Lost in translation

Short read


Margaux Portron, Research and Communications Associate, Artraker.

I have been thinking and reading about the politics of translation lately, by which I mean both Gayatri Spivak’s article and the concept of translation as serving a greater agenda. I love translating, because it is halfway between interpretation and creativity, something that I find in my academic work. Being part of Artraker I have been looking into what research had been carried out regarding peacemaking and translation, or translating as peacemaking and conflict prevention. I have not found much – but if you do know sources please send them my way!

Nevertheless if translating has a creative scope, which I am sure it has, and creativity should be part of peace processes, which is what we are trying to work on here at Artraker, then translating is perhaps more than a simple tool for negotiations. In other words, translation is not simply a technology.

We know how mistranslations can put even more pressure on diplomatic processes. We also know how some spectators were angry at Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, claiming it is a racist film. While I do not deny anyone the legitimacy to see racism in the reproduction of stereotypes by the film, I think it is a bit unfair, for in my mind what the film is about is how the characters see Japan and Japanese people – not how they are. Bob is cynical and Charlotte is naïve. Japanese people appear to them as exuberant aliens. Even though the main protagonists are endearing, I also saw there a criticism of Americans showing up and not making any effort to understand a foreign culture. Charlotte, who sees herself as an intellectual type, cannot communicate with the American actress who introduces herself as “arexic”. Bob cannot communicate with his wife who only speaks of carpet colours. These are stereotypes as well.

There is that moment, quite memorable, where Bob is shooting an ad for a brand of whisky. The director gives instructions for 15min and the interpreter translate it into a minuscule sentence. It sums up, in my view, Bob and Charlotte’s experience of Japan: they are surrounded by an extremely rich, ancient but also highly modern – from the point of view of technology – culture, and all they get from it, is screaming tv shows and karaoke. We should be careful about where the stereotypes lie: in the intent of the film or in Bob and Charlotte’s minds?

Nevertheless, spectators are also interpretors – Lost in Translation‘s final scene is one of the biggest mysteries of 21st century’s cinema! – and so are translators. Translation is a fascinating work in which the text has to speak by/for itself. I think there might be something really relevant for peacemaking processes and I will try to write more about it.