Humor and Translation

The Interpreter
By Mark Herman

Many of you have probably seen The Interpreter, the 2005 thriller directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Nicole Kidman as an interpreter at United Nations Headquarters in New York City.Sean Penn and Catherine Keener portray Secret Service agents in charge of protecting visiting foreign dignitaries, and, when her life becomes endangered, the interpreter herself. For this and other roles, Keener won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film was shot at the UN, not on a stage set, and the resulting authenticity is remarkable.

The film’s main plot is set in motion when the interpreter returns to a supposedly deserted UN at night to pick up some items she left behind. She overhears a whispered plot to assassinate an African tyrant who will be speaking the following week at the UN General Assembly. The interpreter is a Caucasian woman, born in the tyrant’s country, the mythical sub-Saharan African nation of Matobo, but raised mainly in Europe. She is fluent in at least three languages: French, English (into which she interprets), and Ku, the language of Matobo, a made-up language created by a British language institute principally from elements of the real African languages Swahili and Shona. The interpreter’s life is threatened when the would-be assassins, fearing she could identify them by their voices, try to kill her.

The fictional interpreter is the former lover of one of the tyrant’s assassinated opponents, and narrowly escapes death when she gets off a bus just before it blows up, killing another of the tyrant’s opponents. (Fictional interpreters lead exciting lives!)

How about nonfictional interpreters? For that, another film, some eight minutes long, shows that the activities of real interpreters, while probably not as exciting as those of fictional ones, are anything but dull. This film, A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters, is included as an extra on The Interpreter DVD, and is also available on YouTube.Unlike many examples in popular media, this short film clearly draws the correct distinction between oral interpretation and written translation. Interestingly, it also states that many interpreters (or at least those at the UN), like the character portrayed by Nicole Kidman, are musicians.

In A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters, Diana Liao, then the UN’s chief interpreter, and Brigitte Andreassier-Pearl, who was chief of the French section at that time, talk about their work. According to Liao, interpreters must be both “professionals” and artists. They are performers who must keep abreast of current events so that they know the context in which speeches are made. And, especially when a speech is politically charged, they must not make mistakes. Also, because foreign dignitaries can discuss anything at all when they meet, especially in the first minutes before they get to the political nitty-gritty, interpreters must be prepared to deal with absolutely any subject, including, as Liao once did, recipes.

All in all, what could be more exciting, or more important, than the job of interpreters who, in Liao’s words, “help people talk and not fight”?

More recently, in June 2016, Andreassier-Pearl wrote a letter to The New York Times, responding to a previous piece about an obviously bad translation:

One more reminder that translation [and presumably also interpretation] is a profession, and as such the task should be left to professionals. All too often, the task of translation is entrusted to anyone who claims “to know” a foreign language, especially if he or she doesn’t charge for the service. I am of course aware that this will rob the world of a scarce source of innocent merriment.3

Merriment, yes! But innocent? We can only hope.

Speaking of interpreting, we all use signals by the speaker in addition to the lexical meanings of his or her words to help figure out the full import of a speech utterance. Unfortunately, these signals, including body language, intonation, pauses, loudness, and diction level, are often not available to professional interpreters, especially those doing rapid simultaneous interpreting while confined to a booth out of sight of the intended audience. While that audience might be able to perceive at least some of those signals by watching and listening to the original speaker, those very signals, like language itself, are not universal and may need to be interpreted for proper comprehension.

Consider, for example, a decades-old item that recently came to my attention from The Jewish News of Northern California.According to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversationand That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships,“high-involvement cooperative overlapping” (i.e., talking while another person continues to speak) is typical of Jewish conversational style.

In her talk at Georgetown, which frequently had her audience laughing, Tannen stated that “cooperative overlapping” is not a precise term, not all Jews engage in it, and you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to engage in it. However, it’s a typical conversational pattern among many Jews living in and around New York, especially those of Eastern European origin, and the pattern differs significantly from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest, and West. Jewish-style conversation, in addition to cooperative overlap, exhibits a “fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses, and faster turn-taking among speakers.”

Jewish people find this pattern normal. Indeed, according to Tannen, they interpret silences and pauses as evidence of lack of rapport and/or interest. But others often see this pattern as rude, verbal hogging, and demonstrating a lack of interest in others by interrupting the speaker. Therefore, since people make judgments about the personality of individuals based on conversational style, negative stereotypes of New York Jews as pushy may be merely the result of clashing linguistic patterns.

Tannen notes other features of Jewish conversational style: a preference for personal topics, abrupt changes of topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics, and persistent re-introduction of topics that others don’t immediately pick up on. Jews also tend to tell more stories in their conversations, dramatize the point of a story, and focus on the emotional experience of a story rather than the facts of it. Those from regional or ethnic backgrounds with different ways of conversing may not “get the point” of stories with no real plot, and may also find the expectation of personal revelations unnervingly intrusive.

Tannen characterizes the sounds of Jewish-style talk as involving pitch shifts, loudness changes, and exaggerated voice qualities and accents, all of which can signal concern and empathy among those with similar conversational patterns and reinforce a shared Jewish ethnic background, even as those same sounds put off those expecting a more restrained, less expressive way of speaking.

Interestingly, according to Tannen, opposites may indeed attract. A difference in conversational styles may result in an initial mutual attraction between two people. Someone quieter may seem mysterious and wise, while someone more talkative can seem articulate and smart. But beware! A difference in conversational styles can also lead to a couple’s ultimate break-up.

  1. The Interpreter (Universal Studios, released April 22, 2005). Story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, screenplay by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, and Steven Zaillian, directed by Sydney Pollack, and featuring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, and Catherine Keener.
  1. A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters, a short extra on the DVD of The Interpreter (Universal Studios, 2005),
  1. Andreassier-Pearl, Brigitte. “Needed: Professional Interpreters,” The New York Times (June  2, 2016),
  1. The Jewish News of Northern California, May 12, 2000. Their website is
  1. Tannen, Deborah . You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (Harper Collins, 1990). Available at
  1. Tannen, Deborah. That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships (Ballantine Books, 1987). Available at


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