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Three Translators Respond to “Arrival”

By Susannah Greenblatt

Translation took to the big screen this year in the Academy Award-winning film, Arrival. Indeed, when an ominously oblong spacecraft touches down on Earth, translation proves to be humanity’s only hope. As the world descends into utter chaos, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is sent to the frontlines to attempt to communicate with the mysterious “Heptapods”—to find out what they want and why they’ve come.

We asked three top translators to watch Arrival and to give us their two cents (via email) on the linguacentric feature: Hillary Gulley, translator from the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and instructor at CUNY—Queens College; Esther Allen, translator from the Spanish, French, and Portuguese and associate professor at CUNY Graduate Center and Baruch College; and Will Evans, translator from the Russian, president at Cinestate, founder of Deep Vellum Publishing, and cofounder of Deep Vellum Books.

Here’s what they had to say:

Words Without Borders (WWB): What did Arrival get so right about being a translator?

Esther Allen: In “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, on which Arrival is based, the words associated with Dr. Banks are “linguist” and “linguistics”; the word “translate” never appears in the story. Part of what Arrival’s cinematic translation of the Chiang story does is introduce translation. And Arrival is an incredible translation, which takes a short story written in 2000 and adapts, expands, and reinvents it to make a statement that is profoundly and presciently about where we are now in 2017. Reading the story provides an interesting perspective on the film’s origins, but the story’s intellectual and political ambitions are far more limited.

What Arrival gets—far better than the Chiang story does—is that translation is about context. When Banks translates one of the alien symbols as “offer weapon,” the world goes into a panic. But she argues that in context the term could have a number of meanings, “weapon” being only one. This is exactly how a translator deals with the ambiguity that is inherent in every word and particularly challenging when moving between languages. Any given term in one language has the potential to become, legitimately, a range of other terms in translation, depending on context, intention, and a host of other factors.

Hillary Gulley: I like that Arrival so vividly illustrates that what a translator communicates and receives in language has at least as much to do with the subconscious element of language as it does with the information that we receive and reconcile consciously.

Will Evans: The importance of translating the whole experience of language—beyond words, combining the phrase or statement or entire text, adding in context, nuance, phrasing—rather than to think of translation as a direct word-for-word transfer of meaning.

WWB: What did Arrival get horribly wrong about being a translator?

Hillary Gulley: The movie confounds the skill sets of a linguist and a translator, for one thing, and then the separate skill sets of a live interpreter and an ESL teacher on top of that. I couldn’t figure out why Dr. Banks was expected to be all four. Maybe because she is a woman? Women tend to be great at making seventeen disparate jobs look as though they belong to one seamless role. Look at the rest of the characters in the movie, who are all men, each with a single mission—or maybe two: their assigned task, involving either fighting or science, and their seemingly self-assigned duty to second-guess the only woman there, who also happens to be the only one of them equipped to save humanity. At some point I said, this screenplay was definitely written by a man. (I was right—and the same applies to the short story that inspired the screenplay.)

In any case, there is this assumption—in the movie and in life—that a linguist and anyone else who speaks multiple languages is automatically a translator, which isn’t the case at all: some of the best linguists and most fluent speakers of a second language I’ve known are not great translators, and vice versa.

The film also propagates the common misconception that translators are walking thesauruses. Maybe this bugs me because I am the worst thinker on my feet, and prone to blanking on all names and the simplest terms. At home I handle this by using a series of sound effects—there’s a favorite clicking sound I usually resort to—so I can move quickly through a sentence without getting stuck on a word. In the film, whenever someone asked Dr. Banks for a term, I wanted her to pass them a copy of Roget’s instead of obliging herself to answer as if it were part of her job description.

Esther Allen: I winced when it’s revealed, in one of the many flash forward scenes, that the book Banks has published about the Heptapod language is titled The Universal Language. That indicates a return to the Chomskyan linguistic model which scorned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But Sapir-Whorf—the hypothesis that your experience of the world and particularly of time is conditioned by the language you speak—is the central underlying premise of both movie and short story. And it’s only Sapir-Whorf that has something to tell us about translation. Translators don’t deal in universals, they deal in particulars, in contexts. But that has more to do with the history of linguistics than with the practice of translation.

