Bunkered down: ‘The Translators’

By Anwen Crawford
With a confusing plot and a reliance on clichés, the French thriller fails to excite

There’s a lot that I’m prepared to swallow for the sake of a popcorn thriller, up to and including face swaps, extant dinosaurs and the perpetually goofy Keanu Reeves as a merciless assassin. But I draw the line at the notion that literary translation could ever be front-page news, as it is in The Translators, a bonkers and very bad film that isn’t even willing to be properly silly, and instead skids in and out of patches of spiritless violence.

I mean, if you were going to script a film about literary translation, the most resolutely un-cinematic form of labour outside of actuarial science, you would – wouldn’t you? – take the chance to set it in a Provençal villa, or on the Amalfi coast or a windswept Scottish estate: anywhere – god, anywhere – with good decor and a view. Your translators could drink lots of drinks and wear lots of outfits and generally keep up the cinematic pretence that literature is glamorous work. Just running the Porsche out to lunch with my agent; see you for cocktails, darling! The last thing you would do would be to put your cast in a bunker.

Thus, in a bunker owned by one of that noted class of literary patrons, a Russian billionaire, nine hand-picked translators assemble to undertake the work of translating, from French, the final volume of a blockbuster trilogy. The Dedalus books are so lucrative, and the publisher has so much riding on the simultaneous global release of volume three, The Man Who Did Not Want to Die, that, upon entering the bunker, the translators have to pass through airport-level security screening, then surrender their phones, like those Canberra press gallery journalists shunted into a parliamentary annexe without wi-fi on budget night lest they leak the latest ABC funding cuts ahead of the government’s announcement.

Overseen by Dedalus’s publisher, the suavely commanding Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson), and patrolled by Russians with guns, our multilingual heroes labour at their desks to translate the handful of pages doled out to them each morning. The characters, if one can call such cardboard creatures that, are an assortment of national clichés: the German one is blonde and looks like she hikes on weekends, the Spanish one is named Javier, the Chinese guy is smooth-faced and urbane, and the grizzled Greek dude definitely voted for Syriza in 2015. 

Needless to say, and despite the gun-toting Russians, a number of pages from the book are leaked: cue the global newspaper headlines. This leak sets in motion a semi-coherent sequence of events that pit the translators against each another in a battle of suspicions but not, alas, of dictionaries. There’s a suicide, badly handled onscreen, a murder or three – I soon lost track – and an escalating power struggle between Angstrom and the book’s English translator, Alex Goodman (Alex Lawther, and what do they feed them in those Hampshire boarding schools to breed this endless line of twig-sized, milk-white English actors). The dialogues between Angstrom and Goodman, filmed in a dreary procession of shot-reverse shots, take place in a prison cell, just in case you were feeling visually overstimulated by the bunker.

Of all the many questionable decisions made by The Translators’ co-writer and director, Régis Roinsard, one of the most baffling is to withhold from us, the audience, a proper sense of what these Dedalus books are about. The translators conduct lots of portentous – and pretentious – conversations with each other about them, but, as with any exchange between fans that you end up in the middle of, context is wanting. An outline is wanting. I gleaned that the trilogy was some sort of Stieg Larsson, Nordic noir thing, but in French, with a bit of Daphne du Maurier thrown in: they seem to involve a character called Rebecca who may or may not be dead. This fictional Rebecca, in turn, may or may not have a living doppelganger in the form of the books’ Russian translator, Katerina Anisinova (Olga Kurylenko).

Honestly, I’ve made more sense out of pages of Finnegans Wake than of this film’s plot, which reminds me to tell you that at one point Katerina and Alex have a deadly serious and sexually charged discussion about how the Dedalus books are indebted to James Joyce’s Ulysses – specifically, to the novel’s famous conclusion, with its unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness technique. Joyce swots among you will have clocked, of course, that Stephen Dedalus is the name of one of Joyce’s recurring characters, the one who’s more or less a stand-in for Joyce himself, but how this little nugget of Modernist trivia will help you with parsing the reason that The Translators made it to the cinema screen is anyone’s guess.

Far and away the best sequence in the film is a miniature heist that’s played out on a Paris metro train and inside a copy shop; it’s one of the few passages during which we’re granted a change from grey and claustrophobic interiors. The heist sequence is visually dynamic, pacy, suspenseful, witty: all the things that the rest of the film isn’t, and an indication of what might have been if Roinsard had not been determined to take it all too seriously. Book publishers are terrible and not be trusted – this appears to be the film’s concluding moral, which is one other thing to its credit, and a lesson I think we can agree on.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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