How Hollywood turned Translation into a Blockbuster

In our globalised world, language eventually made it to the big screen. Although English is commonly spoken and accepted as an international means of communication, there are more than 7,000 languages worldwide. This gives plenty of opportunity for directors, producers, and artists to explore the cinematographic potential of language and introduce translation and interpreting to a broader public.

But it’s not only about language, it’s also about culture. What if you know a language from the textbooks but have no clue how it works in real life? This is what our Top 3 are all about: language in all of its forms.

We’ve turned the spotlight on our favourite topic and compiled a list of some of the best movies about translation, interpreting and language in general for you. From cultural misunderstandings over high-profile political affairs to an alien language – we’ve got them all. Check out Hollywood’s #1 translation blockbusters below.

1. Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation- Translation Royale

Starring Bill Murray and a young Scarlett Johansson, this motion picture might be THE film you think of when speaking of translation-themed movies. Directress Sofia Coppola created a true classic while telling the story of an American in Japan and was honoured with several Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for this inspiring work of art.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American actor who is hired to star in a whiskey commercial in Tokyo. While filming, the interpreter only translates half the director’s instructions for reasons of courtesy towards Bob. One night he meets Charlotte played by Scarlett Johansson and the two strangers become allies in a world they feel lost and out of place in. Starting to question their lonely lives, they embark on a mission to find happiness again.

Lost in Translation is a brilliant study of human existence and an entertaining comedy with a touch of romance. The film dives into Japanese culture and exemplifies the role of mediation in translation. Despite celebrating its 15th birthday this year, Lost in Translation is as relevant and topical as ever.

Did you know? – As confusing as Japanese sounded for the non-speaker Bob in the movie, the language has some traits that make it very hard to learn. One of the hardest parts is the writing system, as it’s actually comprised of three: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana.

Here’s part of Bob’s whiskey commercial and the challenges he faces for not speaking Japanese:

DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.

INTERPRETER (in Japanese): Yes, of course. I understand.

DIRECTOR (in Japanese): Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in ‘Casablanca’ saying ‘Cheers to you guys’ Suntory time!

INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

BOB: That’s all he said?

INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.

Watch the official trailer here or the entire above scene:

2. The Interpreter (2005)

With Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the lead roles, The Interpreter was bound for success. As a political thriller, the plot revolves around an assassination and the mysterious language of Ku. Being directed by Academy Award winner Sydney Pollack the movie became a box office success grossing more than $160 million worldwide.

The main character of the film is Silvia Broome who works as an interpreter at the United Nations in New York City. One night she overhears two men plotting to assassinate the leader of the fictional African nation of Matobo who is to stand trial before the International Criminal Court. Speaking in the African dialect of Ku only Silvia understands, she is the only person to know the true meaning of the words spoken that night.

A story about diplomacy, politics, personal revenge and most importantly a unique language, The Interpreter is a must-see for every interpretation lover. Or like the Matobo people say: ‘The truth needs no translation’

Did you know? – The fictional language of Ku comprises no word for ‘thank you’ but instead natives would clap their hands to show appreciation. Ku also uses the same word for ‘he’ and ‘she’ as there is no gender distinction.

Watch the official trailer here:

3. Arrival (2016)

Hollywood’s latest addition to translation-themed movies is Arrival. Airing in 2016, the film combines science fiction, mystery and drama and stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It received universal acclaim by critics and grossed more than $200 million worldwide.

Adams is Louise Banks, a linguist, while Renner plays the physicist Ian Donnelly. They are recruited by the U. S. Army to investigate one of twelve alien spaceships that have landed on earth. Making contact with the two extra-terrestrials on the spacecraft, Louise studies their language: a symbol language consisting only of written circular signs which resemble inkblots. She decodes the symbols and learns about the aliens’ reason for arriving on earth.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has created a truly unique film about the interpretation of language and linguistic relativity, namely the often-disputed Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and its impact on human life. Arrival is much more than another sci-fi movie and not to be missed for everyone enjoying a decoding mystery that questions the common stance on alien civilisations.

Did you know? – The science of alien languages is called exolinguistics. The heptapodes’ language in the film is a logographic system meaning a single symbol can represent a whole phrase.

Watch the official trailer here:

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