At the 2018 Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival, eight-year-old Toprak had the weighty responsibility of navigating between his parents, who spoke only Turkish, and the French ultrasound technician upon whose every word the whole family hung (Toprak). In Abu Adnan, meanwhile, a Syrian doctor, in exile with his young son, took Danish lessons, weighing each word carefully.
We felt for Berry, the substitute teacher in Master of the Classe, suffering the purgatory of a multilingual class; we sympathized with the destiny of the hero of Wave, awakening to find himself the sole user of a language that absolutely confounded even the most accomplished linguists.
In Parades, we saw the comedian Pascal Tagnati speaking a bird language to his sister in perplexity, and we were touched as Hiroshi, a Japanese man, improbably won over Marisa, a Spanish woman, with the precious assistance of a small dictionary, a dog named Tico and a hearty paella (Ato San Nen).
These films, and many others, made us want to see what develops between people who do not speak the same language: incomprehension and misunderstandings, of course, but also, paradoxically, unexpected closeness, little miracles, accelerated friendships that arise from a need to pare things down to essentials.
The audiences at Clermont-Ferrand have not forgotten Sébastien Betbeder’s Inupiluk, which they crowned in 2014: Ole and Adam, two native Greenlanders who have never left their little village of Kullorsuaq, set off to meet a pair of listless Parisians named Thomas. Neither group speaks the other’s language, so they record their conversations, which they will have translated later, they gesture, mime, laugh a lot and part ways, promising to complete a rematch. And there’s proof it happened too in the film Journey to Greenland.
Exile is definitely an element in “Short in Translation”, but so is wordplay, rife with uncooperative subtitles and other “light-fingered translations”.