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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Theory  »  The Translator's Image in Sydney Pollack's Film The Interpreter (The Ethical Dilemma).

The Translator's Image in Sydney Pollack's Film The Interpreter (The Ethical Dilemma).

By OWatts | Published  05/11/2012 | Translation Theory | Recommendation:
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In this article, I am going to look at the translator as an object of representation in cinematography and explore the image of the translator, in general, and the interpreter, in particular, in the well-known film directed by Sydney Pollack The Interpreter (2005). In the following sections, first a general description of the plot of the film will be given followed by a description of the image of the fictional interpreter, Silvia Broome. Then I will try to dwell on the ethical problem present in the film and reflect on the questions: Is it always possible for a translator to act at once professionally and ethically in the situation of conflict? What happens if the professional ethics clashes with the translator's personal ethics?
The Interpreter is one of the few films which explicitly acknowledge the theme of translation in their title, in this way preparing the audience for the fact that the issues of translation and in our case of its oral form, interpreting, are going to be in the centre of our attention. The fact that such a high-profile film created by the world-famous, award-winning director and actors (Sydney Pollack, Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn) focuses on the issues of translation testifies that the role/status of the translator in the modern, globalised world has changed significantly and is now “far from innocent” and “very visible indeed” (Bassnett in Alvarez and Vidal, 1996, p. 23).
The Interpreter is a suspenseful political thriller. The action takes place alternatively in a fictitious African country, Matobo, and on the streets of New York and inside the United Nations Organisation headquarters. The story begins as Silvia Broome, a UN interpreter, inadvertently overhears a conversation in Ku, a fictitious language spoken by a Matoban tribe that only she and a few other people in New York can understand. It becomes obvious from what she hears that the people are plotting an assassination of the Matoban president, Dr. Zuwanie, during his forthcoming speech at the United Nations' General Assembly. The plotters notice Silvia and suspect that she might have heard something. Now that not only the president's but Silvia's own life is in danger, she is desperate to thwart the plot.
A Secret Service agent, Tobin Keller, is appointed to investigate the case, but instead of offering the interpreter protection, he suspects that she is not telling the truth, so she falls under the investigation herself. As the story unravels, he finds out that Silvia has reasons to want the Matoban president assassinated and that she might be involved in the plot. Keller's task is to determine whether the threat to the president's life is credible and, if it is, how to prevent it and eliminate the assassins.
From the translator's point of view, the film is of interest not only because it is focused on the figure of interpreter, but also because it paints a graphic picture of the globalised world we live in today, and the way it has changed the role of the translator. What we see in the film is a truly globalised world, where the events taking place in a small African country have repercussions on the other side of the planet, in New York, and the other way round. The film vividly reflects such components of the process of globalisation as multilingualism, migration, international terrorism, war on terror, international relations, international intrigue, diplomacy. All of these are concentrated in the film, in the first place, inside the United Nations, an organisation established to promote peace between the different countries of the world and to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts whenever and wherever they occur.
The Interpreter takes a special place in cinematography as it is the only film ever whose director got permission for filming inside the United Nations buildings. This is how Sydney Pollack explains his idea of making a film on the location of the United Nations in one of his numerous interviews about this film: “I thought a thriller made inside the U.N. would be engrossing to watch. It was a setting I’d never seen before” (Esther, 2006).The fact that a lot of action in the film takes place inside and around the real UN buildings creates a truthful, authentic picture that makes you sometimes forget that what is going on in the film is not real-life events.
As Sydney Pollack states in one of his interviews himself, “it's a film about diplomacy versus violence” (Minghella, 2005). According to Pollack, the main question he asks in this film is: “If words are a primary instrument of diplomacy and diplomacy is a primary alternative to violence, then do words have to have the same power as bullets do?” (Minghella, 2005). The UN interpreter Silvia Broome is tormented by the same question throughout the film trying to find the answer to it. So who is Silvia Broome?
At the beginning of the film, we see Silvia as a young, intelligent, broadly-educated woman, a UN interpreter, who whole-heartedly accepts and adheres to the idea of the UN as the right and only way of solving international conflicts. The daughter of a British mother and a white African father, she was born in the US and brought up in Africa. She has a dual citizenship of Matobo and the US. She studied music in Johannesburg, linguistics in the Sorbonne and languages in various countries in Europe. Summing up Silvia's background information, the Police Chief concludes: “She is the UN”, - as, in his view, someone like her, mastering a few languages and belonging to a few cultures, must be a perfect candidate for interpreting at the UN. But as Silvia admits later on in the film, she had to lie to the UN about her past, otherwise she would have never got the job. So what does she have to hide?
As the story unfolds, we find out that Silvia has a complex past. When she was about twelve years old, the area where she lived with her family in Matobo was “infested” with rebels fighting Zuwanie's regime. As a retaliating measure, Zuwanie got the area mined. One day, as Silvia's parents were bringing her younger sister home from school, the car hit a mine, and all of them were killed.
When Silvia grew up, she and her brother, Simon, joined an anti-government movement led by Ajene Xola, branded by Zuwanie as terrorist. Silvia confesses to Keller that, when as a member of this organisation she had to shoot a child to stop him from killing her, she realised that it was the wrong way to go and that there must be a better way. She remembers that when Zuwanie came to power in Matobo years before, he was a national hero, a liberator worshipped by the whole nation. She admired him, too, until the long years in power turned him into a ruthless, corrupt dictator, exterminating his own people. The memory of Zuwanie as a hero is still fresh in Silvia's mind as well as the wisdom of his words in the preface to his autobiography:

