British and the Chinese Prime Ministers.

The situation is not really conventional, with the dignitaries and the interpreters closed in a sort of capsule surrounded by the guards and technicians. We see the interpreters sitting in higher and less comfortable chairs than the politicians, which is a realistic situation, even if the situation would require smaller chairs to avoid bending excessively when whispering. The most doubtful details, though, are the absence of a notebook and a pen on the interpreter’s lap, and the short consecutive that both him and English are performing instead of the chuchotage, which would be the obvious choice in that situation. Again, a little check with an interpreter would have helped smoothing these points.


I have talked already about this movie on a previous post, so I will not dedicate too much space to the general story in here. What interests me this time is the character of the guide/interpreter who helps Brad Pitt. Obviously, we know he is not a professional interpreter and, in general, tourist guides are not, even if they present themselves as such. Moreover, I cannot judge the quality of the interpretation, since I do not speak the second language used, but I can judge his interpreting behaviour at least.

The example I am using is the interaction with the policeman starting at minute 1:32:14. In this case, we can see the interpreter sympathising with Pitt and (so it seems without knowing the language) summarising what the policeman says, instead of interpreting it. It would be good to know if, when Pitt is swearing, he repeats that or not. In theory, he should, but the interpreter has here the freedom of choosing less rude words to help the client obtaining his goal. It is not professional, but it is a common acting when one of the parties is in a position of inferiority and we want to help. At the end, he does not translate the “Fuck you”, and stops interpreting to follow Pitt. That is a normal behaviour for a guide, while an interpreter would finish his job before leaving.

In any case, I do not consider these as mistakes of the movie, because I think this is exactly the way a non professional interpreter would act. My aim with this last movie was to show what is commonly done and what, instead, would be done if using a professional interpreter.


As I said, this was just an analysis I wanted to do based on three well known movies, and I hope to be able to find more examples to use for another post. Just one last thing, if you want to know more about Francine Kaufmann’s anecdote, I found it in Pour une ethique du traducteur (Anthony Pym. Arras, Artois Presses Université, Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1997), but you can easily read the English version in here.

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