Fictitious Linguists

Translators and Interpreters in works of fiction


Believe what you read

Published in the June/July 2009 edition of The Linguist

Page 16


Daniel Pageon looks at the impact of the portrayal of translators and interpreters in novels.



Translators and interpreters are not portrayed in works of fiction very often so when they are, it is interesting to see if we recognize ourselves in them. Cinema-goers have been made aware of our existence with Sophia Coppola's successful Lost in Translation (2003) and Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter (2005), and there are also novels in which translators and interpreters have a part to play.

However, many writers don't seem to have a clue about our profession, and do not even grasp the difference between translating and interpreting. It can be disturbing when a very successful writer, such as Doris Lessing in The Summer before the Dark (1973), does only minimal research. Her character Kate Brown learnt languages as a child and is offered a job as a "simultaneous translator" because she is fluent in English and Portuguese, as well as French and Italian. Apparently she is very successful at it.

We are told that she knows the subject matter very well because she has touched-typed the script of a book about it! She had never worked as an interpreter before and was thrown in at the deep end because two of the "four skilled translators" could not make it to the conference. Lessing leaves me perplexed. On the one hand, she explains that it is a difficult job and that frequent rests are required "during this extremely taxing task" ; on the other she implies that it is not very difficult: "She did it automatically."

Kate even describes herself, in a very derogatory way, as a "skilled parrot". After a couple of weeks in the job, her boss decides to promote her to an administrative post: "To waste your incredible talents as a translator – it is a crime." What more is there to say about Lessing's contempt for our profession? By the way, Kate earns a fantastic fee for her work!

Unlike Lessing, some writers do seem to appreciate the skills involved in translating and interpreting. For example, Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese novelist who writes in American English, knows his subject very well. In When Red is Black, Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police takes a holiday to moonlight as a translator. He is going to be very well paid for translating a business proposal called New World.

It turns out that Chen is well qualified for the job. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative literature and should have been a writer or lecturer but was sent to work for the police at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Chen was chosen for the job because he had translated before. Xiaolong explains: "Normally it took him hours to become familiar with the relevant technical terms before the translation could even begin."

Xiaolong goes into details and explains that the translation is going to be paid by the number of words, which is not something generally known outside the profession. Chen's technique is also explained in detail: "He had to use a Chinese-English dictionary, and a picture dictionary as well. After an hour or so, he had another idea. Instead of typing on, doggedly, he took out an extra copy of the proposal, and, with a highlighter, underlined the words he was not sure about. That was not difficult, but it was time-consuming, requiring a close reading. Still, he was getting a more general – yet at the same time more concrete – picture of the New World."

Chen goes on to research the difficult words. However there is an area of the script that deals with new concepts: "Within the socialist state economy, for instance 'marketing' was a non-existent concept… there was no need or room for marketing." And then: "Ten years ago the word 'privacy' hardly existed in Chinese." The dictionaries at his disposal are not recent enough for some of these concepts: "So he'd better read some articles or books about marketing, not necessarily to get the exact meanings, but to be able to convey roughly corresponding ideas in translation."

My main concern was that Chen translates from his mother tongue, rather than the other way around. But Xiaolong is clearly aware of this problem and explains that Chen "anticipated that he would have to make minor changes when Gu's American parQui Xiotner faxed back corrections and suggestions."

Overall Xiaolong gives a very good overview of what translating is all about. He talks about fees, deadlines, knowledge of the two languages, knowledge of the subject and about the difficulties of carrying concepts across cultural boundaries.

Mario Vargas Llosa, from Peru, knows our world inside out. In his novel The Bad Girl, (2006), his main character Ricardo makes a living out of translating and interpreting. Vargas explains in great detail how Ricardo has to pass an exam before starting to work on a temporary basis at UNESCO in Paris. To become an interpreter, he has to take courses, and to really start working he needs to have a fourth language.

Readers are given a real insight into the profession when Ricardo says: "I had acquired the skill of the good interpreter, which consists in knowing the equivalents of words without necessarily understanding their contents." When one of his best friends, nicknamed the Dragoman, reflects negatively on their work ("We haven't done anything except speak for other people.") Ricardo comments: "It wasn't strange that the Dragoman was unpopular among other people in the profession." Ricardo then goes into literary translation for the love of literature and not for money. Vargas does an excellent job of describing our professions.

