Action! Behind the scenes at The Interpreter

By Carolina Arrigoni-Shea

Interpreting, as a form of mediating oral communication among diverse language groups, has been with us since ancient times. Yet, its recognition as a profession—and as a field of study per se—is relatively recent. As many of us eagerly await the release of the film The Interpreter, our hopes are that this production will help bring the significance of the profession to the forefront of public awareness.

You are a member of the U.N. Security Council’s elite core of simultaneous interpreters. One day, in the course of your duties, you overhear an assassination plot targeting an African head of state, spoken in a rare dialect few people other than you can understand. As you report the threat to the FBI, you inadvertently become the center of an international crisis, and thus put your own life at risk. The U.S. Secret Service is now charged with your protection but, as events escalate, a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over you, as well. Will a protector who does not fully trust you be able to keep you safe?

Such is the dilemma of the lead character in Universal Pictures’ new film, The Interpreter. A tale of international intrigue, political tension, romance and, yes, interpretation, at the very highest levels of the profession. How did the film come into being? What behind-the-scenes maneuvering was required to get it produced? And how will it play to the uninitiated public?

A bit of history provides some context. The United Nations General Assembly established simultaneous interpreting as a permanent service in November, 1947, following the precedent set by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg after World War II.

Since that time, the U.N. Interpretation Service has grown considerably, and today, the Chief of the Service sets the course for 120 permanent interpreters and 80 additional freelancers. These linguists are the force behind the six language sections of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish (otherwise known as the “official” U.N. languages).

Hollywood comes calling

When the U.N. linguists learned that a major film production featuring an interpreter as the protagonist would be shot at the organization’s headquarters, they were naturally very excited. “It’s always very interesting and we thought it would put the profession on the map,” commented Brigitte Andréassier-Pearl, Chief of the Interpretation Service at U. N. Headquarters in New York. If the curious and interested reactions of the film crew are any indication, the movie-going audience will certainly be awakened to the magic of the interpreting craft.

For the record: The Interpreter marks the first time a motion picture has ever been granted access to the inner corridors of the United Nations’ historic home in East Manhattan. Yet, initially, director Sydney Pollack was denied authorization to film inside the politically-charged sanctuary—just as others were before him, including Alfred Hitchcock. But Mr. Pollack argued the case before Secretary General Kofi Annan, stating that, although The Interpreter was a fictional thriller, the story was in line with the values of the United Nations. Highlighting the principle of “diplomacy over violence,” the theme of the film certainly carried a strong weight in the final decision. And as an added bonus, Mr. Pollack’s crusade received backing from key players within the U.N. Department of Public Information and the New York Film Offices (at both city and state level).

Filming began in March 2004, and had to follow strict guidelines. “They could only shoot on weekends,” recalled Ms. Andréassier-Pearl. “They would come at 6:00 PM on Fridays, and that went on for about four months … the whole neighborhood was invaded with trailers, trucks and equipment.” Somehow, despite the usual glitz and commotion which befits any true Hollywood production, filming The Interpreter did not disrupt the organization’s regular activities. It was understood that the film could pose no diversion to the Security Council whatsoever. Thus, each Monday morning when the U.N. staff returned to their posts, all was exactly back to normal.

Working with the stars

In her capacity as Chief of the Interpretation Service, Ms. Andréassier-Pearl was the ideal candidate to serve as consultant for the film, although her path up through the ranks was hardly traditional. She had first entered the organization 34 years ago, as a secretary. “I am not the typical case because I was already working in the U.N. before becoming an interpreter,” she said. “As a fringe benefit when you work for the United Nations, you can take language courses during lunch time. I was interested in Chinese and joined the Chinese class. There were a lot of interpreters trying to add languages, official languages, and I met several of them. That’s how I was introduced to the work of the interpreter at the U.N., and I got the idea of becoming one. But as you can imagine, it doesn’t happen overnight.” A few years later, Ms. Andréassier-Pearl joined the French Section staff and eventually went on to lead the unit for three years, prior to her appointment as head of the entire Service.

Given that her own language story is somewhat non-traditional, what is the more typical road to the much desired U.N. booths? Most interpreters come to the U.N. from interpreting schools. With a degree behind their names, interpreters the world over apply for jobs at the United Nations and sit for competitive exams when—or rather “if”—these are offered. “You have to understand one thing,” noted Ms. Andréassier-Pearl. “It is such a good job that nobody quits. There are openings when people retire. So that’s when we organize the examinations.”

