I 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 SPOILER – where 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?