Director's Corner

13 April 2006


Barry Barish
Lost in Translation

Every Thursday, I get up very early, in order to chair a weekly telecon of our GDE Executive Committee. At the same moment, my colleagues are joining the call in the late afternoon in Europe and near midnight in Japan. We deal with the top-level GDE policy issues and decisions. To facilitate the meetings, we have a formal agenda and weekly minutes. But, despite our substantial organizational efforts and our familiarity with each other, we still have communication issues. In particular, we are not all native English speakers, and all too often there is something "lost in translation." This problem is repeated in different forms throughout our work in the GDE, and also it is a problem in broader society when dealing with multiple languages.

From "A Welsh View" January 16, 2006

"The sign [to the right] is one of the many bilingual signs that can be found in Wales. The above is obviously in English and the bottom is in Welsh. Usually the Welsh and English mean the same thing, but as I don't speak Welsh, I can never be sure that they do.

It turns out that not all signs do say the same thing. The sign above says 'Look Right' in English but in Welsh says 'Look Left'!

The sign was spotted by a North Wales man on a visit to Cardiff."

An interesting comment followed from a reader:

"Maybe they want English people to get killed or something."

As we have become more aware of the language problem in the GDE for non-native English speakers, we are trying to mitigate the problem. There is no single magic fix to this problem, but obvious things like speaking slower, identifying which individuals are the hardest to understand, and maybe most importantly just recognizing the problem will help us overcome the problem.

The subtlety of the issue we are dealing with was recently the subject of a scene from the recent movie, "Lost in Translation," directed by Sofia Coppola. In that movie, which takes place in Japan, the character Bob, played by Bill Murray, is shooting a commercial and is communicating with the Japanese director through a translator.

Motoko Rich translated this scene (which had no subtitles) for us in a New York Times article on the film. His translation is below:

Bob: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?

Interpreter (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you don't mind.

Director (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese): Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn't matter. We don't have time, Bob-san O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the camera. Slowly, with passion. It's passion that we want. Do you understand?

Interpreter (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity

For those of us in the GDE, we must make damn sure we don't turn left, when we should turn right. I think we already have plenty of intensity and passion, so that isn't an issue. Our real challenge will be to stay aware of this problem, use common sense techniques to help us communicate better, and perhaps even develop some creative solutions of our own.