I spent most of my weekend fighting off a nasty bout of flu. Apparently, COVID taught people nothing, and some still think it is perfectly okay to teach a class while sick, but that’s not the point of this article.

(Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.)

Anyway, while browsing the Disney+ catalog, too sick to watch anything remotely educational or requiring my overheated brain to work, I stumbled upon The Interpreter of Silence (2023).

IMDb sums up the show as follows: “Follow Eva Bruhns, a fun-loving, naive and smitten twenty-four-year-old who’s life takes an unexpected turn when she is hired as a translator for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials”.

Having seen my fair share of TV shows, I knew better than to expect a masterpiece, and I wasn’t wrong. However, there are some interesting aspects to be picked up and discussed further here.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the language industry in general has an issue with PR, or a PR issue.

Unless they are related to, friends with, or married to one, people hardly know what it is that interpreters and translators actually do. Many can’t even tell the difference between the two, to be honest.

While I’ve discussed this and other points in other posts, I want to focus on how interpreters are portrayed in this show and why that might be.

A quick premise before we begin. I watched the first half of the show in English with English subtitles.

Then, annoyed by the fact that the two seemed to belong to completely different shows, I switched to German (with English subtitles), one of the two original languages of the show, the other being Polish.

Unfortunately, I understand little to no German and absolutely no Polish, so I welcome any comments and suggestions from anyone who can enjoy the show in its original form.

(This is where the spoilers begin.)

The interpreter vs. translator conundrum

First of all, throughout the show, Ms. Eva is referred to interchangeably as an interpreter and a translator—something with which all interpreters and translators are all too familiar.

In some cases, she does translate written documents, but most of her work has to do with interpretation. While the layperson may not notice this, language professionals will certainly be irked by the inaccuracy. It’s not just a matter of being touchy about it, though.

Interpreters and translators both specialize in converting information from one language to another, but they operate in different modes.

Interpreters work with spoken or sign language, facilitating real-time communication between people who do not share a common language. Their work often occurs in settings like conferences, meetings, hospitals, and courtrooms.

Translators, on the other hand, deal with written text, translating documents, books, and other media from one language to another. This process is not immediate. Both roles require a deep understanding of multiple languages and cultures, but their skills and training are distinct to suit their specific tasks.

I can’t get out of my head the fact that they played fast and loose with the one thing they needed to get right. I mean, it’s in the very name of the show—was it that hard to maintain some consistency? Was it a translation problem? Is it a symptom of how much confusion there’s around this profession?

I guess we’ll never know. While we ponder these questions, let’s move on to the next section.

Context is king

As interpreters and translators, we know that context is paramount. We are trained to think of words as conduits of meaning and ideas that can take on different forms in another language, depending on the specific context in which they appear.

This is clearly demonstrated by Ms. Eva’s first appearance in the courtroom. The Polish witness called to testify was supposed to bring his own interpreter, but they were denied a visa, so the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office scrambled to find a last-minute replacement—cue Ms. Eva Bruhn entering the room with her dictionary and notepad.

Shortly before this scene, we see her floating the hypothesis that it might be about some faulty parts from a Polish factory, something she had been working on for the past few weeks.

This may explain the disastrous first few sentences she translates from Polish into German. “Prisoners” became “guests” who had been “enlightened” instead of “gassed.” Ms. Eva simply did not know what she was doing.

I doubt that the screenwriters were capable of such finesse—mistranslation due to a lack of contextual awareness—but alas, the result is the same.

In the same scene, the prosecutor interrupts the witness and urges the interpreter to make sure she has her translations down, so we see Ms. Eva retract her previous statements, check her dictionary, and correct her translation.

Interestingly, much like in real life, no one thought that briefing the interpreter would be helpful. What most people don’t understand is that interpreters and translators are not omniscient; that’s why we specialize and still use dictionaries, just like Ms. Eva in this scene.

The perfect scapegoat

Despite her less-than-stellar debut, Ms. Eva is hired for the entire trial. In particular, even though her services weren’t needed for the opening statements, she still went to the courtroom to get a better idea of what she was up against and to prepare, which is 100% what an interpreter would do.

By being present even when not actively interpreting, she demonstrated a commitment to understanding the nuances and dynamics of the trial, which is crucial for accurate interpretation. This proactive approach is often what distinguishes a competent interpreter, as it allows them to anticipate and adapt to the specific linguistic and cultural challenges that may arise in such settings.

However, this didn’t prevent the defense attorney from requesting that the interpreter be replaced due to her “inaptitude” when Ms. Eva was unable to keep up with a Polish witness who was speaking at breakneck speed.

Courtroom interpreters must maintain a high level of concentration and quick reflexive thinking to deliver accurate and immediate translations, often under immense pressure.

The defense attorney’s request to replace Ms. Eva due to perceived “inaptitude” reflects a misunderstanding of the complexities and challenges inherent in the interpreter’s role. It also touches on a broader issue within the legal system: the tendency to underestimate the skill and importance of interpreters, sometimes even using them as tactical elements in legal strategies.

I have always steered clear of courtroom interpreting, but I have heard first-hand accounts of fellow interpreters being told by their client’s lawyer that the other side would try to use them as a scapegoat to buy time for their client, regardless of how good their interpretation would actually be.

Interpreters can unwittingly become part of the legal maneuvering, where their performance might be criticized or questioned not necessarily for its quality, but as a strategic ploy. This situation places an additional burden on interpreters beyond the already demanding task of providing precise and impartial translation.

This industry has a PR problem—or a problem with PR?

As the show goes on, Ms. Eva’s personal relationships evolve, tables turn, plot twists happen—you know, the usual, with some weird twists that I am not sure were necessary.

Ms. Eva is never shown working as a simultaneous interpreter. We do know, however, that the technology existed and was used at the Nuremberg trials in 1945, on which this limited show is loosely based (at least, that’s my takeaway). Instead, Ms. Eva is shown working consecutively, or in liaison mode, and alone, except for the one time she went on a field trip to Poland.

It doesn’t do a great service to interpreters and translators in general, but it doesn’t do a great disservice to us either.

In my opinion, interpreters and translators have a PR problem. The point of this article is not to discuss the whys and hows of this, but I think it is important to mention, as the media is often a reflection of what the layperson knows or thinks about this profession.

For example, the 2010 TV show Covert Affairs had me raising my eyebrows more than once as Ms. Anne Catherine (Annie to friends, family, and affectionate viewers) spoke an unspecified number of increasingly improbable languages, fresh out of college, to become one of the jewels in the CIA crown while going on deadly missions in stilettos.

Others have talked about the media’s portrayal of interpreters and translators, so I won’t dwell on that aspect. Some notable names would be Les Interprètes (2016) and The Interpreter (2005).

I only cited Covert Affairs to make a point: while not strictly about interpreting/translating, that show did (and could have done) much more harm than good to our profession in terms of PR than The Interpreter of Silence.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, while The Interpreter of Silence may not fully capture the nuances of the interpreting profession, it opens a door for discussion about how media representations influence public perception.

In my opinion, it also highlights the need for more accurate representation of interpreters and translators in the media. As professionals, we must advocate for portrayals that reflect the complexity and significance of our work.

However, we cannot expect other people to do the heavy lifting for us. We must proactively seek opportunities to collaborate with media creators, ensuring that future portrayals are not only entertaining but also enriching and accurate reflections of our profession.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for us to influence how our work is perceived and understood by the broader public.