A Translator’s Review of the Box-Office Smash Arrival


The translation world has been abuzz about the film Arrival since it was released on November 11, 2016. Translators have been intrigued, and some would go so far as to say flattered, by the elevated position a language expert is given in a Hollywood blockbuster. On top of that, the starring translator is tasked with saving the planet!

The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who is originally from Québec and likely no stranger to malentendus and the trickier aspects of communication. His work is a carefully crafted narrative about memory, love, and the future of humanity. The film’s protagonist, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a linguistics professor at an unnamed university. She is fluent in English, Farsi, Mandarin, and other languages. She is contacted by an Army intelligence officer played by Forest Whitaker when aliens arrive on earth. She has top-level security clearance from previously working on a Farsi translation project for the government. When they meet in the film, Whitaker’s character says, “You’re at the top of everybody’s list when it comes to translations.”

This, as every translator and linguist knows, is a common misconception about our respective professions. Despite language services industry jargon that refers to translators as “linguists,” linguists—i.e. theoreticians of language—are not necessarily interested in translation at all, nor are they necessarily good translators for that matter. The likelihood that a linguistics professor would be tapped to translate Farsi for the government is essentially nil, but Louise nevertheless winds up being the perfect choice to decipher the alien visitors’ language. Her work both saves the world from certain destruction and unites the human race at a critical juncture.

The film’s central issue is finding out why the aliens have come to Earth. As Louise points out in one scene, the sentence “What is your purpose on earth?” is fraught with issues for a linguist in her situation. A translator might compare it to asking a third-year French student to translate Pascal’s theorem or Perec’s La Disparition into English. Just take the word you: what is the alien word for you? What is the possessive form? Is there a separate word for the singular you, the plural you or a general “all of you aliens” you? And how in the world do you convey an abstract concept like purpose when even the word you is elusive? Translators are used to, and relish in, analyzing complicated sentences, but no translator should ever be called upon to decipher a language that he or she does not know. That is indeed the work of a linguist. Viewers should not get hung up on this distinction for too long, however. The film is science fiction after all, and what follows is a poignant, thoughtful, and suspenseful rendering of what Louise’s field work into the aliens’ language looks like. This has implications not only for her personally, but for the entire planet.

Louise quickly realizes that since the aliens’ spoken sounds are not reproducible by human vocal cords, she should focus on their written language, dubbed Heptopod B after the aliens themselves are dubbed heptopods. Heptopod B is written in billowy streams of ethereal black ink emitted from the aliens’ squid-like arms. It resembles the milky clouds of cream in your morning coffee. The ink materializes into a circle like the drips of the brush of a clumsy calligrapher. It is displayed on the luminous barrier that separates the humans from the aliens within their giant black pod of a spaceship. Louise determines that, due to the circular nature of the writing, the aliens perceive time in a non-linear way—with no beginning and no end. Once she makes this discovery, the plot delves deeply into the ramifications of a linguistic idea called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the theory of linguistic relativity.

Readers who are fluent in more than one language will undoubtedly identify with the idea that, to a certain degree, learning another language can change the way the world is perceived. This is, in many cases, what draws translators to the profession in the first place: the joys and challenges of translating not only words, but different cultures, world views, and realities. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a speaker’s very thoughts are determined by the language that he or she speaks, and consequently, becoming fluent in a different language could alter the learner’s thoughts in profound ways. Arrival explores this idea to the extreme as Louise starts to experience the side effects of learning Heptopod B.