Will Evans: I don’t know too many translators who live in modernist masterpiece houses on lakefront property, but I like the idea of a linguist approaching translation as a series of problems to be solved without losing the empathy so necessary to make translation successful. It’s super valuable to keep the fields of linguistics and literary translation in dialogue with one another to continue to expand our understanding of the full range of possibilities that language contains.

 I like the idea of a linguist approaching translation as a series of problems to be solved without losing the empathy so necessary to make translation successful.

WWB: How would you go about teaching a Heptapod English? What did you think of Dr. Banks’ approach? What would you do differently?

Esther Allen: You’ve put your finger on one of the movie’s logical weaknesses. Dr. Banks has the brilliant idea of not attempting oral communication; her big breakthrough is to write “human” on a whiteboard and show it to the Heptapods who in turn communicate via their own written language. Then, later in the film, without any explanation at all of how this has occurred, Banks speaks to the Heptapods, who understand and give their written replies. I guess the premise is that the Heptapods are far more advanced and have been able to figure out speech by observing her. It may be hard to learn from a Heptapod, but it’s certainly not hard to teach them.

Hillary Gulley: Dr. Banks’s approach to teaching a Heptapod English is pretty standard from an ESL/TEFL perspective. But that pedagogy was invented with humans in mind. I can’t be sure, but with an alien I think I’d try more silence first. I can’t imagine being in the presence of a being who is brand new to our planet and immediately setting out to indoctrinate it with my own language before taking the time to perceive its treatment of its environment and how it communicates with others of its kind. This would probably help me figure out what words it would respond to most—if it would respond to any at all: just because the Heptapods can make it to earth doesn’t mean they are intelligent or programmed to speak a language. We sent monkeys into space. Wouldn’t it have been so embarrassing for Dr. Banks and the entire US military had Heptapods been to the real intelligent life forms what monkeys are to us?

Will Evans: I’m not a teacher of translation so I won’t speak to the brilliance of what true teachers like Dr. Sean Cotter would do with this question, but I appreciated Dr. Banks’s use of hyper-modern technology to move more quickly to the phase of understanding in the process of building translation, using her more human approach to what the technology allowed. Students can and should use whatever the latest technology allows to advance their learning of languages and translation techniques, without relying solely on machine translation as a replacement for themselves.

WWB: Without giving any spoilers, what do you make of the premise that learning a language can so profoundly change the way you process the universe?

Will Evans: Language learning is a vital means of opening up your mind to understanding truths and ways of seeing the world outside of your own experience. The first time I fully wrapped my English-language/American egocentric mind around the common use of personal pronouns as indirect objects in the Russian language, it exploded my brains into a million little pieces because it made me step away from my understanding of the “I” driven approach to understanding myself as a being in space and time to a more rounded awareness of myself as a being from which actions spring forth and to whom actions occur. And that’s just the smallest example of how language allows the mind to contemplate truths far outside of ourselves, as learning new languages remaps the brain, your perception of the entire universe begins to shift in front of your eyes.

Hillary Gulley: Fully entering into a different language involves a total upending of the self, both in terms of outward presentation to others and inner narrative and questioning. As you unsuccessfully search for words in your second language, you soon realize your own deficits in your first, which in turn serves as a constant reminder of everything that you are not actively defining at a given time. This hyperawareness can be very destabilizing, especially for someone who correlates a large part of the self to their arrangement in relation to a world they can articulate, and who is used to having a certain amount of command over their expression. When the edges of the self begin to blur, so does the universe, or universes. The only thing that remains itself regardless of—or possibly by virtue of—language eludes naming and therefore, to invoke Walter Benjamin, is predicated on translation: it is not universes or selves, but the thing that fills in their gaps and the gaps of everything that could ever exist and therefore not exist. In translation’s highest expression, these gaps are the realm of the translator.

In translation’s highest expression, these gaps are the realm of the translator.

Esther Allen: Neurological studies have proven that when you learn to see the world through more than a single language, it alters your brain structure and your neurological processes, improves your ability to learn, and protects you against age-related decline. Of course it changes the way you process the universe!

WWB: How did it feel to see a translator as the hero of a Hollywood sci-fi flick?

Will Evans: Love it! We could use more flicks with translators and interpreters as the lead. They do such sexy work in the field, whether it’s translating literature and delving into the minds of writers to explore the nuances of the literary arts, or translating tense negotiations to ensure the right things are said and understood—theirs are the minds through which so much of human experience is channeled. 

