Interpreters in movies part 3.


Pierre : Mais, comment ça se fait que vous traduisez aussi bien aussi vite?

Mathilde : On me paye pour ça, vous savez?

Pierre : Oui, oui, mais enfin, vous connaissez des termes techniques très précis sur les systèmes de stockage et l’ingénierie.

Mathilde : Aucun mérite.


Here I am, exactly as I said, talking about two more movies in which we see an interpreter. When I watched the first one, I thought for a moment that I could not finish this trilogy, because the subject was really too painful, but a little of fresh air and some good news helped me, and I managed to watch the second one as well. The result is even worse than before, because these two movies show very little of the work of an interpreter, but they represent perfectly his life. I am going to talk to you about Hector Babenco’s “El pasado” and Zabou Breitman’s “Je l’aimais”. I only want to inform you that I am going to spoil the movies so, please, be aware of that if you continue reading.

El pasado

Rimini and Sofia are a couple who is getting a divorce, the most peaceful divorce in history, it would seem. He is a translator, and at the beginning of the movie he works on subtitling some movies. After the separation, he starts a new life, but Sofia is always there, calling him and haunting him. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries to stay away from her and to be happy with his new relationships, she will keep stalking him. At some point, he’s offered to work as an interpreter, with an old friend from university. We don’t know how this is possible, but he falls madly in love with her after what can be a small congress of some days. After declaring his love, he gets sick and faints during a session of interpreting. It doesn’t matter, against all bets, this love story continues and they end up together but he gets really sick, possibly Alzheimer (no one, apart from Sofia, has the courage of pronouncing the word, too painful for anyone who relies on his memory to gain a living). From that moment on, everything falls around him, and brings him back to his life with Sofia; el pasado, after haunting him, has swallowed him, as in a perfect circular story. There is no improving in his life or, if there is, he loses it to go back to the beginning.

There is very little of the work of the interpreter to analyse, as I already said, but there is a lot of the psychology. At the beginning, he works on translating, both texts and videos. Nothing to criticise about that, I cannot subtitle a video without listening to the original through headphones but, I guess, if someone can, it is not a problem. When we see him and Carmen interpreting, instead, it is not completely convincing. Maybe it simply is that I never had the chance to work in a similar situation, but we have a French speaker, who talks at an unnatural slow speed, so slow that we hope none of our clients will ever speak like that, or we won’t be able to stay focused on our interpreting. The interpreters are sitting on a regular table on one side of the stage, and each one of them has a microphone. Not only the speaker is really slow, he also stops after every sentence; the interpreters, then, are doing a short consecutive, which is simply repeating the five words the poor man says every time. The only thing they could do to make the experience a little normal for the audience would be to keep a certain coherence, avoiding switching from one to the other every time, but no, they change every single time, passing from a female to a male voice constantly. Of course, it is better to let the poor colleague a little time to breath after having interpreted as much as five words!

This movie presents us one of the aspects of the life of an interpreter: the loneliness. One of my mentors and, also, one of my biggest inspirations, said that the working life of the interpreter is difficult, and that it is even more complicated to combine it with a satisfying personal life, especially in the case of women. As for men, he said, “it still is not a male profession, and the interpreters are not seen as alpha males at all.” It is funny, but it is true; I am going to generalise, I know many friends who are not like this at all. In any case, I think that female interpreters are big fighters, and they don’t want to share their life and success with anyone else, which is why their relationships don’t last. Male interpreters, on the contrary, are often more relaxed, and happy to have a stronger, leading woman on their side. Feel free to contradict me, but we see something similar in the movie; Rimini is supposedly good at what he does, but he can’t be happy with his own life. He was not happy with Sofia, but he is not capable of living without her, and keeps going back to her every time she stalks him. In his own words, it is a teenagers’ romance which lasted more than it should have, but the sad part is that it never really ends, because he is not able to live a life outside the security that story gave him.

Je l’aimais

Pierre is a man with a small company, and he is trying to expand his business. He travels to Hong Kong and he asks for an interpreter during the meeting with Mr Xing and his employees. The first approach with the interpreter is horrible, because he behaves like any other man when he realises his chances to close the deal are in the hands of a woman. We are at minute 35 and Pierre asks Mathilde, the interpreter, where is the man who was supposed to be working for him, and questions her competences with technical vocabulary.

In general, she doesn’t give a bad image of the interpreter; she does a pretty good bilateral interpreting, even if she switches from Chinese to English when talking to Mr Xing. She also speaks using the first person, at least until things get complicated. Pierre starts not making any sense, and Mathilde is professional enough as to stay neutral and try to help him, but the situation is so obvious that Mr Xing stops the meeting because he thinks Pierre “is falling in love and he doesn’t want to make a deal with a Frenchman who is falling in love”. We forgive her for saying this using the third person, because the interpreting has stopped and she is just trying to make the situation clear to the client. What would have been better, though, would have been to keep interpreting while they were speaking, instead of turning her head, as if blushing, and smiling happily at the insinuation. When she really disappoints us, however, is when, instead of defending the interpreter’s job after one more of Pierre’s statements doubting her capacities, she simply says that there is no merit in what she does. Honestly, there is plenty of merit in knowing the vocabulary of sectors you are not really interested in, and in having more knowledge of different fields than the supposed experts; but, why not? Diminish yourself, society doesn’t do it enough!

All the interpreting is relegated to these few minutes, 35-45, but the rest of the movie is so sadly related to that that it is difficult to watch. Mathilde waits for Pierre at the bar of his hotel, and they end up sleeping together. They don’t know each other, but they swear they are madly in love with each other. After all, as Connor says to Abby in “Primeval”:

 “When has that [not knowing someone] ever stopped people from fancying each other before?”

We see these two people living an affair around the world, meeting as soon as their jobs bring them close. It goes on for years, with him swearing his love, and maybe even believing in what he says, at least for a while. He even tries to make something serious out of the affair, but it gets scared and abandons the project. She also swears her love, and the more she does it, the more she seems to wish it was over; when he decides not to go for a life with her, she does the most stupid thing she can do: she keeps seeing him but trying to forget him when he is not there, pretending what they have is just a game. She only really finds the strength to let him go when, telling him she is pregnant, he asks who the father is. Is that serious? Is that the worse thing he did to you?

Actually, no, but that unfulfilling relationship was enough for her as long as she was living a full life as an interpreter travelling around, and she didn’t want something stable to stop her. When the idea of a child, with all the implications, presents itself, she realises she wants more from her man, but she doesn’t recognise Pierre as such. It is the curse of the alpha females, either they are happy with their jobs, or they are happy with their lifes, and we can only pray we will be one of those few who can have both sides of the coin!

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