It is safe to say that translators and other language professionals will view Arrival differently than the general population. There are myriad parallels between Louise’s experience and that of many translators. Some, such as the role that technology plays in decrypting the heptopods’ language, are glaring and resonant. Deciphering Heptopod B without a computer in such a short amount of time would have been impossible, and while the programs Louise’s team uses are more like CAT tools on steroids, they nevertheless echo the use of increasingly sophisticated and computerized tools in our everyday work. They also mirror the increasingly important role that technology plays in translation. Other parallels are subtler and may resonate more or less strongly depending on the viewer. Many translators will empathize with the fact that Louise’s work, much like our profession, is misunderstood by outsiders and the fact that those who are unfamiliar with what we do often hold us to unrealistically high expectations. Why can’t Louise just waltz in and ask the aliens why they are here after merely hearing an audio recording on someone’s phone in her office? Translators will commiserate with the long hours Louise spends alone at her desk, poring over a text into the darkest hours of the night—though her task is to avoid an impending global war or potential alien takeover, whereas a translator would likely be working merely to help a client with an urgent request. Others still will relate to the introversion and subtle loneliness of Adams’ character, coupled with an underlying, quiet confidence. She may have been content to work alone on her academic papers and Farsi translations in her office but was forced into the world to share her talent with those who needed it.

The film’s most powerful aspect for translators is that it allows us to imagine what it would be like if our skills bestowed super abilities—as if being able to read and translate one or several languages in a single day was not super enough. What if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true to the extent that it is portrayed in the film? Being a polyglot would suddenly become much more desirable, and our roles as conduits of culture and communication would become infinitely more complex and critical. We will likely never have the gift of omniscience, no matter how many languages we speak or write, and most of us will not be called upon to save humankind, but we will all continue doing our part to ensure that we keep communicating and that we, hopefully, understand each other just a little bit better.

Ben Karl

Ben Karl is a French- and Mandarin-into-English translator specializing in marketing and finance. He is based in Reno, NV.

The Role of the Genealogical Translator


My response to the question “what do you do?” tends to be a conversation stopper. I’m a professional genealogist and genealogical translator. Most people don’t have an idea of what either field entails. A professional genealogist or a professional translator might have some idea, but they’re usually missing part of the picture.

I usually begin by clearing up a few of the typical misconceptions. First of all, genealogy (the study of family history) isn’t a hobby for me, although I do trace my own family tree on occasion. In my professional genealogy career, I primarily do two kinds of work: research, in the form of tracing a client’s family tree, and teaching. While my post-secondary education in history gave me some background in genealogy, I’ve had to pursue extensive additional study to meet my clients’ and students’ needs. I current hold a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University’s Center for Professional Education and expect to complete a Certificate in Canadian Records from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies (Toronto, Canada) this Spring.  I’ve also completed a number of non-certificate granting courses, including the Daughters of the American Revolution Genealogical Education Program. Genealogy is a tremendous amount of fun, but my business also represents a great deal of study and knowledge. Second, translation isn’t a hobby for me either! As the professional genealogy field is still developing its “rules” and “structure,” it is fairly easy for someone to call themselves a genealogist or a genealogical translator. This, unfortunately, has led to some people claiming to be professional translators who have had nothing beyond a high school study of the language. Thankfully, such individuals are rare – but they have impacted the reputation of the genealogical translator. Most, like me, have a mixture of exposure through daily life and formal education. I hold a BA in French Literature and have completed K-12 World Language teacher training.

If my listener has accepted my professionalism, their next question is often about genealogical translation and how it differs from typical translation. At first glance, genealogical translation seems simple. In most cases, all you’re doing is translating civil registration (what Americans call vital records) from French to English. Most employ standard sentence structure, so a translator is not faced with the literary complexity of a novel. But that understanding has missed a few important factors.

The first of these factors is the handwriting. Can you read the document below? This is actually on the easier side, as most of the document was printed. Whether you’re aware of it or not, handwriting and spelling have shifted dramatically over the centuries. An “ff” recorded in an older document is now read as “s.” A circonflexe in French word indicates the word originally contained an s — île was once isle. In fact, there’s a field dedicated to the study of the changes in writing, called paleography. To understand these changes, a genealogical translator either has to have read a number of historical documents or had formal training. Having both, as I have, is more typical.


For those of you who were struggling, a transcription follows:

“Luxembourg, Civil Registration, 1662-1941,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 5 February 2015), birth entry for Anne Marie Reuter, image 562; citing Niederanven, “Naissances 1796-1829.”

