General · Writing

What Translators Can and Can’t Do

posterfix-449x700I watched “Arrival” this weekend. For the uninitiated, it is a movie about aliens arriving on Earth and the world’s attempts at communicating with them. The main character, Louise Banks, is supposedly one of the best linguists in the world, a translator whose work has greatly helped the United States, and naturally she is recruited to translate the alien language. Whether I liked this movie or not is besides the point, what I want to address in this post is the portrayal of Loiuse.

While I’m absolutely thrilled that there’s a movie that paints us translators as the real MVPs (because let’s face it, we’re not the most exciting bunch around), and sheds light on the importance of languages… during run time, I was just thinking, “Um. That’s… not how translation works?” Now that some time has passed since I watched it, I think I can finally put my finger down on what was bothering me.

Translators can translate one language into the other, provided that they do know both languages before hand. 

Translators cannot translate a language that, until two days ago, had not existed and there is no record of it anywhere. They cannot be expected to translate anything that is given to them. They are not walking dictionaries, for goodness sake. I was absolutely baffled when the MC was approached with some voice recording and asked to translate it. Like… are you even for real? 

Translators can learn new languages, but it’s a process that takes years, and they cannot work with them before mastering it to a certain extent. 

Translators cannot learn a completely alien language that is not similar to anything they’ve seen or heard before using a bunch of circle-like symbols and some made-up technology, and certainly not within a couple of months. I don’t care how clever this movie thinks itself to be, but standing there with a whiteboard that says “HUMAN” in a childish scrawl while thumping your chest is not going to make sense to anyone.


Translators can be helpful in bridging gaps between people.

Translators cannot save the world. In fact, they could very well destroy it. A simple mistranslation can cause chaos, troubled relationships… perhaps even wars. This was evident in the movie when our dear translator thought the aliens were saying “Offer weapons” and the whole world panicked, thinking they were about to be wiped out. 

Translators can think outside the box. 

Translators cannot just rely on words. One of the infuriating things about this movie is that Louise was only relying on a marker and whiteboard. Where are the colours? Where are the drawings? Where are the videos and photos? I mean, for God’s sake, the simplest way to get someone to understand you is through drawing them a picture, and here we have this supposedly brilliant linguist who didn’t even think to grab a bigger board. 

Also, let’s ignore this one glaring plot hole – MAJOR SPOILERwhere the aliens apparently can travel in time, but yet are not clever enough to somehow learn the human language and communicate through it – END SPOILER – I mean… maybe this is the writer in me speaking, but I just can’t accept it.  

One thing they got right, however, translators can get very very overworked and sleepless and just plain exhausted. Words can start to look so similar, to the point where you could forget how to spell one word or assume a typo to be totally correct… I swear sometimes I feel like I’m developing dyslexia.

* gets off soapbox *

Have you watched this movie? Did it make sense to you, or are the above points making you question its authenticity now? 

20 thoughts on “What Translators Can and Can’t Do

  1. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it. I’m still not sure after reading your review. Learning a new language always starts with words for common objects like food, chair, table, etc. Pictures are key. “Human” as a word for our species would be meaningless to an alien. They would already have a word for us that would mean alien, outsider, different or dangerous.

    1. Exactly! It didn’t make sense at all. “Human” is such a complex thing to teach an alien, and she should have started somewhere more simple.

      Many people are in awe of this movie, and I have to admit that the twist revealed at the end was interesting, but for the most part it just felt very slow. As I said, our work is not exciting, haha.

        1. Definitely hard. I’ve tried simultaneous interpretation and it is terrible. You lose track for one second and then you can never catch up.

  2. I hadn’t heard of this movie but now I want to see it just because your frustration with it made me giggle (not at you, but at the plot holes….. the small white board without images, haha!).

    1. Haha, you must see it and let me know what you think! You might enjoy it, but honestly I was too bothered by the misrepresentation to really get into it.

    1. Haha. I guess they were going for creativity, but it just didn’t add up for me. I mean… heck, one time in Italy I was trying to talk to this elderly lady and it took about a 100 gestures to get her to understand what I want. And she’s of the same species, so let alone an alien!

  3. I’m not a translator, but I studied French throughout high school and college, and I thought the same things through that movie! I really liked it, but I thought the main character was kind of a miracle worker to pull that off. 🙂

    1. Yes! There was no way she could’ve pulled that off so easily and quickly. I just couldn’t “suspend my belief”, so to say, and that took away from my enjoyment. 😦

  4. This was a really great interesting post! Picture me Gone is the only novel I’ve read that represents a character that’s a translator, and I can’t think of any movies. Lack of representation for sure!

    I did laugh so much reading this because I’ve found myself getting equally irritated by psychology related things.