The author of The Interpreter: A Novel (2003), Suki Kim, knows what court interpreting is all about and gives very incisive comments. "One of the job requirements was no involvement." she writes. And yet the main character, Suzy, "often finds herself cheating." In a verbatim translation, cultural differences would be ignored, but Suzy takes them into account. She reflects that: "Languages are not logical. Thus an interpreter must translate word for word and yet somehow manipulate the breadth of language to bridge the gap." Suki Kim gives a fantastic insight into the job of the court interpreter through a character consumed by angst.

In Michael Frayn's The Russian Interpreter, set in the Soviet Union in the 1960's, the interpreter, Paul Manning, is given the task of interpreting between his girl friend, Raya, and his client, Gordon Proctor-Gould. The twist is that Paul finds himself obliged to chat up Raya on Gordon's behalf!

It is fascinating to see how members of our profession are portrayed in different ways by authors in different cultures. For many readers, this may be their only insight into our professions, making the novelists' research and attention to detail crucial to a better understanding and awareness of translating and interpreting among the general public.


Since the publication of my article I have received a number of suggestions

about books where translators and/or interpreters play a part in the story.


Here is the list I have received so far: I have put some very brief notes and comments about those I have now read, but I would be delighted to publish longer reviews if you send them to me. (In any language)


Pascali's Island by Barry Unsworth published in 1980 (Recommended by Dr Ruth Sobel)



Daniel Stein - perevodchik (Daniel Stein - interpreter) by Ludmila Ulitskaya, has written a book entitled . (Recommended by Dr Ruth Sobel)



L'amour nu by Françoise Prévost, published in the late 70s and made into a film with Marlène Jobert in 1981. The main character, Claire, is a conference interpreter. She is diagnosed with breast cancer just after falling in love with Simon (played by Jean-Michel Folon in the film, an oceanographer she interprets for at Unesco. (Recommended by Valérie Dabbs)



The Translator by Leila Aboulela published in 1999.

Sammar is the central character in this novel. She is a young Sudanese widow whose husband has been killed in a car crash in Scotland. She lives alone, her son is back home with her mother, and she works as a translator for Rae, a Scottish professor. They are attracted to each other, but their love seems to be impossible. The reasons are debated through the entire book. She is Muslim and he is Christian but an orientalist, “an Islamist expert” but that does not make him a Muslim, and here lies the problem. How can they work out this conundrum? The book gives a vivid insight on the life of people coming from such a different world and trying to make sense of the Western way of life. It also shows how Rae deals with the problem. Does he solve it? Is it a happy end story? You will have to read the book to find out! (Daniel Pageon)


The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass published in 2000



Les amants de Bagdad by Ghassan Aris



The Interpreter by Alice Kaplan published in 2005



The Mission Song by John Le Carré published in 2006

Fantastic story as only John Le Carré can tell them, but this time the hero is a half African half Irish interpreter who gets involved in working for the secret services. He is a multilingual interpreters with knowledge of many African languages. Once again a thriller I could not put down! (DP)



The Interpreter: Journal of a German Resister in Occupied France by Marcelle Kellermann published in 2008



Un Corazon Tan Blanco by Javier Marias. The main character is an interpreter (in fact he is married to an interpreter too) and the novel does an excellent job of describing with humour how the pair met during an interpreting assignment. It has been translated in English. (Recommended by Emmanuelle Rivière)



Les Nègres du traducteur by Claude Bleton. A translator writes "translations" then finds Spanish "authors" to produce the "original". Interesting plot tending to mean translators are frustrated authors? (Recommended by Emmanuelle Rivière)-

(This reminds me of Boris Vian who wrote J'irais cracher sur vos tombes and had to write the original American very quickly when he was taken to court under the obscenity laws. He pretended it was a translation and was not responsible for the nature of the original! DP)



Vengeance du traducteur by Brice Matthieussent, P.O.L. éditeur, 2009. I have not read this book yet but here is an extract from the back cover: "Traduire: c'est faire se rencontrer deux langues. Dans tous les sens du terme, y compris l'érotique......!!!!!



Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Winner of the 2002 Pen/Faulkner Award.)

Not only is one of the main characters an "interpreter", even though the writer always use the word "translator", but the book becomes a vivid account of the Stockholm syndrome pushed to its extreme.