Hillary Gulley: Seeing the communicator as hero is uplifting in any context, except when it’s cliché, which I don’t think it was here. But the weary college professor being recruited to do something exciting and meaningful is a well-established narrative, so honestly it wasn’t that thrilling. It would have been cooler had she been a savant working in a cornfield somewhere who had never left her hometown—and then the aliens land and she discovers her linguistic superpowers through them.

Esther Allen: Hollywood has grown more and more interested in multilingualism in the past fifteen years or so. The superheroes used to jet around a world in which everyone in every exotic locale spoke English. Now it’s the superheroes who speak many languages; even blockbuster movies have subtitled scenes. Arrival, though, is a different kind of movie altogether. It masquerades as a Hollywood sci-fi flick but it isn’t really one. Louise Banks is emphatically not a superhero and her communicative ability is not a superpower. She is a professional, confronted with a difficult problem she learns to handle in a slow and painful process, full of complexity, ambiguity, obstacles, and pain during which she never once pulls out a gun or yells at anyone. If the world is going to be saved, it will be by words rather than weapons. For a commercial film to make that point in a poetically cinematic meditation on translation still seems little short of miraculous to me—all the more so given the political moment we are in.

WWB: Bonus question—Would you accept a government mission to communicate with aliens and if so, would you remove your biohazard gear to complete the job?

Esther Allen: Translation always involves shedding barriers and making oneself vulnerable. Stepping out of the biohazard gear is a prerequisite to doing the job, as Banks knows full well from the moment she’s offered it. For me, and for most translators I know, it would be hard to say no to a chance to make history, but very hard to say yes to collaboration on anything at all with an openly white supremacist government whose only concern is to further enrich the billionaire class. That’s one of the most interesting things about Arrival; the role of government in this very near future it depicts. We never once see a US president on screen and it’s clear that there’s no nation the world looks to for leadership, no single coordinator among the twelve sites where the ships show up.

Translation always involves shedding barriers and making oneself vulnerable. Stepping out of the biohazard gear is a prerequisite to doing the job.

Hillary Gulley: I would accept a mission to talk to aliens in a heartbeat. But I feel as if I am talking to aliens most of the time anyway. As for removing the biohazard gear, I probably wouldn’t take it off until we figured out more about the threat of cross-species transmission—probably more to protect the aliens than myself. I wouldn’t want someone surviving light-years of travel only to die because I can’t figure out how to communicate in biohazard gear.

Will Evans: Hell yeah and hell yeah!


Esther Allen’s translations include the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected WritingsEncyclopedia of a Life in Russia by José Manuel Prieto, Lands of Memory by Felisberto Hernández, Alma Guillermoprieto's Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, and Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, which is forthcoming in August, 2016. With Susan Bernofsky, she edited In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. She edited and wrote for To Be Translated or Not To Be (Institut Ramon Llull, 2007), the PEN International report on translation and globalization. A former fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, she was named a Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres by the French government for her work promoting a culture of translation in English. She teaches at the Graduate Center and Baruch College, City University of New York. Her website is

Hillary Gulley is a writer and translator from Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Raised in West Virginia, she also lived in Spain, Hungary, Cuba, and Italy before moving to New York City in 2007. In 2012, she was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her work on Marcelo Cohen’s The End of the Same. In 2013, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend the Vermont Studio Center, where she was a returning resident in 2015. Her work includes a translated anthology of contemporary Cuban short stories entitled Cuba in Splinters, Eleven Stories from the New Cuba (O/R Books, 2014). Her forthcoming works include Kazbek by Ecuadorian writer Leonardo Valencia (Autumn Hill Books, 2017). In addition to her full-time translation work, Hillary teaches composition, narrative, and poetry at CUNY—Queens College.

Will Evans earned BA degrees from Emory University in history and Russian language and culture. He also received an MA in Russian culture at Duke University. He is president at Cinestate, an entertainment company based in Dallas. In 2013, he founded Deep Vellum Publishing and he cofounded Deep Vellum Books, an independent bookstore, in 2016. His translation of Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin was published by Restless Books in January 2016.

Published Mar 27, 2017   Copyright 2017 Susannah Greenblatt

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