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Capitalism vs Art: Thoughts on “The Translators” movie

I had the chance to attend a special showing of the new movie The Translators the other day.

After the movie finished Toshiya Echizen (literary translator) and Rie Harada (subtitle translator of the movie) came out on to the stage for a discussion.

Since the theater was full even on Monday night (probably all the subtitle translators in Tokyo were there?), I once again realized the passion of the theater and the appeal of movies.

"You will mistranslate the ending”

First of all, this catchphrase for the Japanese version of the movie is destructive (ha ha). The word "mistranslate," which would make any translator involuntarily nervous, caught my attention.

This time I went to the movie without any prior information, but the conclusion was surprising and satisfying. Despite the orthodox setting of a mystery with a seemingly genius protagonist, I enjoyed the many unexpected plot twists. The story is about translators from nine different countries gathered together to translate the yet unreleased manuscript of a famous novel. In order to keep it secret, they are confined to an underground bunker in France with no smartphones or SNS. They must work silently every day. Once they finished with the first part of the manuscript, they will be given the next part.

Common things for us as translators

Of the nine translators, each one has their own personality, and one that I particularly empathized with was Danish Elene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She has two small children, and when she leaves for France for two months in this case, her husband tells her at the airport, "I got married because you said you can work at home." After arriving at the bunker, she proclaims, "Here I have no children or husband, I am free. I can finally immerse myself in creative activities. I have been patient until now."

I understand this conflict so painfully.

For those of us who work in translation (at least for me), it is not just a job, but a "creative activity." It’s important that we have the time and the right environment to immerse ourselves in the act of producing our best work.

Of course, there are always times when you have to multitask, but that is not the best situation. So in any environment, no matter what it may be, I think it's essential to manage our conditions so that we always get as close to 100% results as possible.

This idea is also supported by Kedrinos, the Greek translator in the bunker, who says, "I chose to be a translator because I wanted to work alone." It's a lonely statement, but it's very relevant to my life. In extreme terms, the process of creating the “ultimate expression” is a struggle with yourself, so being alone can definitely increase your performance. Conversely, tasks that require background information, sharing, and brainstorming, such as translating or creating a company name, can be made more effective by gathering multiple people. However, when finishing up working by yourself, the need to take time to face the original work by yourself is still inevitable.

In the movie, the theme is the translation of novels, so the passion for such creations is portrayed with particular strength. One of the movie characters tries to empathize by wearing the same clothes as the characters in the novel, and even tries to act in the same way. I think that the image of a "translator" that usually comes to mind is overturned in a positive way.

Is translation a creative activity or just a means of making some cash?

One of the highlights of this movie is Angstrom (Lambert Wilson), the boss of the publishing company and ardent capitalist. Because he only thinks of the money, he is in conflict with the author who views the book as a sacred creation.

For those of us in this business, we need to think about profits, but there are always a series of conflicts. I want to do my best, not only at work in the office, but also to put all my heart into each and every job possible. There will always be painful moments when it is necessary to decide between staying true to yourself as an artist and making the compromises required to stay in business as an entrepreneur.

Our main focus is on marketing translation, where the principle of "just being true to the original text" does not apply. We consider all work to be "creative creation activity." It is often said that translating could be just a side job or that it is just a simple task.

However, I hope that in this movie we can get away from stereotypes about translation as much as possible.

In the talk show, Toshiya Echizen also said, “Every time I watch it, there are new discoveries and my interpretation changes” (= mistranslating many times, ha ha).

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