A dozen pages before the climax we discover how Gen, the Japanese interpreter, came to know all these languages. It turns out that his American mother spoke French as well as English and his father who had worked in China as a young man carried on speaking it as well as Russian he had learnt at college. From then on Gen carried on studying languages.

Ann Patchett makes a number of remarks that could start off unending debates among linguists. For example, she seems to imply that an interpreter can lose its personality when she writes: “Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with his own words.” Interpreters tell me that they have been taught to remain neutral in the way they deliver the words of the speaker and here we have this comment: “Gen only wished he could parody the weight of the voice, the way he struck every word like a soft mallet against a drum.” As a participant at international conferences I have noticed, often, not always, that the delivery of the interpreter is pretty monotonous to the point that in some instances, I have switched back to the speaker, even in a language I have difficulty understanding, as I would otherwise have fallen asleep! Patchett, makes in my view a wonderful remark from the point of view of Gen’s client: “Gen was so central to the way he thought now that Mr Hosokawa forgot sometimes he didn’t speak the languages himself, that the voice people listen to was not his voice.” Another interesting point is made when she writes: “Maybe a translator was not unlike a doctor, a lawyer, a priest even. They must have some code of ethics that prevented them from gossiping.”

If you like intelligent, well written thrillers you will open this book and find it difficult to put down before the end! (DP)

Nicky Coates recommended the book BUT wrote:

"I was interested to read your article in the Linguist recently, and wondered if you had come across a dreadful novel called “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize for fiction in about 2002.

Essentially, the plot has numerous world leaders/VIPs being held hostage by terrorists in a stately home where they had gone to hear an opera performance. The interpreter (just the one) is half American, half Japanese, and acts as a go-between for the VIPs during the siege. He speaks fluent English, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, German, etc., etc., - every single language required for the plot.

I urge you to read it, and then burn it. I’ll supply the matches."



The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - XXII - The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Mr Melas is the interpreter in the story. Not modest, it seems he says of himself: "I interpret all languages - or nearly all - but as I am a Greek by birth, and with a Grecian name, it is with that particular tongue that I am principally associated." Mr Melas is sought after to help Greek visitors to london and is also used in police matters. Does this sound familiar? The expression Police and Court Interpreter might not have been in use then, but that is exactly what his job description seems to be. However he got into deep trouble by some villains who however appreciated his profession and the work he was doing as witness by this sentence: "... and we were fortunate in hearing of your powers." His linguistics talents are very much appreciated. I have never heard or seen the word "powers" used to describe our profession. However Mr Melas becomes involved in a private feud and his life is threatened if he talks about what he has witnessed! Will he talk and risk his life? You will need to read the story to find out! (DP)



Anita Desai - The Artist of Disappearance was published in 2011

It contains three novellas, including Translator Translated.

A very interesting study of how a translator becomes emotionally involved with the author she translates.... The story takes place in India and involves relatively unknown languages. Oriya is the language the translator translates from, the target language is English. Oriya is part of the Indian Group of languages and is spoken by over 22 million people. Prima becomes a translator because she admires so much Suvarna Devi and wishes to make her work known in the wider world. She goes as far as learning Oriya alsmost from scratch as she had forgotten the language of her birth to be able to translate. The first novel goes well and she is asked to translate a second one and this is where the story becomes interesting for us as Prima judges that her idol's work is not good enough and decides to "improve" on it with dire consequences. Many of us will have had the temptation to do just that! This is certainly an ongoing debate in translations outside the realm of litterature. It is often done, with the approval of the client of course, for corporate translations and it is labelled as "relocalisation" rather than translation. We are talking here about rewriting!!! (DP)


Jhumpa Lahiri - Interpreter of Maladies published in 1999 - Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2000

There are nine stories in this opus and the third one which gives the book its title relates the "adventure" of a rather unusual interpreter. Mr Kapasi becomes the interpreter for a doctor who does not speak Gujarati in a part of the country where most of his patients do. But Mr Kapasi has a second job, on Fridays and Saturdays he is a tourist guide taking visitors around in his car as he can also speak English. The story concentrates on the episode when he becomes infatuated with an Indian lady born in the United States who comes to visit with her husband and two children. He feels she is making a pass at him when she finds his job as a translator very interesting. His view on life changes when she says: "It's a big responsability." And then she confides in him... and the relationship... Well I do not want to spoil it for you!