As the film’s U.N. interpreting consultant, Ms. Andréassier-Pearl worked directly with Academy Award® winning actress Nicole Kidman. In order to help her prepare for her role, the Chief Interpreter led Ms. Kidman around the hallways of the U.N. Headquarters, showing her the imposing, and familiar, sites of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and accompanying her to the interpreters’ booths. “Everywhere we walked around in the U.N., people turned in awe—like we all do when we see celebrities,” said Ms. Andréassier-Pearl. “I felt like a million dollars when I was taking her around, that’s for sure.”

The actress observed regular U.N. meetings and sessions. She watched the interpreting process closely, and asked questions about the profession that would contribute to the depth of her character. In addition to this, Ms. Kidman worked with a dialect coach to become fluent in the fictitious African language dubbed “Ku” (her mother tongue on the screen), as well as to gain proficiency in French and Spanish.

As for director Sydney Pollack, he is known for his thorough research and desire for authenticity when making films. For this story, he probed to uncover the typically mysterious and anonymous life of an interpreter. “He’s a great professional to work with,” remarked Ms. Andréassier-Pearl.

In fact, a very unique contribution to the film originated from their collaboration. During one of their many conversations, Mr. Pollack inquired “What sort of hobbies do interpreters have? What do they do in their free time?” Ms. Andréassier-Pearl tried to explain to him that it was difficult to speak on behalf of the 100+ people that work at the Interpretation Service, but director Pollack insisted: “For instance, you—what do you do in your free time?” It turns out that the U.N. Chief Interpreter is also an accomplished musician, who belongs to an orchestra, and plays the bassoon. She talked with Mr. Pollack about her hobby and the idea stuck. In the film, he gave the character of the interpreter a musical bent. “Now, in the movie, it’s actually a flute,” explained Ms. Andréassier-Pearl. She wonders whether Nicole Kidman will appear playing music only briefly, but regardless of how long that shot lasts, she is pleased that her “hobby” made it into the film.

Into the public’s mind

Going beyond the realm of cinematography, what is the general public’s perception of U.N. interpreters, and the interpreting profession as a whole? In the words of Brigitte Andréassier-Pearl: “When we first started, everybody was in awe of the profession, wondering ‘How can this be done? Somebody is speaking a given language and the interpreters are rendering in another language at the same time—simultaneously—what is being said.’”

In all likelihood, the release of The Interpreter will contribute to a stronger, more widespread awareness of the highly demanding and specialized nature of interpreting. Already, the publicity leading to the event has generated much interest in this not-so-publicized calling. For sure, director Pollack promises to keep us on the edge of our seats because “In the right hallway, at the right time, all it takes is a whisper to tip the balance of power.”

 Production Notes

The Interpreter
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener; Directed by: Sydney Pollack; Universal Pictures; nationwide release April 22, 2005

Locations for the first film ever to be shot inside the U.N. Headquarters include the General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as corridors and hallways of the complex.
Alternative options in case authorization was denied included building a replica of the U.N. General Assembly in Toronto, using miniatures and resorting to computer-generated images.
Original U.N. rooms and furnishings were used in most cases, except for the actual interpreting booths, which were too small and cramped to allow for reverse camera angles. They had to be recreated on a soundstage.
Kidman’s character, and that of the threatened head of state, hail from an entirely fictitious African country named “Matobo.” Likewise, this nation’s language, dubbed “Ku,” is an imaginary tongue developed by linguists—a cross between Swahili and Shone.
The distinction “interpreter” vs. “translator” became an inside joke between the U.N. Chief Interpreter and director Pollack. Almost automatically, his typical utterance “you translators” would be followed by an, “oops, interpreters.”
Filming at the U.N. took place only after hours, on weekends.
Each member of the production—from the stars to the grips—was required to wear ID badges and go through security screening every day. Equipment was regularly inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs.
Some of the extras in the film are actual U.N. staff members.

Special thanks to Brigitte Andréassier-Pearl for her generous time; Universal Studios Publicist Tim Black for his timely assistance; and to the many NCTA interpreters who shared their valuable insights into the profession.

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