Translation took to the big screen this year in the Academy Award-winning film, Arrival. Indeed, when an ominously oblong spacecraft touches down on Earth, translation proves to be humanity’s only hope. As the world descends into utter chaos, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is sent to the frontlines to attempt to communicate with the mysterious “Heptapods”—to find out what they want and why they’ve come.

We asked three top translators to watch Arrival and to give us their two cents (via email) on the linguacentric feature: Hillary Gulley, translator from the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and instructor at CUNY—Queens College; Esther Allen, translator from the Spanish, French, and Portuguese and associate professor at CUNY Graduate Center and Baruch College; and Will Evans, translator from the Russian, president at Cinestate, founder of Deep Vellum Publishing, and cofounder of Deep Vellum Books.


Esther Allen, Will Evans, and Hillary Gulley.

Here’s what they had to say:

Words Without Borders (WWB): What did Arrival get so right about being a translator?

Esther Allen: In “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, on which Arrival is based, the words associated with Dr. Banks are “linguist” and “linguistics”; the word “translate” never appears in the story. Part of what Arrival’s cinematic translation of the Chiang story does is introduce translation. And Arrival is an incredible translation, which takes a short story written in 2000 and adapts, expands, and reinvents it to make a statement that is profoundly and presciently about where we are now in 2017. Reading the story provides an interesting perspective on the film’s origins, but the story’s intellectual and political ambitions are far more limited.

What Arrival gets—far better than the Chiang story does—is that translation is about context. When Banks translates one of the alien symbols as “offer weapon,” the world goes into a panic. But she argues that in context the term could have a number of meanings, “weapon” being only one. This is exactly how a translator deals with the ambiguity that is inherent in every word and particularly challenging when moving between languages. Any given term in one language has the potential to become, legitimately, a range of other terms in translation, depending on context, intention, and a host of other factors.

Hillary Gulley: I like that Arrival so vividly illustrates that what a translator communicates and receives in language has at least as much to do with the subconscious element of language as it does with the information that we receive and reconcile consciously.

Will Evans: The importance of translating the whole experience of language—beyond words, combining the phrase or statement or entire text, adding in context, nuance, phrasing—rather than to think of translation as a direct word-for-word transfer of meaning.

WWB: What did Arrival get horribly wrong about being a translator?

Hillary Gulley: The movie confounds the skill sets of a linguist and a translator, for one thing, and then the separate skill sets of a live interpreter and an ESL teacher on top of that. I couldn’t figure out why Dr. Banks was expected to be all four. Maybe because she is a woman? Women tend to be great at making seventeen disparate jobs look as though they belong to one seamless role. Look at the rest of the characters in the movie, who are all men, each with a single mission—or maybe two: their assigned task, involving either fighting or science, and their seemingly self-assigned duty to second-guess the only woman there, who also happens to be the only one of them equipped to save humanity. At some point I said, this screenplay was definitely written by a man. (I was right—and the same applies to the short story that inspired the screenplay.)

In any case, there is this assumption—in the movie and in life—that a linguist and anyone else who speaks multiple languages is automatically a translator, which isn’t the case at all: some of the best linguists and most fluent speakers of a second language I’ve known are not great translators, and vice versa.

The film also propagates the common misconception that translators are walking thesauruses. Maybe this bugs me because I am the worst thinker on my feet, and prone to blanking on all names and the simplest terms. At home I handle this by using a series of sound effects—there’s a favorite clicking sound I usually resort to—so I can move quickly through a sentence without getting stuck on a word. In the film, whenever someone asked Dr. Banks for a term, I wanted her to pass them a copy of Roget’s instead of obliging herself to answer as if it were part of her job description.

Esther Allen: I winced when it’s revealed, in one of the many flash forward scenes, that the book Banks has published about the Heptapod language is titled The Universal Language. That indicates a return to the Chomskyan linguistic model which scorned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But Sapir-Whorf—the hypothesis that your experience of the world and particularly of time is conditioned by the language you speak—is the central underlying premise of both movie and short story. And it’s only Sapir-Whorf that has something to tell us about translation. Translators don’t deal in universals, they deal in particulars, in contexts. But that has more to do with the history of linguistics than with the practice of translation.

Will Evans: I don’t know too many translators who live in modernist masterpiece houses on lakefront property, but I like the idea of a linguist approaching translation as a series of problems to be solved without losing the empathy so necessary to make translation successful. It’s super valuable to keep the fields of linguistics and literary translation in dialogue with one another to continue to expand our understanding of the full range of possibilities that language contains.

Read the full interview >>

Related: Interview with the linguist behind the film Arrival