The gunfire around us makes it hard to hear, but the human voice is different from other sounds. lt can be heard over noises that bury everything else, even when it's not shouting, even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard over armies when it's telling the truth.

As a young girl, Silvia admired the Matoban president greatly, believed his every word, so it is not surprising that these words about the power of the human voice imprinted in her memory and had an enormous effect on the choice of her future profession, interpreting.
Disappointed in violence, Silvia comes to the conclusion that its only alternative is diplomacy, the UN. She leaves Africa and with it her brother Simon, her lover Ajene Xola, her revolutionary past and starts working as a UN interpreter in New York. She believes that the only way to change the world, to stop genocide in her country and wars around the world is through the power of the human voice as “even the lowest whisper can be heard over armies when it's telling the truth”.
At this point, it is pertinent to explore this character in more detail in terms of ethical issues and try to determine whether, in the situation of conflict that Silvia finds herself, her actions are in line with translation ethics, and, if not, whether her actions can be justified.
On the night when Silvia accidentally overhears someone saying in Ku: “It will end here. The Teacher will never leave this room alive”, - there is no doubt that this smart, intelligent woman, who is perfectly aware of the realities of Matoban life, realises the same moment that the “Teacher” they are referring to is the Matoban president, Dr. Zuwanie. Silvia knows that what she has just heard is vitally important, explosive information which, if not urgently addressed, will most likely lead to an assassination of the head of state, and an international scandal. Nevertheless, Silvia is not in a hurry to report the incident to the authorities.
We can see that, at this moment, a fight of two fidelities is going on inside Silvia, which she is trying to re-conciliate: the fidelity to her profession and the UN, and the fidelity to her family and her brother. Her ethical dilemma is whether to stay truthful to the principles of the United Nations Organisation that promotes peaceful resolution of conflicts, or to stay loyal to her family killed by Dr. Zuwanie's regime and to her brother who is fighting this regime with a machine-gun. Fidelity to the profession means peace, fidelity to the family means violence. If Silvia reports the incident to the authorities, the terrorist act will be prevented, Dr. Zuwanie will stay alive and will be tried before the International Criminal Court for the crimes against humanity. On the other hand, Silvia is worried that her brother may be involved in the assassination plot. If she reports the plot, his freedom and, possibly, his life will be in danger.
As we know, Silvia strongly believes in the ideas of the UN and in “what it tries to accomplish”. She is adamant that the UN, “quiet diplomacy” is the only place that has a chance to make the world a better place to live. The weapon of the UN and, thus, her weapon is “words and compassion”: “I walked away from Africa with nothing […] just the belief that words and compassion are the better way, even if it's slower than a gun”. So there is no doubt that Silvia is telling the truth when she says to Tobin: “If I wanted him [the president] dead, I wouldn't have reported it. It's not what I want. That's not why I'm here”. She fully understands that the situation is very serious, the president's life is under threat, and that she should report the incident immediately. But her brother might be involved in the planned assassination, so she is trying to get in touch with him through emails on the night when she finds out about the plot, but there is no reply. Her brother's life might be at stake, hence she does not contact the securities yet trying to decide what is the right thing to do.
Still, the next day, fearing that her life is in danger, too, Silvia makes the decision to reveal to the authorities what she knows about the plot. The Police Chief points it out to her that, in fact, she was obliged to inform them about the incident as soon as it became known to her, thus accusing her of not reporting it straight away. Silvia leaves his remark unanswered because she, probably, knows that the accusation is fair.
Now let us imagine for a minute that a situation like this has emerged not in a fictional, but real world, and how we would assess the interpreter's actions from the point of view of translation ethics. The Code of Professional Ethics of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) lays down the principle of confidentiality along with integrity, professionalism, impartiality, neutrality and accuracy as the key obligations of interpreters' professional ethics, but it underlines that these principles are applied to interpreters' actions “in the course of the practice of their profession”, in other words, while they are performing their duties (AIIC Code of Professional Ethics, Article 2, a). I believe that as Silvia obtains the information about the assassination plot in her out-of-work hours and not during an interpreted encounter, she is not obligated by her professional code of ethics to report the incident to the authorities. We also find confirmation of this statement in the following comment by Hale (2007, p.130):
In any case, the code [of ethics] applies to the interpreted encounter, and not any interactions before or after the professional encounter. During those interactions, the interpreter is not acting as interpreter but as a private citizen and is therefore not bound by any professional code of ethics. According to the code, it is the information obtained during the interpreted interview that must not be disclosed.

In this situation, according to another scholar, Andrew Chesterman, instead of the professional code, the translator's personal ethics or more general, universal ethics applies (2001, p.152):

any professional ethic must be subservient to more general or universal ethics, since professions and practices only concern subsets of societies, just as societies are subsets of humankind as a whole, and humankind of organic life in general.

This means that in a situation when professional ethics clashes with a more general, universal ethics, the translator's behaviour should be guided by the universal ethics as the former is subservient to the latter. As for Silvia, she feels that it is her ethical duty to inform the authorities about the assassination attempt being planned, but this duty is not stipulated by the translation ethics, but by her personal ethics based on her political beliefs as a pacifist. Throughout the film, she openly expresses her adherence to the principles of the UN. When asked by head of Edmond Zuwanie's security, Nils Lud, where she stands politically, she replies: “I am for peace and quiet, Mr. Lud. It's why I came to the UN. Quiet diplomacy”. As an interpreter and a pacifist, she believes in the power of language. In reply to Nils Lud's remark: “With respect, you only interpret”, - Silvia produces a phrase that could constitute a quintessence of the translator's pivotal role: “Countries have gone to war because they misinterpreted one another”.
Silvia's beliefs in the ideas of the UN are very strong at the beginning of the film, and they make her act in accordance with her ethical principles and report the plot, even though that may put her brother's life in danger. But there is a moment towards the end of the film when Silvia learns that her brother has been shot dead and her beliefs in “quiet diplomacy” are shaken. Like some time ago she got disappointed in Dr. Zuwanie, now she is disappointed in the UN, which she says is a far too slow way. Now again she feels like violence is the right way to go. This only shows that in a situation of conflict, when tensions are high, it is not always possible to predict the translators' behaviour, even translators themselves may not know how they will act in a certain ethical situation until it happens and they have to make their choices.
This brings us to a similar idea expressed by Inghilleri who argues that, in a conflict situation, the translator's actions are not necessarily guided by “professional codes of ethics based on the notion of impartiality”, but “by the nature of the ethical encounter itself where ‘‘the right thing to do’’ cannot be calculated or predetermined, but can only ever be decided in the event itself” (2008, p.212). Thus, drawing on Chesterman's and Inghilleri's ideas above, we could, probably, conclude that translators' ethics has a complex nature determined not only by the professional code of ethics but, in the first place, by their personal or universal ethics which, in its turn, is guided by the translators' habitus as well as their political views and moral stance.
I believe that the image of the interpreter presented in the film could be used as a graphic example when discussing translation-related issues, for instance, how the translator's habitus affects his or her professional activity, the translator’s pivotal role in global events, the correlation between translation ethics and general ethics, particularly if they clash in the context of conflict, the translator's visibility in the contemporary world, the translator's dubious status in the situation of conflict when, positioned between two powers, he or she is an extremely powerful and at the same time an extremely vulnerable figure (Cronin, 2009, p.93). Discussing translation matters using concrete images and situations created in audio-visual material might prove to be an extremely fruitful way of teaching and studying different aspects of translation studies and, in my view, should be used more extensively.

AIIC Code of Professional Ethics. (2009). Retrieved August 30, 2010 from

Bassnett, S. (1996).The Meek or the Mighty. Reappraising of the Role of the Translator. In R. Alvarez and C.-A. Vidal (eds) Translation, Power, Subversion, pp. 10–24. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Chesterman, A. (2001). Proposal for a Hieronymic Oath. The Translator 7(2), pp. 139-154

Cronin, M. (2009). Translation Goes to the Movies. London/New York: Routledge

Delabastita, D., and Grutman, R. (2005). Introduction. Fictional Representations of Multilingualism and Translation. Linguistica Antverpiensia 4, pp. 11-34. Available online. Retrieved September 3, 2010 from

Esther, J. (2006). Sydney Pollack Interview. The Progressive, February 2006.
Last retrieved May 11, 2012 from

Hale, S. (2007). Community Interpreting. Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Minghella, A. (2005, April). The Armature of The Interpreter. Interview with Sydney Pollack at the National Film Theatre. Last retrieved May 11, 2012 from

Pollack, S. (Director). (2005). The Interpreter [Motion Picture] UK: Working Title Films

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