Last year, in response to an article by Daniel Pageon, I put up a couple of posts about Natural Translators in fiction (August 20 and September 6). Here’s another, and there’s a message with it.
Last week we went to see the film Desert Flower. Amazing, unusual story, excellent acting and direction, and a moving message. Oscar-worthy in my view, but then - as my friend José-María Bravo always insists in his many writings about film translation - the cinema is above all an industry. How well will Desert Flower do at the box office? The version we saw was subtitled in Spanish. Subtitling excludes it from distribution to the mainline Spanish cinemas, which insist on dubbing.
It’s the semi-fictionalized biography of Waris Dirie, a young Somali woman who flees to England from an arranged tribal marriage and after a hard beginning eventually becomes a top fashion model. If you can’t see the film, do read the book. But of course there are things in the film that aren’t in the book. What comes through most clearly in the film is the courage of the leading character and her condemnation of female genital mutilation.
At one point she collapses in pain in London and a friend takes her to the nearest hospital. There she reluctantly submits to a gynaecological examination by a male doctor. The doctor, seeing that she’s been circumcised, tells her that she’s been stitched up too tight but that he can give her an operation to reduce the pain. Only she doesn’t understand his English. So he calls for an interpreter. But the hospital’s regular interpreter is away, so he says to fetch another hospital worker who speaks Somali. The worker comes, but instead of translating what the doctor is saying he tells Waris in Somali that she should be ashamed of having submitted to the examination and that she will be betraying her family, her tribe, her culture if she has the operation. She leaves in confusion, but she does go back for the operation later.
The sequence illustrates dramatically the danger of using untrained interpreters in medical settings, though I doubt whether many filmgoers will perceive it that way. Yet it also illustrates how bilingual hospital staff are in fact pressed into service.
Desert Flower, Spanish title Flor del Desierto. Adapted and directed by Sherry Horman. Germany, Austria and United Kingdom: Desert Flower Filmproductions, 2009.
Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller. Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
José-María Bravo. Film translation research in Spain: the dubbing of Hollywood movies into Spanish. In Lexicography, Terminology and Translation: Text-based Studies in Honour of Ingrid Meyer, ed. Lynne Bowker, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 2006.