Years ago I saw a movie called Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. I’m sure many of you have seen it too. I loved it. Recently, I read a book called Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, about an interpreter working for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. I liked that too and began to wonder why the fields of interpretation and translation feel so compelling to me, so hopeful. I guess the answer is obvious. These are professional attempts to leap the chasm between languages and, on a larger scale, cultures. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have to leap the chasms of age, experience, and temperament, which they do with a fair measure of success. There’s the feeling that just enough conspires against them to make a complete understanding impossible. The message may be that a complete understanding is never possible, but Lost in Translation illustrates the very best we can do.
Kitamura’s protagonist’s concern is the accuracy of language and the fact that her words, her intonation, her interpretation can free a murderer or send an innocent man to the gallows. Her job involves spending time in close proximity to men of power—lawyers and dictators—whose actions past and present are the chasms she must negotiate, all without interjecting herself into the mix. In order to stay true to the story she’s conveying, in order to maintain the purity of intention and word, her judgments, opinions, and emotions have no place in her work. Yet how can words form on her lips without her own stamp on them? How can she do her work without risking the integrity of the work itself?
Stay with me here while I make a comparison. A few days ago, the governor of Florida pulled what has been called a stunt, an accurate label for a reprehensible political move made at the expense of others. At first I considered it childish. What was childish about it was that children aren’t born with the capacity to think things through. They have to learn consequences. If I were a child psychologist I could tell you at what age that happens, but it’s surely long before the governor’s age at the present moment. Sending migrants off in planes to an island where they can’t escape unemployment because there are no jobs, is more than childish. It’s weak, ineffective, cruel, and an egocentric display well beyond that of a churlish child. And by the way, haven’t we had enough egocentric displays in the recent past? It’s showmanship, a stunt, a waste of taxpayers’ money that does nothing to solve a very real problem. The individuals who are now suffering at the hands of the governor of Florida are not just the face of this problem, they are the victims of it. Instability in South America and all over the globe is now a fact of life, like a warming climate, and in some cases due to a warming climate. We just want to work, say the duped and desperate migrants facing a confusing volley of questions. Where can we go and work? Here we are, post-ish pandemic and with a labor shortage. Shame on us for not seeing a solution on our doorstep. And shame on you, governor, for your one-man traveling circus. Don’t forget: to stand in front of a circus crowd and pull a stunt is the province of the professional clown.
The governor of Florida no doubt intended to convey a message, a message that was, however, lost in translation. Instead of words, which are used by some as pawns, he put human lives on the chess board and played them to win. He would do better, this governor of Florida, to keep his large, foolish personality out of his work in order to demonstrate a purity of intention. If he wants to fix our immigration troubles, cruelty to a handful of non-English-speaking border-crossers does not translate. It’s impossible to read it as any kind of solution, and it creates an environment of mistrust which jeopardizes the integrity of the work ahead.
The migrants, by the way, posed a problem for the people of the island because so few of the islanders spoke Spanish, and just as few of the migrants spoke English. But within hours, on that very small island, the problem had been solved. Several high school students from, let’s say, Mrs. Carpenter’s second period Spanish class, came to the rescue. They walked over to the gym where the new arrivals were being given food and something to drink. Buenos dίas, they said shyly, their voices warming up to the task. Podemos ayudarle?
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