Interpreters in movies part 2.


Peter Joshua: What are you going to do?

Regina Lampert: try and get my old job back at EURESCO I suppose.

Peter: Doing what?

Regina: I’m a simultaneous translator, like Sylvie, only she’s English into French and I’m French into English.


Segundas partes nunca fueron buenas, that’s what they say in Spanish (“Shrek 2” is the exception, of course.) In this case, I would say that neither was the first one, but I have been overwhelmed by everyone’s kindness on the previous post about this subject. I hope I will keep this one on the same level. As soon as I published the other article, I realised that some of my favourite movies have interpreters in them (my loving them and the presence of the interpreter are not related, though.) In this post, I am going to analyse the image of the interpreter in Stanley Donen’s “Charade”, in Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and in Alan Grint’s “The Greek interpreter”, season 2 episode 2 of “The adventures of Sherlock Holmes”.


In this movie, Audrey Hepburn is Regina Lampert, a woman chased by her dead husband’s associates in crime. Without a dime (her husband sold everything before dying) but with an incredible number of Givenchy clothes, Regina decides to go back to her old job: simultaneous interpreter at EURESCO. In fact, she says: “simultaneous translator”, as it was common some time ago, and as it still is in Italy.

The plot is quite good, and so is the cast, which includes, apart from Ms Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and James Coburn. The details about interpreting, on the other hand, are not that realistic. First of all, at minute 47, Regina says: “What that has got to do with the CIO?” to what Matthau/Bartholomew answers: “CIA, Mrs Lampert, CIA!” Now, I am not sure about how the work was in the ‘60s, but I find it unlikely that an interpreter working for an international organization doesn’t know the acronym CIA, considering that, back then, the agency had already been operative since 15 years.

Another puzzling part is the one in the booths, starting at minute 1:25:20. Here, we see Sylvie, interpreter in the French booth, standing in the English one and talking with Regina, while the floor is taken by an Italian speaker. Seriously, I have several questions about this part:

–         Why are they alone in the booths? Was that normal before? It seems pretty strange, considering that nothing is coming out from the French and English booths while another language is spoken. Where is the other interpreter covering for that combination? Don’t tell me they could not manage to have a perfect cover of all language needs as we did this summer!

–         Assuming they really are one in each booth, how can Sylvie leave hers uncovered? You can abandon your colleague for a while, or worse. As Elena once said: “La confianza con el compañero nos hace hacer cosas asquerosas en la cabina.” To be clear, she was talking about me eating onion tortilla before going in the booth.

–         I don’t even know if there is a point in asking how Peter can enter like that in the booth, let alone kissing her and distracting her. Talking about that, a professional interpreter would not repeat her sentence, no matter how hard the other person is trying to seduce her, or so I think. I still have yet to try this, however.

Two things, though, are realistic enough: the first one is her way of keeping one ear always free from the headset; the second one is the image of the public staring at the booth when they start talking about their business with the microphone on. I know for sure that happens a lot more than we would like to admit, and I know several funny anecdotes; also I remember checking constantly if the light was off while talking with a friend and colleague about lovers during a break.

As I said, I love this movie, partly because Audrey Hepburn is one of my favourite actresses, and partly, as I said once talking about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, because I am not a romantic person and I need romance in movies! In any case, all my love for it and for her cannot blind my interpreter’s point of view; this movie needed some expert advisor on that sense.

Lost in translation

 This is another great movie, not only because of the actors, but in general. I love how they play with the lights and the colours to describe the different states of minds and feelings, or the choice of space and locations to indicate the characters’ abstraction and loneliness. Moreover, of course, I love the part about communication and languages, often just implied, but always incredibly clear. For those of you who don’t know the movie, the two main characters are a famous American actor (Bill Murray/Bob Harris) and a young American graduate (Scarlett Johansson/Charlotte). They are in Tokyo, he is there to film a whisky ad, and she is following her husband, a photographer, who is also there to work. Neither of them can sleep, and neither of them is happy. Lost in a city they don’t know, surrounded by a language and a culture they don’t understand, they enter in contact with the Japanese life through all the visual inputs the city offers them.

Harris has an interpreter who helps him communicate with the director and, in this case, we can see the clichés we associate with oriental languages being represented. We are at minute 9, and the director explains with a lot of emphasis how he would like Harris to act. After all that, half a minute of really serious and deep explanation, the interpreter simply says: “He want you to turn, look in camera, ok?” Harris, following the cliché, and everybody’s thoughts, replies: “That’s all he said?” The same happens the other way, with Harris asking a simple question and the interpreter doing a monologue for the director. I don’t want to judge the quality of the interpreting or the reality of the scene, because I know that is not the point of the movie. As far as I am concerned, she is not even an interpreter, I think she is a secretary who works for the production and happens to speak English. The whole point of this scene is to show us how alienated the protagonist is, and his face says it all, shows the despair he feels in a world he doesn’t understand and in where he doesn’t belong. The whole scene is mockery, but we feel it real, we receive the struggle and the suffering and we can only chuckle bitterly.

 The Greek interpreter

To be brief, and to avoid spoiling the plot, I will only say that, in this episode, Holmes helps a Greek interpreter who has been recruited for a job and dragged into a crime. I have to admit that, although I am a great fan of Sir Conan Doyle’s books, which I keep rereading both in Italian and English since I was 13, I am not extremely pleased with many of the screen adaptations of those stories. The modern “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is maybe the only one that doesn’t disappoint me at all; that is because, despite the fact that it is transferred to present day London, it respects the original characters with all their details, if not the stories 100%. “Sherlock Holmes”, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, is not a bad series of movies, and it tries to respect the original as far as Hollywood allows it. In them, though, we see a London more suited for a Tim Burton’s movie, with some hints of “Dr Jekill and Mr Hyde” and a little of Jack the Ripper. It would be silly to say that we can forgive that thanks to the main actors, because they are an incredible pleasure for our eyes, but they also are the farthest I can imagine from the original Holmes and Watson; the only relation between Downey Jr and Sherlock is, maybe, the debauched life style they led. Anyway, going back to the beginning, this series I want to analyse lacks a little of the wittiness that is an important part of the books.

The episode that I quote shows us, again, some of the “don’ts” of the interpreting profession. At minute 10, one of the first statements of our interpreter is: “For many years I have been the chief Greek interpreter in London,” and Sherlock’s face is as skeptical as we will be when, around minute 16, we see him in action. The situation is very dangerous and stressful, we must admit that, but the “chief Greek interpreter in London” should be more used to tension and should handle it a little better. We forgive him for adding or modifying the sentences, because he is more concerned for the guy’s life, but we cannot forgive him for keeping saying: “He says” or “He writes”, there is no excuse for that!


I hope you enjoyed this post, and that it gave you something to think about, either if you share my point of view or if you don’t. And here comes the serious danger: there should be a third part, dedicated to two more movies, and then my first trilogy will be done.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: