You’re watching a favorite comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and just as the climax is about to explode on the screen, Charles, the protagonist, is interrupted in his marriage vows by his brother, claiming he knows a reason Charles should not marry the lady now standing beside him. The brother signs to Charles (Charles’ brother is deaf) if he will translate the brother’s objections to the guests assembled in the church. Charles agrees. Charles then verbally translates his brother’s sign language aloud that he really loves another. The film viewer then understands that Charles’ brother (who has no voice) has given Charles the permission or “voice” to flee this sham wedding. Havoc ensues.
For those of you who know the movie, Charles ends this translation of sign language on the floor of a very ancient London church with a black eye, courtesy of an “almost” bride. Truth will prevail, courtesy of a translation.
However, romance flourishes just hours later as Charles then wins the rightful heroine through a brotherly translation of honest concern smack in the middle of a guest-laden wedding ceremony. Charles is secretly thrilled; the brother has done his duty; the new fiance has a love-wish granted, and there is another Hollywood ending. Or is it?
Is the new state of events in the film courtesy of Hollywood or translation? You decide.
Another film you may know is Lost in Translation, a film authored by Sofia Coppola starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannsen. This critic-celebrated film shows in pictures how an unlikely couple (a young woman bored by her husband’s endless business meetings and an aged movie star who travels to Japan only for endorsement money) find themselves in neon-wondrous, present-day Tokyo. Both are transformed by images, people, cuisine, and a culture on a fast, yet inexplicably modern track always tethered by a ten thousand-year history.
There is much translation going on here – between the couple and between the couple and the culture, and, by the way, they are not lost, but they are in translation. The new learning occurs when the film viewer sees the couple opening up to unfamiliar and uncharted events.
Who would enjoy Dances with Wolves half as much if the Lakota dialogue were not translated in English subtitles near the bottom of the screen? You would certainly miss the deep immersion Kevin Costner’s character takes as he systematically becomes a member of the Lakota nation.
Last year’s Academy Award winner, The Artist, was much discussed and heralded for its 85 year return to silent film. Anyone who has ever watched a silent film knows there is much immediate translation going on in everyone’s mind – an image could mean character identity and/or relationship; an action could mean time period, death, escape, renewal, surprise, or event; a movement could mean a dramatic turn; a window reflection could mean a past remembrance or reflected glory (or reflection of any type); a dance step could mean meeting, recognition, passion, delight, or even pathos – all possible interpretations or translations from pictures.
Translations are everywhere, even in the movies.