4 linguistic lessons we can learn from movies

Updated: Mar 10

"Are you talkin’ to me?"... The question needs to be raised, for, ever since their transition from silent to “talkies”, movies have given us unforgettable lines. For a visual art form so focused on the spoken word, it seems only fitting that they should dig deeper and delve into the inner workings of languages. How does it all translate? From action to comedy and emotional scenes, here are a few key insights into the art (and pitfalls) of translation that we can learn from the movies.

Lost in Translation: “That’s all he said?”

Given its title, Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film, which follows two Americans – an aging actor and a young married woman – who happens to be staying at the same hotel in Tokyo, “Lost in Translation” seems the perfect choice for our first movie. The Japanese city provides the perfect backdrop for recreating the sense of loss, sleeplessness, and inscrutability that foreign surroundings and an undecipherable language foster.

Among the many humorous vignettes, the triangular scene between Bill Murray’s weary actor, the vivacious Japanese director, and the willing and patient interpreter is a treat, whether you’re a linguist or not. The humour works on a simple idea: the obvious lack of faithfulness of the translation provided by the interpreter. Being no fool, and yet powerless, Murray’s character can tell the translation does not match the original speech but has no other option but to trust it.

There is another factor potentially at play here: When translating from Japanese to English, the interpreter is short and swift. When translating from English to Japanese, her message is much longer. As linguists, we also know that not all languages work in the same way, and it could well be that Japanese requires a different syntax and more polite phrases than a more direct language such as English. Maybe, just maybe, this apparent lack of faithfulness is just the necessary adaptation performed by any good translator.

Be it true or not, the scene remains a great depiction of the interdependence that exists between the three protagonists involved in any translation project: the director (the original author?) who needs his message to be understood in another language, the linguist going back and forth, and the end recipient being left puzzled and misguided. As such, the scene also acts as a great reminder of the destructive effect that a poor translation may have on its target audience, who find themselves unable to know what to do with the incomplete message they have been given.

Pulp Fiction: “Le Royal with cheese”

Two men are driving around while chatting aimlessly about “the little differences” between Europe and the USA. This iconic scene is probably one of the most iconic of any of Tarantino’s films, if not in cinema history.

For all their apparent inanity, the two characters’ random thoughts highlight the many ways in which cultural differences may affect a translation, or rather transcreation. Indeed, it is the rationale of this more creative type of translation that is being unveiled here. Translating the phrase “quarter pounder” may seem just a matter of simple maths, a straightforward conversion of the Anglo-Saxon imperial system into the European metric system. Yet, anything that touches cultural references is never that straightforward: Something as defining and highly visible as a product name requires adaptation in order to fit another cultural framework and resonate with a particular audience. “Le Royal with cheese” may have lost all reference to any weight unit, but it suggests the superiority of this burger over others, giving this product name more power from a pure marketing perspective.

Wall-e: Eeeeeeeve?

When writing a blog on translation, it may seem odd to include a movie whose sole purpose is to tell a story without using a single real word. “Wall-e” and “Eve”, the names of the two robots at the heart of the film, are pretty much the only two sounds that we are given to hear.

And yet… the film perfectly depicts just how much can be expressed by what surrounds a language: a sound, a tone, a certain look in the eye. The same word, be it Wall-e or Eve, takes on different meanings depending on the inflection of the voice or shape of the eyes. As any linguist is well aware, it demonstrates the importance of tone of voice and visual context for expressing a message. In our digital world, any content, whether translated or not, comes as a package: the font style, the colour scheme, the visuals, the overall design of a website – all these elements interact with the actual written words to create a seamless experience and powerful story.

Paddington: “Dogs must be carried”

Yes, we’ve picked yet another children’s movie for this blog. Who knew that a little bear from darkest Peru could teach us a thing or two about languages and the perils of literal translation? Having recently landed in the British capital and been adopted by the Browns, Paddington embarks on his adventure with a few mishaps on the London Tube.

Among the many pitfalls, the intricacies of the English language also come into play. Truth be told, this is by no means the only example of the dangers of literal translations that you may encounter, both in movies and in other media. But there is something particularly endearing about watching a foreigner stumbling while trying to make sense of the new city and language they are confronted with. Their tentative attempts highlight the unavoidable failings of translating a sentence word for word, rather than understanding its overall message in context. Localisation and transcreation aim at achieving the latter, by using a different phrase that captures the intended meaning in a way that does not feel translated.

Faithfulness, cultural differences, tone of voice and visual context, and the dangers of literal translation… These are some of the most crucial aspects, and often challenges, of any transcreation project. They highlight the translator’s constant struggle between respecting the original content and making it palatable to a specific target audience. A fine balance that we are constantly striving to refine in all our transcreation efforts at Launch in Translation.

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