Translation goes to the movies

Translation goes to the movies. By Michael Cronin. London: Routledge, 2009. Pp. xviii, 145. ISBN 9780415422864. $35.95.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Bard College

Contrary to what the title may lead one to believe, this book is not about translating movies for a foreign audience, a topic that has already received ample attention: Numerous studies dealing with problems that arise with dubbing and subtitling are readily available. Rather, this book investigates the thematization of translation and translators in films—that is, the various ways in which language difference, translations, and translators are represented (or featured) in motion pictures. This area, Cronin indicates, has completely been ignored in the past, even though language difference and the dilemmas of translation often feature prominently in movies. Michael Cronin seeks both to demonstrate that translation issues are at the center of some of the most widely viewed films on the planet and to challenge the myth that cinema in the United States is ‘wholly beholden to an unashamedly and blindly monoglot vision of the world’ (xiii). Additionally, C hopes that this work may inspire readers to examine the cinematographic traditions in a variety of languages other than English. C addresses not only interlingual and intercultural issues but also intralingual and intracultural issues in this book.

The introduction is well written and provides an overview of the general topics to be discussed. Ch. 1 deals with the origins and early development of cinema in Europe and in the United States, addressing the common misnomer that silent films were actually silent. Already during this early stage, C indicates, commenting on films raised a question of language difference. He then focuses on the development of European film, United States hegemony in the film industry, and their relationship with immigration and integration pressures felt in the United States. As the film industry evolved, the question of translation became more complex, giving rise to different answers on both sides of the Atlantic, which resulted in different translation styles. C also mentions the Indian film industry, but his main interest lies in American productions.

In each of the following chapters, the author focuses on a different genre: the Western in Ch. 2, comedy in Ch. 3, drama and thrillers in Ch. 4, and science fiction in Ch. 5. For each genre, C analyzes well-known and widely-available films such as Lost in Translation, Dances with Wolves, The Great Dictator, Borat, and George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogies. C provides detailed analyses of several relevant scenes in these movies, paying attention to the ways in which language otherness is represented and used to support the overall theme of the film. For example, there is a discussion of the way in which Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator, uses a form of pseudo-German to discredit the ambitions of his title character. In discussing Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, C elaborates on several explicit references to the problem of translation that contribute to a general sense of dislocation and failure to achieve a successful understanding of the situation.

C’s style is lively and clear, and his work is suitable for any reader with an interest in film, even if they have no background in film studies or translation studies. This book brings some of the main themes in translation to the foreground, although the author’s interest is more with film analysis than with translation studies.