The other stories give an insight into the American way of life for Indian families who have settled there for good. (DP)



Jonas Jonasson - The Hundred-Year-Old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared

Allan Karlson, the Swedish centanarian of the title, had a very eventful life covering the 20th Century. He left school very early but as a teenager became an expect at explosives. He left his native Sweden at a very early age and in the course of his perigrinations he met a number of world leaders and spent enough time in different countries to learn many languages. There is one sentence describing an interpreter: "Around the table sat Comrad Stalin himslef, Allan Karlsson from Yxhult, nuclear physicist Yuri Borisovich Popov, the boss of the Soviet state's security Marshal Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria and a little, almost invisible man without a name and without anything to either eat or drink. He was the interpretor, and they pretended he wasn't there." Any comments? (DP)




Anjin the Shogun and the English Samurai Sadler's Wells - 31st January to 9th February 2013

We went to see this performance last night and I was very interested by the way interpreters were played in the show. In the 17th Century, English was not spoken all over the world the way it is now and in Japan the only foreigners were Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits. They had learnt Japanese and therefore when William Adams ship was wrecked on the Japanese coast he was in need of an interpreter. The Jesuits came to the rescue but did not behave so well once they discovered he was English. However Domenico a young samouraï turned Jesuit was amazed when he realised his superior was mistranslating William Adams' words to make sure he would end up crucified! However the Jesuit was not able to pull the wool over the Japanese in charge and William Adams not only survived but was made a lord by the Shogun. They became great friends. The language was handled extremely well in the story, as the years went by the English man learnt Japanese and the Shogun English and at the end of the story they were conversing without the need of an interpreter. William was speaking English and the Shogun Japanese and their conversation went on without any problem at all. Not dissimilar to what is happening in our own home where Sylvia speaks German to me while I answer in French. The spectators were helped by surtitles and sidetiles with translations both in English and Japanese when required. This show is well worth seeing, but even if you speak Japanese you might find it difficult to follow as it is mostly 17th Century Japanese whereas the English is modern. That was probably done as the show was initiated in Japan for a Japanese speaking audience. (DP any comments welcomed)


Jonas Jonasson - The Girl who saved the King of Sweden

Jonas Jonasson has done it again! A fantastic fantasy about Nombeko Mayeki, an "illiterate" girl from Soweto who learns to read and write and then goes on to become fluent in Wu Chinese and Swedish. She is drafted in at the last minute to be the interpreter of a high ranking Chinese official who years later turns out to be Hu Jintao... Nombeko is the epitome of what an interpreter should not be and should not do... but it is light entertainment even if totally over the top all the way through. I thorougly enjoyed the read. This is an ideal book to take on your summer break! (DP. Let me know what you think.)


Your contributions are welcomed



If you know of any other books or films portraying translators/interpreters, please send me the references. Also if you wish to write a short or long review of the works mentioned above or others, I would be delighted to publish it here, you can write it in your own mother tongue of course.


Translators and interpreters are regularly confronted with clients who have not got a clue what translating or interpreting entails. Indeed, they sometime do not know what the difference is; some even get it all mixed up with the word transcription. Why it is that everyone seems to know what a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or an architect does, but do not have the faintest idea about what we do? They certainly do not think it is a profession. Interpreters have existed even before writing was invented and therefore even before translators became useful. It might not be "the oldest profession in the world", but it might very well be the second one. I do not have any proofs of that, but if you have read The Russian Interpreter by Michael Frayn, you will know why this idea crept into my mind. Julius Caesar never wrote about the languages spoken by the Peoples he conquered, but he was still able to communicate with them. He must have used linguists and not only his sword during his conquests. Admittedly the natives learnt Latin very quickly, but not that quickly, not within five minutes on the battle fields and yet almost nothing is known about interpreters and translators by the general public.




Teheran 43 (Тегеран-43 and in French Une Vie d'Amour – and in English Teheran 43: Spy Ring (English subtitles) - Russian film recommended by Olga Dyusengalieva (translator)

Directed by: Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov and shot in 1981.

Alain Delon plays the part of Inspector Georges Roche.

Teheran 43 is a film in Russian and can be viewed on YouTube.

