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The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture


Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture

8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture

Translation, despite its esoteric appearance as an art form and series of strategies, is much more present in contemporary life than may be obvious at first glance, which is especially true once one recollects that the process of adapting a novel into a movie is itself the translation of format. But cinema’s relationship to translation goes beyond that simple truth; translation scholars are all too conscious about cinema and its relation to their area of specialization. One of note is Michael Cronin, who in 2008 published a book called Translation Goes To The Movies, where he wastes no time in pointing out: “This book is about the visibility of translators…Much recent work in translation studies has been concerned with bringing the translator back into the picture…” (Cronin, 2008, p. x). Cronin continues with the following: “Less attention…has been paid to translators not so much as agents of representation but as objects of representation” (Cronin, 2008, p. x). Just as a literary agent does not become famous alongside an author, so too does the translator remain in the shadows, and it is in cinema where exceptions can be found.

From The Theoretical To The Visual

In his book, Cronin uses several examples of translators who feature in iconic movies, choosing as one example the popular Star Wars trilogy alongside its three-part prequel. A recurring character, C-3PO, is famous as an at-times comical, at-times irritating droid —depending on the fan perspective in question— which his role as translator, however, not only reveals the invisible yet powerful value he possesses but the most logical reason as to why a character who is either an irritant or a hindrance in some way or another continues to accompany the protagonists on their adventures. As Cronin elaborates:

Figure 1: Frame of C-3PO and Luke Skywalker in George Lucas's film ''Star Wars IV: A New Hope'' (1977)

“When asked by Luke’s foster father in Star Wars if he speaks ‘Bocce’ (the jargon of intergalactic traders), there is a note of affronted dignity and condescension in his reply, ‘Of course I can, sir, it is like a second language to me’…Bruce W. Anderson has commented on the particular authority of the interpreter, ‘his position in the middle has the advantage of power inherent in all positions which control scarce resources’...In mastering six million forms of communication, the protocol droid has very explicit control over ascarce resource“ (Cronin, 2008, p. 109).

To the average Star Wars fan, the idea of C-3PO holding power may sound as comical as the character himself, but despite invisible C-3PO’s power may be, it is not any bit more indiscernible than any other form of abstract authority. Lawrence Venuti writes that “[In international affairs] translation is a cultural practice that is deeply implicated in relations of dominance and dependence, equally capable of maintaining or disrupting them” (Venuti, 2002, p. 158). In The Return of the Jedi, the zenith of C-3PO’s character arc, the movie begins with him being “gifted” to Jabba the Hutt. Regardless the ever-present risk of “disintegration” should Jabba get angry, C-3PO’s behavior does lead to him playing a prominent role in that part of the movie. Venuti applying this power of translation to globalization makes theoretical sense, and in The Return of the Jedi, we see it play out later: as Cronin points out, “It is [C-3PO’s] ability to communicate with the Ewoks that will eventually save the rebels in the culminating film of the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi” (Cronin, 2008, p. 109).

Illustration of a conversation between two people, by Nick Lowndes (2021).

The Subtitle as Middle Ground

While the entertainment factor is a major reason why the motion picture has surpassed the written word in popularity, accessibility is another factor, and one that has been noted by prominent commenters on cinema like Susan Sontag. She described cinema as "an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time" (Sontag, 1996, para. 2). If movies have not overcome the language barrier, they have, at the least, sufficiently diluted its opacity by overcoming visual barriers. Describing, for instance, the coat a character is wearing is no longer necessary as a viewer from any language can see for themselves, and while the dialogue may remain inaccessible, the rest of the movie is comprehensible via dubbing or subtitles. Unlike a novel, where most of the source language must be rendered in the target language, subtitles, like interpretation, form a middle ground that communicates meaning without subtracting the original language from the equation. Movies, in short, can meet halfway in a way that the written word cannot. The inscriptive process Venuti describes, "the translator negotiates the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text by reducing them and supplying another set of differences, basically domestic" (Venuti, 2000, p. 2000), becomes a part of the foreign itself, both the otherness conveyed cinematographically and the language itself.