    I haven’t heard of this movie, it sounds like it had a good premise but lacked basic logic. I won’t be rushing to check it out!

    1. Oh I’ve never heard of that book. Will have to check it out! But yes, total lack of representation, and when they do represent us, it’s not… quite accurate. I can only imagine how you must feel about on-screen psychiatrists… even I think they over-embellish things!

      Yes! It could have been so much better, but the execution was terrible. So disappointed. 😦

  5. On a much smaller scale, we face the same problems translating books from one language to another. When I studied Russian and read Dostoevsky in the original language, it was quite different than what the translater thought he was saying.

    1. Oh yes. Totally agree. It makes it difficult to “rate” the book, because you can never tell if it’s the translator or the author’s touch that made you love/hate it.

  6. Alas, my wife slept during the majority of this movie. She blamed the movie’s plot, but I think it’s more due to her irregular sleep schedule.

    I agree with some of your observations, but I disagree with others. I will try to explain the rationale behind the agreements and disagreements.

    Dr. Lousie wasn’t just a normal translator. Dr. Lousie (bless her soul) was an extremely talented linguist. Now we can spend hours showcasing our google prowess trying to differentiate a translator from a linguist, but that would be futile. The point the movie tried to convey through various instances (like when she tried to explain why we can’t just ask them “What is your purpose on earth?”) is that she doesn’t specialize purely in translating A to B or C to E. Her experience and understanding expands to understanding people, races, and that language Is not necessarily structured or written or spoken. It’s an expression that can take various forms. In addition, they focus on her experience in analyzing languages that haven’t been spoken at all in her life time, such as ancient Egyptian, to which the alien situation is not vastly different. Another reason why they moved directly to written, not vocal.

    Yes. I agree that “Human” might not be my first choice of a simple word to use, so
    I think it was probably just used for dramatic reasons.

    I can offer a possible explanation as to why the aliens did not dumb their language to human language. It’s not lack of ability. It’s for a multitude of reasons. Any human language might simply be incapable of expressing what this superior form of expression can convey. What they were able to exchange in the movie, is approximate “sentences” to explain specifically the “purpose” of their arrival. When the language is used in its full glory, it might be capable of so much more. Understanding it, elevates the human mind. This language is not a tool. It’s an evolution. It might not even have sentences or structures. They wanted the humans to attempt to ascend to that level. That’s why they said, analyzing the language will take years (my guess, hundreds of years)

    Finally, how they were able to get out what they got, in such a short time. It might have been unlikely and a mere movie-making creative liberty, but not entirely impossible. The only analogy I can offer with this is that when the power of a nation or entire nations is behind something, it gets done quickly. In 9 years, we reached the moon, because a nation was dedicated. In the 50 years since then, nothing on the same level took place, due to lack of dedication. So you can say ratio-wise, we can do things in 1/5th the time when we are dedicated as humans. I say they can get to some basic words during a few months.

    I think what made this movie unique, is its fresh perspective on alien encounters and its message about supporting unity.

    Have a nice day,

    1. Hahaha. Rim wasn’t kidding when she said you sent a long comment. Now let’s see if I can counter your arguments.

      I know Louise isn’t your everyday translator, but even linguistics draws the line somewhere. Since you’re mentioning hieroglyphs, you have to remember that it took scientists and linguists hundreds of years to break down their meaning, even though the symbols used are relatively familiar in shape and form, and here we are talking about humans, not a completely different species with an alien culture (or lack thereof). Yes, I’m aware that with today’s technology it might have taken less time… yet we’d still be talking years, not a couple of months.

      I might be inclined to accept your theory of why the aliens did not dumb their language, but I think you’re giving them way too much credit. If they had such intentions in mind, they would have managed to act upon them without endangering one of their kind. Abbott died to protect Louise and Ian. They must have known, somehow, that their methods are not entirely sound, and would get them hurt.

      Sorry, but I disagree. It’s impossible. If they had taken a year or so, maaaaybe I could have accepted it, but a couple of months? No way, no how. Not with the technology we have now, and not even with the technology they featured in the movie.

      Yes, the movie did have a fresh take on things, but the execution was lacking in my opinion (and I too nearly fell asleep!).

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  7. I LOVE this! It’s so annoying when movies get things wrong. I remember seeing Armageddon with friends and one of them pointed out the idiocy in thinking that it would be easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than training astronauts to drill!!! As a writer, though, it always annoys me in movies when novelists’ agents just show up at their house, asking for their manuscript. Never happens! And we don’t go drop our manuscripts off on our agents’ desks, either!

    1. As much as I love Armageddon, I have to agree that that particular aspect of it never made sense. And yes! That would never ever happen, and you’d think the writers of these scripts would know better! =/

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