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How Hollywood Turned Language into a Weapon
Posted by Hélène Pielmeier on November 23, 2016  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization, Interpreting
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While linguists may not be as popular as doctors or lawyers on the big screen, they make a regular appearance in a supporting role. Occasionally, they even land the lead role with big-name stars like Amy Adams in the recently-released “The Arrival” or Nicole Kidman in “The Interpreter.”

Language provides an extra dimension for creatives to provide a certain level of authenticity and depth to a story. And as if there weren’t enough languages on the planet, sci-fi novelists and cinematographers love producing new imaginary languages. After Elvish, Klingon, and Na’vi, fans of fictional languages can add a new one to their skill set, even if it is not a fully developed language.

So how does language end up with the lead role in a Hollywood thriller?

When aliens arrive on Earth in “The Arrival,” the CIA tasks Louise Banks, a university professor and expert linguist, with decoding what the grunting heptapods are saying to figure out why their aircrafts are hovering over 12 locations around the globe. The main character realizes that understanding the spoken word will be too hard and instead, seeks to communicate through writing. She starts by writing on a dry-erase board while aliens respond by spraying ink-like smoke through the end of their tentacles. The smoke forms elaborate circular messages. Banks eventually decodes the logograms by looking through patterns and manages to communicate with the creatures.

Source: Paramount Pictures

The characters bring up the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory that connects how a language is structured to its native speakers’ perception of the world. If you learn the language later, you may not grasp all the nuances and thoughts that a native speaker would. But as in any Hollywood movie, our linguist hero manages to break past this barrier and comprehends the different approach to time in the alien’s circular language.

Not only does this new language ultimately enable her to save the world from a massive conflict, but the film cleverly promotes language to the rank of a weapon. One of the great lines is when a physicist, Ian Donnelly, assigned to work with her, quotes the preface of her book: “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” Interpreters and translators will appreciate this reference and the importance given to linguists in conflict resolution.

Speaking of conflicts, we thought about applying today’s dominant translation paradigms as it relates to human versus machine translation. The heptapod language wouldn’t benefit from statistical matching techniques for translation due to the absence of a bilingual corpus, so Banks works through a laborious process of distinguishing n-grams, meaning, and a basic grammar to begin communicating. Donnelly applies big-data analytics to determine the distribution of data, metadata, and content, a step that leads to a eureka moment of decoding the aliens’ message. If they had more time, they might have been able to apply machine learning tactics in to create more of a functional grammar.

Just like real-life linguists use language technology to improve efficiency, Banks’ efforts become more efficient when she computerizes the logograms to automate their complex analysis. Yet she remains at the center of the process and simply augments her ability to meet the need for speed – similar to what we see happening with machine translation. While MT is fine for text where propositional content is all that matters, for anything where lives are on the line, it is no substitute. Media depictions like “The Arrival” can help build the perceived value of human linguists, demonstrate how they can leverage technology to be more effective, and counter the notion that technology will replace translators in the near future.


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