By Rose Dymock
Hong Khaou’s debut feature film, “Lilting” (2014), is an intimate, micro-budget drama that follows the story of Richard (Ben Whishaw) who, while still mourning the loss of his boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung), takes it upon himself to create a relationship with Kai’s mother Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei), who is isolated in a care home now that her primary translator has died. The film’s narrative is driven by language differences and the complex issues of translation between two groups that cannot, but desperately want and need to, understand each other.
In an interview promoting the film, Ben Whishaw comments on this theme of translation, stating that it was “a real joy to perform… what happens in communication and retracting things from conversation.” “Lilting” tackles the issues of diegetic translators, defined by Carol O’Sullivan as when “foreign-language dialogue is translated by a character on screen” which is often seen as “cumbersome and time-consuming… in scenes of diegetic [interpretation].” These diegetic translators, therefore, are automatically placed in a position of superiority over other characters within a scene – not only are they able to control what information is translated, but they are also able to understand what is being discussed between two different linguistic and social groups and use that information to their own advantage.
Unlike Gemma King’s statement that the “imbalanced relationship” between translator and the person being translated for or to, presents an “inherent risk” due to the “linguistic vulnerability” of one or more of the participants, “Lilting” examines a different aspect of the power structures of the translating relationship, that between the two people who are being translated by a third party. King’s article on translation in film focuses on the ‘treacherous interpreter’ in Jacques Audiard’s “Un Prophete” who conceals the true nature of language in order to increase his standing in a Corsican run prison gang, whereas in “Lilting” it is Richard who uses Vann (Naomi Christie) – the translator he hired, to help him communicate with Junn – in order to deceive his boyfriend’s mother, albeit with significantly less malicious intent. Early on in the first translation scene, while Richard is explaining why he has chosen to help Junn and find someone who is able to translate for her, he mentions that Kai was his boyfriend desperately and in a way, that conveys some element of the strength of their relationship, before quickly commanding Vann “don’t translate that, she doesn’t know we were together.” Khaou then uses the subtitles to show the speech that is translated, with Vann stating that Richard “was his best friend” to disguise the true nature of their relationship so not to ‘out’ his boyfriend now that Kai is unable to do it himself.
However, it is the complex translation relationship between Richard and Vann that provides an interesting look into the issues surrounding language and power in a relationship. Vann’s role as the translator does not initially provide her with a sense of power over the other characters in the scene as stated by King, at least superficially. Her reluctance at taking on the role is due to the fact that she is “not a professional translator,” as she feels that she may not be able to translate Richard and Junn’s words accurately. This inexperience in professional, paid translation is indicated through her difficulty in the first translation scene in using the correct pronouns to communicate Junn’s words. She replies to Richard’s statement to Junn with “Why won’t you let me… her.” Her unease in being able to properly translate sentences is apparent in her hesitation. While her translations become more confident as the narrative progresses, and whilst she possesses linguistic power throughout the narrative, she loses her own sense of self as a person later in the film. As Richard becomes angry with Junn, Vann is reluctant to translate it – as a non-professional translator she has been unable to prevent herself from becoming part of the conversation rather than just a neutral observer – something which impacts her own willingness to adhere to Richard’s wishes. She is simply reduced to a vessel through which Richard’s words are spoken. By this point, her own autonomy is rejected by Richard as he commands her to “Say it!”, ignoring Vann’s objections to his statement and highlighting that he is the one who in this situation commands power – in this case monetarily – over Vann.
This is not to say, however, that Vann is simply a passive presence within the film, but unlike King’s case study of Malik in “Un Prophete” she does not intend to manipulate Richard or Junn through her own linguistic abilities. But her underlying and undeniable power as someone who is able to move between two linguistic communities is displayed at various points in the narrative. This is first indicated, albeit rather minutely, during Vann’s initial introduction to Junn. After a short conversation in Mandarin, Richard asks what the two women were talking about, to which Vann replies “I was explaining who I was. She asked how you were.” The construction of this sentence is what is most interesting – rather than in following conversations in which Vann translates Junn’s sentences word for word, here she instead becomes Junn’s mouthpiece, adapting the sentence in a way which subtly betrays the power that she is suddenly afforded over the situation as the translator. It is later in the film however when the shift of power truly moves away from Richard as Vann breaks with the translation as directed and instead begins to confront Junn directly with what she perceives to be the older woman’s ungrateful attitude to Richard’s attempt to help her. As an unprofessional translator, and as a person who is increasingly involved with the events that she has been hired to translate, she is unable to prevent herself from letting her feelings known. Confronting Junn in Mandarin, she angrily remonstrates with her – stating later to Richard that she was trying to help him – isolating Richard entirely from the conversation, stripping him of any power that he possesses, through the linguistic code-switch.
This isolation is reinforced through the lack of subtitles during this scene – unlike a conversation had between Junn and Vann in Mandarin earlier in the film, there are no subtitles for their conversation which serves to shift the balance of power in favor of the Mandarin-speaking members of the audience rather than the English-speaking ones, mirroring the power dynamics on screen and evoking in the monolingual audience an awareness of their own limitations.
This change in power dynamic to the disadvantage of the Anglophone monolingual character and audience is something that Gemma King notes as an interesting characteristic of the diegetic translator in her article exploring code-switching in Maïwenn’s Polisse. During a scene in which a conversation between a police officer and a suspect code-switches from French to Arabic, King argues that it acts as “a form of reverse cultural and linguistic marginalization in the exclusion of the scene’s non-Arabic speakers”. This reverse marginalization explains Richard’s angry outburst at Vann following the conversation in Mandarin as he exclaims “What the fuck?… Don’t you think I should be part of the conversation?” While Richard feels that as his ex-boyfriend, he should be integral to the discussion with Junn, it is clear that there is more to his anger than simply being disregarded in the conversation. Instead, he is placed in a marginalized position due to his inability to speak Mandarin, and the powerlessness that he feels is expressed through rage.
This alienation and perceived discrimination on Richard’s part is further reinforced towards the end of the film, as he berates Vann for mixing up her personal pronouns in the translation of Junn’s words, asking “Whose side are you on?” What was initiated in an attempt to purge the guilt he felt for abandoning Kai’s elderly mother for an unknown period of time, Richard’s sense of ownership over Junn and her well-being is undermined due to his inability to speak any of her languages and communicate directly with her. Despite Vann’s amateur translation ability, as stated at the beginning of the film, Richard perceives any confusion and mistakes as a slight against him as the monolingual English speaker who feels increasingly isolated and marginalized in the presence of the two women who speak in a language incomprehensible to him.
It is clear that the portrayal of the diegetic interpreter in “Lilting” is a complex one, tackling power, powerlessness, and questions of marginalization that are not undertaken that often in mainstream cinema.
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