The rising popularity and controversy surrounding the celebrated Chinese television programme Les Interprètes (The Interpreters) got me thinking about other famous fictional interpreters in popular culture. Whilst there are always inaccuracies that can occur in fiction, such as the glamorisation or oversimplification of interpreting, programmes like this do raise awareness of what is a very highly-skilled and difficult profession, but which is still often overlooked. Our previous blog covered the top ten movie interpreters of all time but I want to share a few of my favourite interpreters from the worlds of film, TV and fiction.
Star Wars – C-3PO – Perhaps one of the most well-known and best-loved fictional interpreters, who speaks 6 million languages fluently. “Don’t blame me! I’m an interpreter! I’m not supposed to know the difference between a power socket and a computer terminal. I’m not much more than an interpreter, and not very good at telling stories.” Somehow I think interpreters around the world would disagree with this!
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – The Babel Fish – Whilst not technically an interpreter in the conventional sense, this small, yellow, leech-like fish, when placed in your ear, allows you to understand any language in the galaxy. This concept, developed in the classic books by Douglas Adams back in 1979, was well ahead of its time and technology is only now beginning to get anywhere close to it, with the advent of Skype translation and other interpreting tools.
Marvel Comics – Cypher – Cypher’s power lies in being able to understand and translate/interpret all forms of communication, whether they be written, verbal or non-verbal, made by both humans and machines. Like C-3PO and the Babel fish, this is a long way from the truth of interpreting, where the best interpreters work only in their mother tongue and 1-2 other languages. This is definitely a talent that all of us wish we could have!
The Terminal – Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) – Viktor, who taught himself English whilst trapped in the terminal at JFK due to a technicality of International Law, serves as an interpreter between the US authorities and a Russian who has been caught by the customs officers. Seeing the development of second language acquisition here is interesting, even if the plot does not allow the time to fully cover the process.
Game of Thrones – Missandei – Missandei finds herself in an unenviable position when she has to interpret between the Masters of Slaver’s Bay and Queen Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, a conversation that, if some of the words were interpreted accurately, could cause great offense. She does this with great tact and diplomacy, not realising that Daenerys speaks High Valyrian, the Masters’ language, and had understood the insults being thrown her way all along, leading to a fiery death for Master Kraznys at the hands of one of the Queen’s dragons. Whilst most real-world interpreters rarely find themselves in the room with a dragon, this is still a good example of the difficult and tense situations that interpreters often find themselves working in.
These are just a few of the great fictional interpreters out there, who whilst not always accurately portraying the profession, do a lot to raise awareness of interpreting amongst the general public.