The Interpreter on the Big Screen

(above) Alex (far right) appears here doing whispered interpreting in a scene where Stefan Zweig is interviewed by international journalists. (Image courtesy of X Filme.)

What’s it like to play an interpreter on the big screen? Alexandra Reuer got a chance to do just that!

A few months ago I had the pleasure of traveling to Austria, in part to attend the festivities organized for International Translation Day by the UNIVERSITAS Austria Interpreters’ and Translators’ Association. In addition to an architectural walking tour of the city, a one-day conference, fantastic reception, and other events, the association had also planned a screening of Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, a film featuring one of our interpreter colleagues playing an actual interpreter. As a special surprise, UNIVERSITAS was going to fly in that interpreter (and now actress), the wonderful Alexandra Reuer, from Bristol, England, for the screening as their guest of honor. I had read about Alex’s role in the ITI Bulletin, the publication of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, before and wanted to meet her to talk about the film.1

In case you’re unfamiliar with the film, here’s a bit about the story. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (German title: Vor der Morgenröte) is a 2016 internationally co-produced drama directed by Maria Schrader about the acclaimed Austrian author Stefan Zweig. Born in Vienna in 1881, Zweig achieved distinction in several genres—poetry, essays, short stories, and dramas—most notably for his interpretations of imaginary and historical characters. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide in 1942. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe focuses on the author’s years in exile, his inner struggle for the “right attitude” toward the events in war-torn Europe, and his search for a new home. The film was Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017, but was not nominated.2

During the film, Zweig is interviewed by the international press at the height of his career and fame. The questions are posed in Spanish, English, and French, and Zweig answers in his native German. That’s where the interpreters come in, who play a relatively large role in the film. Alex is even featured in the trailer.

Alex, a native of Germany, is a German, Spanish, and English interpreter and translator specializing in law, human rights, environmental and social justice issues, and policies of the European Union. She has lived and worked in England for the better part of a decade. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Alex after the screening over a few glasses of sparkling wine. We bonded over our fondness for Vienna, gender-inclusive language, the professionalization of our industry, and, of course, the film.

You looked fantastic in the movie! I’m so pleased to see that the director cast actual interpreters for the interpreter roles instead of going with the more obvious choice: actors. Can you tell us more about why that happened? Also, what was the auditioning process like?

Thank you! I’m so in awe of these make-up artists, they did such an amazing job. And yes, all three interpreter roles were filled by real-life interpreters rather than actors. They held a full day of casting to fill the roles and invited both actual interpreters and actors to audition, though we only found this out afterward. When I was there for my half-hour slot, I was in a group with maybe five other translators and interpreters. We were asked to sit down and take turns doing some whispered interpreting of excerpts from the script that were read out to us. We were also filmed doing this. Later, after having been selected for the part of the English interpreter, the director told me and the two colleagues playing the other interpreting parts that it had just been too obvious that the actors who auditioned for the interpreting roles were only pretending.

To me and anyone else in our profession, this intuitively makes sense. Though we were told at the casting session that we were free to whisper pretty much whatever we liked if we had trouble keeping pace with what was being read out, this was exactly the kind of high-pressure situation that interpreters are trained to handle, nerves and all (and it probably showed). Plus, it obviously helps that, as an actual interpreter, you would know how to sit, how loudly or softly to whisper, and where to direct your gaze to make it look natural. To an outsider, these actions probably don’t sound very hard to do, but the fact that they clearly aren’t easily imitated is a tribute to the complex nature of our profession.

Alex-Reuer_MA2018

Alex sported a 1930s look for her part.

Your scene lasts seven minutes and is set in Buenos Aires, Argentina. How long did filming it take and where was it filmed?

Those seven minutes took a full day. The scene was shot in an impressive wood-paneled room in the Palais am Festungsgraben in Berlin. On the day of shooting, everyone got there really early in the morning to get made up, and then it was pretty much all hands on deck until evening. Because the entire day was dedicated to shooting just the one scene, in which we interpreters played a very prominent role, there wasn’t very much downtime. The same scene was shot repeatedly from various angles and with different lighting arrangements, and at some point the production team even made separate audio recordings of all our interpreting parts, just in case any of our whispered interpretations needed amplifying for the film. So, all in all it was a rather exhausting day, but also probably one of the most glamorous assignments I’ll ever do. I could get used to having personal assistants rush over during breaks to powder my nose, fix my hair, and straighten my skirt! We were also invited to stay for drinks and nibbles afterward, which is by no means the worst way to end a working day.

You appear in a key scene, during which the legendary Austrian actor Josef Hader, who plays Stefan Zweig, is interviewed by several journalists from different countries, including one from The New Yorker. You sit next to this American journalist and whisper simultaneously into English. When the journalist asks Zweig a question in English, Zweig doesn’t wait for you to interpret, which suggests that he understood the English question. He then answers in German. Zweig does the same with a question from the French journalist, but he does allow the interpretation of a question posed to him in Spanish. Do you happen to know what the rationale was behind that?