Naturally, subtitle quality matters as much as any other form of translation. But while it is one thing to render the dialogue into the target language, conveying the totality of otherness is another. Nor do movies traditionally have an equivalent to glossaries or footnotes to inform the viewer about elements of the source culture. Even so, there are movies that feature underlying elements of cultural expression brought to the fore in a manner relevant to translation. One example Cronin uses in his book is the 2006 satire Borat, a mockumentary where an alleged “Kazakh” visits the US in order to learn things that would benefit a fictional Kazakhstan of exaggerated backwardness. Borat utilized a series of lesser-known languages in order to generate an opaque veneer not unlike Patrick Chamoiseau’s Opacite, namely Romanian, “interpolated” Hebrew and Armenian, all meant to represent Kazakh or Russian. An exceptionally acute observation by Cronin is particularly worth noting:

Figure 3: Frame of ''Borat'' where Borat himself is crossing a border (2006)

“The bystanders and the onlookers are intra-diegetic representations of the majority of cinema goers, who not having access to Hebrew, Armenian, Russian or Kazakh would not be any wiser to the languages Borat and Azamat are speaking or what they are actually saying. Even the subtitles provide the illusion rather than the substance of understanding. What the fallibility of the subtitles point up is the larger fallibility of communication in a global age, particularly with respect to the Anglophone world. The growing dominance of English, which among other things favors the growth of a global tourism industry heavily mediated through the English language, means that other languages potentially lose their distinctive histories and identities and begin to merge into an undifferentiated language other. What matters is not that they are a specific language from a specific place but that they are not-English” (Cronin, 2008, pp. 77-78).

With subtitles in place, the moviegoer oblivious to the source language and uninvested in the source culture is unable, on one hand, to register any difference between a Semitic language with Slavic characteristics, (Hebrew) an Indo-European Romance language (Romanian) and an Indo-European standalone language (Armenian). To be sure, the viewer can easily tell that something is screwy, comical and/or exaggerated, but without knowledge of the following languages, the viewer, on the other hand, is just as clueless with subtitles as they are without. Unlike literary translation, where translators face severe criticism if they do not show cultural sensitivity, the monotony of languages in the aforementioned Either/Or scenario of English/other languages suggests a dearth of otherness in the globalized 21st century. It begs this question: by the end of this century will there even be enough otherness in language to justify even literary translation? If Borat is any indication of the future, then the answer can hardly be optimistic.


In terms of translating otherness, Borat reflects a trend in the world that can be described as the reversal of the goals of literary translation. Rather than making accessible a phenomenon that is closed to others, the Borat vision of the multilingual world as elaborated by Cronin is an either/or, English/other world as dualistic and estranged in its divide as the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine (Wells, 1995). Factors like these, coupled with the visual strengths of the motion picture, are just a few examples of how translation and the movies are related.

Bibliographical References

Betz, M. (2009). Beyond the subtitle: Remapping European art cinema. University Of Minnesota Press.

Cronin, M. (2008). Translation Goes to the Movies. Routledge.

Sontag, S. (1996). The Decay of Cinema. New York Times.

Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, 468–488. Routledge.

Venuti, L. (2002). The Scandals of Translation. Routledge.

Wells, H. G. (1995). The time machine. Dover Publications.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: [Interpretation of subtitles on a cinema. Edited photograph]. (2020). Film Daily.

Figure 1: Lucas, G. (Director); Taylor, G. (Cinematography). (1977). Star Wars IV: A New Hope. [Photogram]. Star Wars Databank.

Figure 2: Lowndes, N. (2021). [Conversation between two people. Illustration]. The Economist.

Figure 3: Charles, L. (Director); Geissbuhler, L. and Hardwick, A. (Cinematography). (2006). Borat. [Photogram]. Open Democracy.


Author Photo

Felix Purat

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