Questions of (Mis)Translation: From Arrival to Brexit

17 October 2016 | Jonathan Drake

Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming sci-fi movie Arrival has already created a significant buzz amongst critics after first-look screenings on this year’s film festival circuit. There is still almost a month to go before its official release and it has already managed to attain an impressive score of 80/100 on the review aggregator Metacritic. The general consensus seems to be that this is a thoughtful science fiction offering that doesn’t rely too heavily on action; like the best of the genre, it isn’t afraid to tackle some big ideas. These ideas include the cultural, social and political significance of translation and Translation Studies: provoking thoughts on matters ranging from plot-holes in Roland Emmerich’s film Independence Day to cultural imperialism to translation’s role in the political discourse surrounding Brexit.

The focus of the film is the difficulty of communication with an alien species at the moment of first-contact. Amy Adams plays a translator enlisted by the American government to decipher the alien’s language and to successfully communicate with them. The hope is to initially establish whether or not they pose a threat to humankind. As early reviews have indicated, the film actually focuses heavily on the breakdown of communication between humans when faced with the stress-test of extra-terrestrial contact. As Adams’ character attempts to translate the alien language, tensions threaten to boil over between Russia and America due to their failure to find a common, cooperative response to the perceived alien threat.


Still from Arrival

It’s fascinating that Villaneuve has placed inter-species translation at the heart of this story. It is usually something as difficult for alien invasion movies to deal with as the complications of actually travelling through time prove for so many time-travel sci-fi plots (think Looper, 12 Monkeys, Back to the Future etc.). In Independence Day – a classic of this genre – the difficulty of language barriers is overcome by way of a rather uninspiring simplification: the aliens don’t have vocal cords and simply physically manipulate human vocal cords in order to speak. Aside from a brief moment of telepathy, the real issue of alien language systems is simply glossed over and more or less ignored. In Arrival, however, the problems of language and its translation are absolutely central to the narrative.

Something similar takes place in Lawrence Venuti’s seminal book The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation that was first published in 1995. It is now one of the most influential and oft-cited texts in the field of Translation Studies. Venuti is critical of the Anglophone tradition of ‘invisible’ translators, producing texts that erase the foreign-ness of the original and replace it with a ‘domesticated’, anglicised version that make little or no attempt to acknowledge the fact that the work is translated from a foreign language and culture. He tries to re-focus our attention on the translator and the translated-status of works in translation, arguing for the political, cultural and social importance of ensuring that the translator is central to the narrative, when it comes to thinking about translated texts. Failure to do so can lead to entanglement in thorny issues such as cultural imperialism, xenophobia, isolationist nationalism and socio-cultural homogeneity.

These are all issues that are also raised by the complexities of Villeneuve’s film. What happens when inter-lingual communication fails? When faced with foreign-ness, do we treat it with aggression and attempt to eradicate or ‘domesticate’ it? Do we instead welcome the heterogeneity and diversity offered by an ‘alien’ culture? Do we acknowledge it and seek to integrate and in-so-doing attempt to develop our own culture?

It’s also fascinating to think about placing the (in)visible translator at the heart of socio-political discourse – as is the case in Arrival. For example, during the Brexit referendum, those advocating that Britain and Northern Ireland should leave the EU suggested that the UK’s sovereignty is compromised by the intervening influence of the European Union. In work such as ‘Political Discourse from the Point of View of Translation Studies’, Christina Schäffner has analysed, in some detail, how mistranslations of foreign political discourse have previously negatively influenced the British media’s portrayal of the EU. It is certainly interesting and potentially important to consider how this might have had similar effects during the referendum campaign. What role has (mis)translation played in forming the popular British view of ‘meddling Brussels’ and the invasive ‘alien’ threat to British sovereignty posed by the European Union? As is suggested by Arrival, does our fear of the outsider often actually stem from failures of communication and mistranslations within our own society and culture, rather than from the alien presence itself?

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a co-founder and member of the editorial team at He is currently studying for an MSc in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is particularly interested in ecocriticism, nature writing, bothies and wildcamping.

Article edited by Ryan Edwards and Margaret Graton


Schäffner, Christina. ‘Political Discourse from the Point of View of Translation Studies’. ‘Journal of Language & Politics’. 3.1. (2004): 117-150.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London: Routledge, 1995.

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