When language saves the world – and translators become heroes

A translator’s perspective on the film Arrival.

I was excited when Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction film Arrival hit cinemas at the end of 2016, as I’d heard that the main protagonist was a linguist.

The story begins with an alien invasion, the creatures arriving on Earth in 12 spaceships. Linguist Louise Banks is given the task of making contact with them to find out the reasons for and aims of their visit. In real life, it’s unlikely that a linguist would simultaneously act as a translator, interpreter and language teacher, but in the interests of heroism we can make allowances!

As the aliens’ spoken language proves difficult to decipher, Banks turns to their written language, which takes the form of complicated circular symbols, or logograms. Analogous to Japanese or ancient cuneiform writing, every logogram corresponds to a word or phrase.

Does language change thought?

Through her language analysis and repeated attempts to communicate with the aliens, Banks realises that the aliens have a circular rather than a linear perception of time. For them, there is no past, present or future. On its own, this concept is not so radical. In our world, too, time is perceived in different ways. But Banks digs deeper: she wonders if the reason the aliens don’t think in a linear fashion is because their language is also non-linear. This is basically a spin on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which postulates that the structure of a language has a direct influence on its speakers’ cognition.

As a translator who has lived in different cultures, I am sympathetic to the idea that learning new languages changed and expanded my way of looking at things. But did it fundamentally alter the structure of my thought? Do I have a different perspective on bananas after living in West Africa, where I encountered many different kinds of banana which all have a different name and are not classified as belonging to a general group? This is the reasoning behind Sapir and Whorf’s theory. Because an Inuit people have no collective concept for what we call “snow”, but rather many different terms for various snow phenomena, the Inuit people, according to the theory, have a fundamentally different way of thinking about snow compared to, say, Americans. After all, the English language, like the German language, has only one word for snow, which can be modified with different adjectives.

The film Arrival pushes this concept to the limit. What happens when you immerse yourself fully in a new language? Can you rewire your brain? The deeper she goes into the aliens’ language, the more profoundly Louise Banks feels the effects. The boundary between present and past dissolves, and she can see into the future – even if she no longer perceives it as such. Knowing what awaits her, including painful and sorrowful moments, she nevertheless becomes freer in her decisions.

Translations communicate the subconscious aspects of language

Expanding consciousness through language is an inspiring idea – but also one that would make translation an even more complex and daunting task. Translation already implies much more than just converting individual words and sentences into another language. Translators have to make sure that subconscious aspects of language such as context, culture, and different attitudes and systems, are reflected in the translated text and provide the reader with access to a different language culture. The nuances and ambiguities that every language culture possesses are the big challenge facing a translator. This is a point the film also makes clear: while trying to discover the intention behind the aliens’ visit to Earth, Banks translates an alien’s logogram answer as “weapon”. This triggers panic among the American military, and one group attacks the aliens. The translator argues that “weapon” is only one possible meaning, that depending on context the symbol could also mean “tool” or “gift” – which would fundamentally change the relationship between the humans and their extraterrestrial visitors.

No matter how many languages we learn and how deeply we immerse ourselves in them, it seems language will never completely rewire the way our brains think. Language can, however, broaden our perspectives, and as translators we can play a part in helping people with different languages and cultures to understand each other better.

What can we translate for you today?

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