Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Semi-Fictional Native Interpreter

I’ve run several posts in the past on interpreters in fiction, inspired by an article by Daniel Pageon, whose website Voiceover World is listed to the right. Here’s another.

Recently we saw a Swiss film on TV called La Traductrice. It was made in Switzerland; however, the writers, the director and most of the cast are Russian, and so is a lot of the dialogue. It’s well acted, and it’s interesting for its sidelight on a certain class of present-day Russians (part of the film was shot in Moscow).

I’ve seen the title translated as The Interpreter, though literally it should be The Interpretress. Her name is Ira. She’s 23 and she’s Russian, though she’s been living since childhood in Geneva with her Russian divorcee mother. Hence she’s thoroughly bilingual in Russian and French. Into her life comes Ivan Tashkov, an alleged Russian mafia godfather, who’s in prison in Switzerland awaiting trial. Tashkov has a Swiss lawyer who doesn’t speak Russian and Tashkov doesn’t speak French. Ergo, they need an interpreter. Tashkov’s interests are being looked after while he’s in prison by his Russian lawyer, Sergey, who knows Ira and her mother. Sergey thinks Ira is capable of doing the interpreting and persuades her to take on the job. The rest of the film develops from that.

Ira can interpret, but she’s not an Expert Interpreter. She’s had no training or experience as a legal interpreter (see TERM below). Because of this, the Swiss lawyer is reluctant to take her on; but he’s forced to do so by Sergey, who holds the purse strings. At the first session between the lawyer, Tashkov and Ira, her inexperience shows. The lawyer has to tell her to speak in the first person and not start her every intervention with “He says so-and-so.”

That’s a small point, easily corrected. More serious is the way she constantly gets drawn into personal conversation in Russian with Tashkov, much to the lawyer’s frustration. That’s a definite no-no for a legal interpreter, so I’m afraid she never qualifies as an Expert.

There’s also the matter of the passing love affair she has with the Swiss lawyer. I’m not sure what the ethics are of romantic relationships between interpreter and client while on the job, so we’ll let it pass. Anyway, it’s a film.

But why only semi-fictional? Because the director, Elena Hazanov, is herself a Russian woman in her twenties living in Geneva and – most important – she did actually work herself, in the late 1990s, as interpreter for the Swiss lawyer engaged by Sergei Mikhailov, a notorious Russian who had been arrested in Switzerland and charged with money laundering. Mikhailov, like Tashkov in the film, was eventually released. That experience would explain the touch of the genuine in the scene where the lawyer has his first contact with Julia; Elena was probably corrected in the same way.

Alas, you’re not likely to see La Traductrice. It doesn’t seem to have made its way into foreign cinemas. Not so another film in which an interpreter plays a key role, Oscar-garlanded The Hurt Locker. This time it’s one that I’m not likely to see, despite its availability. Not my kind of film. A lot of the criticism of it that I’ve read comes from American military personnel who complain that it’s not authentic. Well, the actor who plays the Iraqi interpreter, Michael Desante, is really Palestinian, and Palestinian and Iraqi Arabic are quite distinct dialects. Perhaps someone who has seen the film can enlighten me.

TERM
In the technical terminology, it’s useful to distinguish between court interpreters, those who appear in court and are impartial servants of the court, and those who translate for lawyers and other clients in legal matters outside the court itself. I call the latter legal interpreters. They're usually paid for by one of the parties and are thereby the servant of that party.

REFERENCES
La Traductrice. Directed by Elena Hazanov. Written by Mikhail Brashinsky and Elena Hazanov. Switzerland: Ventura Films, 2006. 90 min. With Julia Batinova (see photo) as Ira.

Une âme russe bien traduite (A Russian soul well translated). swissinfo.ch, February 27, 2007. http://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/infos/magazine/Une_ame_russe_bien_traduite.html?cid=5737854.

Photo: swissinfo.ch

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