Recall the etymology of the word “kangaroo”. Back in 1770, Captain James Cook led a group of sailors to the east coast of Australia. One of the men pointed at the animal that hopped around and carried their babies in a pouch and asked: “What is that?”, to which an aborigine replied “kangaroo”. Only years later did the British find out that “kangaroo” actually meant “I don’t know”.
This story itself actually turned out to be a myth. But linguists use it to prove a point of the dangers of loose translation and misinterpretation.
Of course, two-hundred-and-fifty years later, things have changed. The world has become far more globalized. Around a third of the world’s population is exposed to english and, it is estimated that by 2050, half of the world will be proficient in it.
According to an article from The Economist: “It is the language of globalization- of international business, politics and diplomacy. It is the language of computers and the internet. You’ll see it on posters in Cote d’Ivoire, you’ll hear it in pop songs in Tokyo, you'll read it in official documents in Phnom Penh”
But the truth is: there will never be a universal language. After all, language is too tied up with our own identity, our own culture and personality (for all the British teachers who wonder "why can't they speak english all the time?"). And in the absence of one common tongue, we have translators.
These are the invisible heroes, intercultural experts who deserve way more recognition than they actually get. Translation is significant in so many ways. But most importantly, it serves as a vessel for linking nations together. As the American translation theorist, Lawrence Venuti describes it: “Translators imagine their work as establishing a relation not only to the source of the text but also to the receiving culture” This craft converts foreign to the familiar- whether the larger purposes relate to technology, politics or, in the case of this article’s main focus: award season.
Apart from this year’s never-ending wave of disasters, it will go down in history for its breakthroughs in cinema alone. After nine-decades, a prophecy that was seemingly carved out of stone was broken. The Academy Award for best picture was finally- and rightfully- given to a foreign film. That film being the South-Korean caustic, dark comedy “Parasite”
This monumental victory was the movie’s final win, but only part of a much larger chain of international recognition which dated back to May 2019 at Cannes, where director Bong Joon Ho accepted the Palme d’Or for his work.
Throughout this entire run, his translator, Sharon Choi, stood by his side. And after 10 months of tearful moments and 4AM-Taco-Bell-Hangouts with Hollywood’s biggest stars, she herself became an unforgettable face. And surely an anomaly and icon for this unseen profession.
Twenty-Five year old Sharon Choi was born in Seoul, South Korea, but spent her childhood in America before returning home. She graduated from the Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies and then studied cinematic arts at USC in Southern California
In an essay that she wrote for Variety, Choi explains that “the two years that I spent in the US as a kid had turned me into a strange hybrid- too Korean to be American, too American to be Korean, and not even Korean American. I kept up my english by reading books and watching movies, but I still didn’t know how to respond to the oh-so-casual “What’s up?” when I came back to LA for college.”
An aspiring filmmaker herself, and currently working on a script set in Korea, Choi was unwittingly stealing everyone’s place in the limelight. Her unwavering voice and aptitude in both languages earned the public’s attention as well as Bong’s admiration. In an interview for The Hollywood Reporter he stated: “She’s perfect, and we all depend on her”.
By Laura Maksoud, editor-in-chief