March 24, 2017
Translation lessons we can learn from “Arrival”

Have you seen the latest science fiction blockbuster, Arrival yet? It’s the type of movie linguists have been waiting for. For a change, the heroine doesn’t fly a spaceship or use advanced weaponry to fight evil. Instead, the character, Dr. Louise Banks, uses her words or, rather, she works tirelessly to translate an alien race’s language.

If you’ve not yet seen the movie, be warned: this article contains spoiler alerts! That being said, here are a few things people will learn about translation from the movie.

  1. Translation still needs humans

For us as translators, one of the most exciting things about Arrival is that, instead of using some sort of machinery to translate the alien’s language, the entire plot centers around the difficulties in communicating with the other-worldly visitors. It’s the same in the real word – technology can only do so much. While machine translation can give us an overall ideal of a project, humans give us accuracy and clear communication.

  1. Learning a new language can bring great change

One of the “wow” moments in the movie is when we realize that the alien’s written language depicts that they do not view time as linear. This finding changes Dr. Banks entire perception and gives her fascinating insight into the future.

Learning a new language isn’t going to give you psychic powers in real life, but it can change the way you think and encourage you to use different parts of the brain. And, this isn’t hocus pocus. A study conducted in 2012 reported that when people think in a different language, they tend to rely less on emotion and more on being rational which leads to smarter decisions.

  1. You don’t have to be an empath, but you do need empathy

In the movie, Dr. Bank’s learns the heptapod language to form a connection with the Chinese general and try to stop him launching an attack on the aliens. It is that scene that changes the way we, the audience, see the Chinese. We go from viewing them as the enemy to seeing the general as a person with his own things going on – not just what the translators are taking to the U.S. news.

Accurate translations are not just a case of changing words from one language to another. They’re not just about subject knowledge, either. A good translator will be able to truly resonate with the audience. They don’t just choose the right words, instead, they choose words that mirror emotions. That is empathy at its best.

  1. Don’t ignore a single word in translation

In the movie, the fate of the entire world depends on a single word. Did the aliens arrive on earth with a weapon or did they bring earthlings some sort of tool? Dr. Banks believes it is a tool, but she needs to prove it before a war breaks out. This goes to show that in translation, every single word counts. In fact, the consequences of getting a single word wrong can be severe.

If you’ve seen Arrival, tell us what translation lessons your learned from this epic sci-fi movie.