Interpreters in the Movies – The Top Ten of All Time

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Interpreters, often less recognised than their importance merits, play a pivotal role in communication, much like the multi-lingual C3PO from Star Wars. Despite being one of the oldest professions, interpreting remains relatively obscure in the public eye. To shed light on this vital role, we’ve meticulously explored movies featuring interpreters, curating a list of the top ten films. This selection not only celebrates the profession but also offers insights into the diverse ways interpreting is woven into storytelling in cinema.

10. Charade


Grossing $13 million
Directed by Stanley Donens in 1963

Reggie (Audrey Hepburn)

In this criminal comedy, Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is an interpreter for the UN and wants to file for divorce, but finds her husband dead in his apartment and herself surrounded by gangsters and agents. She receives support from Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), who helps her solve the mystery. It is the oldest movie on our list and presents the beginnings of simultaneous interpreting in movies, as well as an unprofessional behaviour of an interpreter who leaves in the middle of the conference!



9. Desert Flower


Grossing $14 million
Directed by Sherry Horman in 2009

Somali Hospital Worker (Mahamed Mohamoud Egueh)

Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede) needs an interpreter when she is in hospital because she can’t understand what the doctor is saying. But because the real interpreter is absent that day, they call a Somali hospital worker who speaks English and Somali. Instead of translating what the doctor is saying, he starts giving her his personal opinion about her having the operation, showing the danger of using non-qualified interpreters in medical settings who are influenced by their own cultural beliefs.



8. Amistad


Grossing $44 million
Directed by Steven Spielberg in 1997

Professor Gibbs (Austin Pendleton) and Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

Professor Gibbs (Austin Pendleton) is the court interpreter for 40 African people who face the death penalty – but unfortunately he fails miserably because he doesn’t understand them. Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an African interpreter and succeeds in court because he actually understands what the 40 people tell him; the purpose of being an interpreter!



7. Spanglish


Grossing $55 million
Directed by James L. Brooks in 2004

Christina (Shelbie Bruce)

Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) is a Mexican girl who’s moved to Los Angeles with her mum. Her mum (Paz Vega), who can’t speak a word of English, starts working for an American family and the little girl has to interpret several times for her (in order to ensure communication). Spanglish is a brilliant representation of the presence of the Spanish language in the United States and a good example of how a culture clash can make interpreting very difficult.



6. Zero Dark Thirty


Grossing $108 million
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow in 2012

Various Interpreters

Featuring different military interpreters, this film shows the manhunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after September 11, and pictures the profession as an integral part of the mission. It definitely shows an interesting point of view of interpreting in the military field for all those who are not a part of it. It also shows the difference between military interpreters, who work in the conflict zone, and those who ‘just’ provide community interpreter services.



5. Lost in Translation


Grossing $119
Directed by Sofia Coppola in 2003

Ms. Kawasaki (Akiko Takeshita)

Ms. Kawasaki (Akiko Takeshita) is the interpreter during an advertisement-shoot for Suntory whisky, where she has to interpret between the American actor (Bill Murray) and the Japanese director (Yutaka Tadokoro). She doesn’t interpret all of what the director says because of cultural reasons: the director gives explicit and even rude orders to the actor, which the interpreter doesn’t want to interpret as it is against her moral understanding of Japanese politeness. As a result, there is no communication between the actor and director, which leads to even more hilarious misunderstandings.



4. The Interpreter


Grossing $162 million
Directed by Sidney Pollack in 2005

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman)

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter working for the United Nations in New York City. She was raised in the Republic of Matobo, a fictional African country, and so speaks the tribal language. It represents the real work of an interpreter, working for one of the most important institutions in the world and showing how accurate and precise an interpreter has to be. Here’s an excerpt of a discussion between the interpreter and an U.S Secret Service agent:

Silvia Broome: I don’t care for him.
Tobin Keller: Wouldn’t you mind if he were dead?
Silvia Broome: I wouldn’t mind if he were gone.
Tobin Keller: Same thing.
Silvia Broome: No, it isn’t. If I interpreted gone as dead I’d be out of a job, if dead and gone were the same thing there’d be no UN.



3. Blood Diamond


Grossing $171 million
Directed by Edward Zwick in 2006

Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a white Rhodesian gunrunner in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, who smuggles diamonds into Liberia. He speaks English and Krio (the language spoken in Sierra Leone) and interprets between the different people, including an American journalist who he falls in love with.



2. The Mummy


Grossing $415 million
Directed by Stephen Sommers in 1999

Rachel Weisz (Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan)

Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) reads ancient Egyptian writings and translates them into English for her friend Rick O’Connell. She interprets what the Mummy (which is 3000 years old) says, and, in the end, thanks to her knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language, she can stop the mummy from destroying the world. Hooray!



1. Dances with Wolves


Grossing $424 million
Directed by Kevin Costner in 1990

Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell)

Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) interprets dialogues between the medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner), as she speaks English and the Sioux language Lakota. The movie is set during the American Civil War in 1863 and shows the relationship between a white American soldier and a Sioux tribe. Because of his willingness to understand them, he needs an interpreter which in this case is Stands With A Fist, the white adopted daughter of the tribe’s medicine man. Sorry, we couldn’t find anything online showing her interpreting.


What do you think? Any missing? Any you disagree with?

Why not share your best on-screen interpreters with us via our Facebook page. We would love to add more to the list in the near future.


By Tania Gonzalez Veiga and Maja Bilbija, professional translators with Kwintessential.

…and remember, if you ever need an interpreter, go with a pro, or you’ll end up like this poor man!


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