That’s a good question. What the producers and director clearly wanted to convey was Zweig’s grasp of several languages. Though why he would understand French and English, but not Spanish, is not entirely clear to me. But then I’m no expert on Stefan Zweig! If I remember correctly, there are other scenes in the movie where Zweig does understand and speak Spanish, but those might be set later on, when he’s lived in South America for a longer period. Going back to our scene, perhaps they wanted to show Zweig becoming progressively more impatient with the interviewers’ questions, which is why he might tolerate the interpretation of the Spanish question (which is the first one), but then grows impatient and is eager to get the interview over with as quickly as possible. But I really don’t know, so we would have to ask the director.

Obviously it’s a movie and not a real interpreting situation, but how would you compare your experience to an actual assignment? Was it easier or harder? You probably had the script beforehand, right? One can usually only dream of such a thing.

Yes, we did get the script way in advance, which, as you say, is a bit of an ideal scenario compared to real life. Contrary to what I would normally do, I translated my part beforehand, realizing that the entire thing was about to be recorded for the big screen.

In the scene, Stefan Zweig is being interviewed by a group of journalists at the PEN Congress in Buenos Aires in 1936. The tension in the room is palpable as the journalists try to elicit a political statement regarding the Nazi regime from Zweig that he politely but firmly refuses to make. Having the interpreters relay Zweig’s answers in whispered tones to the journalists was seen by the director as an important contribution to the overall feel of the scene. My two interpreting colleagues and I were prompted to whisper audibly, where normally you would try and keep noise levels to a minimum. Another interesting aspect was that because we spent all day shooting the same scene repeatedly, I could keep rephrasing my output in a bid to keep polishing and refining it—a chance we seldom, if ever, get in interpreting.

As to whether it was easier or harder than a normal interpreting assignment, that’s difficult to say. It was easier in the sense that there were no surprises in the content I was interpreting. But what made it difficult was the unfamiliar situation of having to “look the part” for the camera. And because there weren’t many breaks in the day, I possibly talked more that day than during any other job I’ve had. To sum it up, despite being very familiar with the dialogue thanks to all the preparation and repetition, the day still felt just as exhausting as any other “proper” interpreting assignment.

Since the film was set in the 1930s, I noticed there was a lot of smoking going on in the room where your scene takes place. Was that tough on your voice?

Ah, yes, I forgot to mention the smoking! In keeping with the smoking-room feel of the scene, all the men were encouraged to smoke. Fortunately, none of the actors smoked in real life and therefore weren’t particularly keen on the idea, which meant that a smoke machine had to be employed. So, while this was certainly more pleasant than actual cigarette or cigar fumes, I still left the set with a bit of a sore throat that day. Fortunately, I was working mainly as a translator at the time and didn’t have to launch straight into another interpreting assignment afterward!

Left: Judy Jenner and Alex Reuer in Vienna, October 2017.

Left: Judy Jenner and Alex Reuer in Vienna, October 2017.

As interpreters, we sometimes struggle to make our voices heard and to get what we need to guarantee a good performance, be it decent audio, a comfortable chair, or trying to prevent people from talking over each other. In your fictional interpreting situation, did you get the impression that the client was open to your needs and suggestions?

Very much so. From the start, the director was really keen to involve us on things like notepads (yes or no?), seating arrangements (they changed them according to our suggestions), and even on what the interpreters should be doing at the start of the scene, when we are seen standing in the background. It was clear that the production team had already put a lot of thought into it, but weren’t shying away from additional input to make the interpreting scene as authentic as possible.

Finally, would you play an interpreter in the movies again?

It was a really exciting experience and one for which I’m truly grateful. I was also impressed (and admittedly a little surprised!) by how nice, down-to-earth, fun, and approachable everyone was on the set, including the director herself. While I don’t fancy myself as a particularly talented actress (I never really went beyond amateur dramatics), I think that being an interpreter does partly come with some of the same qualities that actors must possess: sounding and looking confident under pressure, being able to improvise, and, most of all, rendering someone else’s words as convincingly as if they were their own. So yeah, if an agent were to beat down my door, I would definitely consider working on a film again.

Notes
  1. Reuer, Alexandra. “Linguists, Camera, Action,” ITI Bulletin (Institute of Translation and Interpreting, November–December 2016), 6.
  2. Lodge, Guy, “Film Review: Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” Variety (October 29, 2016), http://bit.ly/Variety-Zweig.

Judy Jenner is a Spanish and German business and legal translator and a federally and state-certified (California, Nevada) Spanish court interpreter. She has an MBA in marketing and runs her boutique translation and interpreting business, Twin Translations, with her twin sister Dagmar. She was born in Austria and grew up in Mexico City. A former in-house translation department manager, she is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She writes the blog Translation Times and is a frequent conference speaker. She is the co-author of The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com.

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