Teheran 43 is about the famous meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stallin in Teghran during WWII (1943) and the assassination attempt of the three of them planned by a Nazi officer. A French policeman and a translator from France who was originally Russian were involved in these events and (of course) fell in love. Later on, in 1980 the assassin who was to complete the plan decided to sell the documents concerning about this plan. The film is action packed, but there is also a political investigation running in parallel (in 1943 and in 1980) and of course the love intrigue between the inspector and interpretor is not forgotten.  The main Chanson is Une Vie D'Amour (Charles Aznavour) illustrated by archive footage which give you goose-pimple (check it out). You can read more about the film by clicking here.

It's not exactly about our profession but it shows that we can get into quite a mess following clients. It's a beautiful movie in general, worth watching.

For more info on the cast and the credits click here.


The Russian movie "Игра слов. Переводчица олигарха"/ A Play upon Words: The Tycoon's Interpreter is also known under its French name - "La Traductrice".
A young bilingual woman is sort of forced to become a court interpreter for a Russian tycoon who is imprisoned in Geneva. The movie is not only about interpretation, but is also about nostalgia, immigration, life, family, criminal world, being raised without a father who is supposed to be dead, but turns out to be alive and happy with his new family, and etc. However, there are issues raised about court interpretation ethics. The interpreter in this movie often does not behave professionally, she is learning while interpreting. At some point, she gets involved and starts working for the defence case (which was planned by tycoon's friends) and even has a sexual relationship with the defence lawyer (!), who is actually happily married. ) So, the movie is somewhat a lesson what NOT to do, if you are a court interpreter.
Info about actors: Sergei Garmash is playing a tycoon's friend and assistant and Yelena Safonova is the mother of Irina, the interpreter.(Sent by Elena Smetanina who is a court interpreter based in New York)



Hot Summer in Kabul

This is another Soviet movie "Hot Summer in Kabul" (1983) (this leads to a link in Russian) about the first years after the April Revolution in Afghanistan. One of the key figures in the movie is an interpreter. It's not really about the profession, but it is an interesting movie to watch.

О фильме: 1978 год. В Кабул по приглашению правительства Демократической Республики Афганистан приезжает крупный советский хирург Федоров. Гость сразу же включается в работу, проводит в палатах и хирургических кабинетах дни и ночи, спасая больных и раненных. В госпитале, как в зеркале, отражается сложная политическая ситуация тогдашнего Афганистана: здесь и защитники революции, и ее враги, и те, кто попал под влияние душманов. Но все они больные, им нужна помощь. А долг врача — избавлять людей от страданий. This was posted by Noor Umarov

Noor also sent me the following:

There is a Russian serial about Soviet military interpreters in Yemen and Lybia in 1980s - "Russian translation" (8 series). Very good one since it shows the real conditons in which young inexperienced interpreters served. The author of the screenplay is my classmate from St. Petersburg State University's Faculty of Oriental Studies and his story was rather true since basically he wrote about his personal experience which I know very well myself since I served like him the same years but in Afghanistan...

If you're proficient in Russian, then you can download it for free from here: click here


by clicking here

Here is a little bit about this series:
О фильме: 1985 год.Молодой военный переводчик-арабист Андрей Обнорский оказывается на практике в Народно-Демократической Республике Йемен, где работает группа советских военных советников, помогающих формировать и обучать йеменскую армию. Здесь же, в этой раскалённой от солнца стране, Андрей встречает свою любовь и находит военного друга. Спустя несколько лет военный переводчик лейтенант Обнорский направлен в очередную командировку - в Ливию. Он хочет забыть прежние кошмары и ожидает встречи с другом по йеменской практике. Но вместо этого Андрею предстоит вести опасное расследование обстоятельств его сомнительного самоубийства и воскресить призраков прошлого. Он снова узнаёт многое из того, о чём, возможно, предпочёл бы никогда не слышать. Обнорский мужественно выдерживает все испытания судьбы, раз за разом проверяющей его на прочность. Он возвращается в Москву. Что ждёт его теперь?





I have also come accross some interesting titles


The Interpreter - A novel by William S. Hodges - Published in the USA in 1995. It does not have very much to do, if anything, with our profession as the main character Dr Jerrad Gardner wants to push the bounderies of dream interpreting. He uses modern technology (the story takes place in 2035) to record dreams so that he can see and hear what the dreamer is experiencing. Very entertaining novel, very easy read!



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