“You’re the Translator. Translate!”

stargate

Stargate is a film about an immigrant’s love for America. It has a wonderment, a fascination with the American way that seems almost undimmed by the history of the 20th century. Stargate is what happens when the Prime Directive of Star Trek meets the Manifest Destiny of the real world.

It’s also about a bunch of American soldiers getting bogged down in a desert war about a mysterious, magical resource, fighting a power that is almost unknowable. Stargate was made in 1994, right after the First Gulf War, and it ends with this terrible realisation that they have only fought one battle, and that their enemy has many allies, that will be coming for them next.

That’s not all. Stargate is adored by translators all over the world, because it’s one of only a handful of films in which the translator is the hero.

stargate3

I have been in those situations. No, not quite brought back from the dead and forced to debate politics in a recently learned dead language with an immortal alien… but close. I have been dumped into negotiations way over my head, in a language or dialect I don’t even speak, and had to muddle through. I have turned up in the middle of fights threatening to escalate into real trouble, and they’ve said to me “You’re the translator. Translate!” I have stared at a blackboard where someone has tried to have a crack at my specialist subject, and said: “Who wrote this crap?”

You can thank Roland Emmerich for that, I imagine. This is a man who grew up speaking German. He knows whereof he speaks. There’s a great scene in Stargate when Daniel Jackson is in a cave with his love interest, Sha’uri; Daniel points at hieroglyphs and reads out the pronunciations, and she tells him what the vowel mutations and consonantal shifts are. If you learn to speak Mandarin first, that’s how you learn to convert it into Cantonese! Although sadly not every language course supplies a Sha’uri to jolly things along.

I think that at its deepest level, the thing that really strikes home in Stargate is that Daniel Jackson isn’t just a translator. He’s a writer in Hollywood. He’s the weedy, wimpy specky guy with the big ideas that nobody wants to hear, dragged off to the middle of nowhere by a bunch of bullies and told to twist his skills in new and unexpected directions. The soldiers hate him. They’re all producer types who just want car chases and boobs, but he’s there with his books in the desert, wide-eyed with amazement at this incredible thing, that is all his dreams coming true, as long as the producers don’t ruin it. And at the end, he gets the girl!

Well, at the end of the movie, anyway. In the TV series… well, there’s some small print…

Jonathan Clements has translated Sun Tzu’s Art of War, among other things.

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5 thoughts on ““You’re the Translator. Translate!”

  1. You haven’t read it before because it was never published before. I just found it in my notes for an interview I did on… I think it was the Discovery channel about four years ago. I’ve never seen the programme myself, but every now and then people tell me they’ve seen it. Most serendipitously, when my sister was changing planes in Singapore airport… what are the odds?

  2. Seems to me that Columbia has circled the wagons since that film was made and she ain’t taking an prisoners (except to Guantanamo Bay).

    I wonder what other film has the uber-nerd saving the world and getting the girl?

  3. I always enjoyed the film, which did manage to have an infectious sense of wonder – the TV series, not so much.

    Can’t really warm to Emmerich’s films after he made the ‘Evil-English’ Patriot with Mad Mel though.

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