A Linguist Makes it to Hollywood

Our profession doesn’t make it to the big screen too often. But this November, a film called “Arrival” promises to showcase translation, interpretation, and linguistic theory. At least, that’s the hope, given the source material.

The movie is based on award-winning novella “Story of Your Life”, by Ted Chiang. In just 39 pages, Chiang’s tale touches on themes of free will, language acquisition, linguistic relativity, and Fermat’s principle of least time. And, yes, there are aliens; but they haven’t come to blow up the White House (again). The plot’s linguistic essence requires otherworldly thought patterns and language development in order to explore our own means of communication and understanding of the universe. The difference between the written and the spoken word plays a central role. As does context. Yes, context, really does make a difference!

In the movie adaptation, the protagonist is the world’s foremost language specialist, played by Amy Adams. She has been called upon by the government to attempt to communicate with beings from another world who have suddenly appeared on Earth (fortunately, she doesn’t have to interpret for them in court). Her first order of business is to learn their language, so that she can report to the government on who they are, where they are from, and why they have come. A daunting task for even the most talented of language professionals.

Let’s hope that Hollywood gets this right. At the very least, perhaps our profession will be shown in a different light to a broad audience, making clear just how technical and complicated our work is. In any case, regardless of how the movie turns out, the short story is definitely worth reading. Clearly, Ted Chiang has a deep understanding and great respect for what we do.