[Second entry on left side of the page. The entry is in two columns; the first is to the left of the body of the entry. Words in bold are preprinted]










No. 11

L’ AN [L is oversized] mil huit cent vingt-six, le Dix-Sept du mois de Février

à onze heures du matin par-devant nous Jacques Funck, Bourgmestre

officier de l’état civil de la commune de Niederanven, canton de Betzdorff,

Grand-Duché de Luxembourg, est comparu Jean Reuter

âgé de trente ans, Manouvrier

domicilié en cette commune, Lequel    nous a présenté un

Enfant du sexe féminin__, dont son épouse Catherine Danckhoff,

est accouchée Aujourd’hui à dix heures du matin à Senningen,

et auquel il a déclaré vouloir donner le prénom de Anne Marie

Lesdites déclaration et présentation faites en présence de Mathais

Schmit âgé de vingt huit ans, Clerc de Notaire

et de Etienne Noÿs âgé de trente quatre ans,

                     Huilier                        domiciliés en cette commune, et

                     ont les témoins ______ signé avec nous le présent

                     acte de naissance, après qu’il leur en a été fait lecture. Le comparant a

déclaré ne pas savoir signer de ce enquis.

[ ?] Noÿs

Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]


After the handwriting, the next factor to consider is the language. Words are added and dropped from a language as new things are developed and older things disappear. Did “email” exist even thirty years ago? The above document is largely written in language a modern French speaker would recognize, but there is one exception: “huilier.” Most would be able to translate the word as “oiler” or “oil maker,” but do you know what it entails? Georgette Roussel indicates in the “Vieux Métiers“ section of the blog Familles de nos villages (https://famillesdenosvillages.chez-alice.fr/les_vieux_metiers_026.htm) that the huilier was responsible for taking the harvest to the mill and returning the oil to the village. Today, the person who controls the mill would have the title. A genealogical translator is responsible for recognizing and communicating the difference if it at all impacts the nature of the document.

Third, one must consider the document’s structure. While typical translation allows some fluidity in wording so that the document “reads naturally” in the target language, genealogical translation tends to be much more rigid in keeping the original structure. Why? Because the original structure can tell us something about the circumstances under which a document was created and offer details about your ancestor’s life. The format of the above cited document, a civil registration from Luxembourg, was regulated by law. A failure to use the word “épouse” can indicate that the couple was not married and may require additional research into their background.

In most circumstances, the genealogical translator would produce the following translation and stop, as their clients are controlling the direction of future research.










No. 11

The year one thousand eight hundred twenty-six, the seventeenth of the month of   February

at eleven in the morning before us Jacques Funck, Burgomaster

officer of the civil state of the commune of Niederanven, canton of Betzdorff,

Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, appeared Jean Reuter

aged thirty years, laborer

domiciled in this commune, who presented to us a

Child of the feminine sex, to whom his spouse Catherine Danckhoff,

gave birth Today at ten in the morning at Senningen,

and to which he declared to want to give the first name of Anne Marie

The said declaration and presentation made in presence of Mathais

Schmit aged twenty-eight years, Notary’s Clerk

and of Etienne Noÿs aged thirty four years,

oil manufacturer domiciled in this commune, and

the witnesses signed with us the present

certificate of birth, after he had been read it. The appearing

declared to not know how to sign this inquiry.

[ ?] Noÿs

Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]


Schmit [appears to be signature]

Funck [appears to be signature]


Yet, in other cases, in which they are acting as genealogical translator and genealogist, they would use the information contained within the document to pursue further research. In this case, we know Anne Marie Reuter’s parents were Catherine Danckhoff and Jean Reuter, aged 30, and that they were married. Finding their marriage certificate is a logical next step.

The role of the genealogical translator is often considered to be  either confusing or deceptively simple. The reality is that my occupation is neither. It simply uses different set of rules than typical translation, requiring a greater awareness first, of the history behind the creation of the document and second, of the nuances of the document that must be conveyed in the target language. For a history lover fluent in a second language, genealogical translation can be a perfect fit.

Bryna O’Sullivan

Bryna O’Sullivan is a Connecticut based French to English genealogical translator and professional genealogist.