Lara Dutta in Singh is Bliing

Today I came across an article published in a Bollywood news and gossip website about the character of a female translator in a new movie called ‘Singh is Bliing’. The character’s role is to help the main characters communicate with each other. When describing the translator she is impersonating, actress Lara Dutta stated: “It’s funny but also quirky. I had to make an effort to look geeky and frumpy. My look was decided upon between the director, the producer and me and was executed by the film’s stylist Arun”. No translators involved in that decision, of course.

As soon as I saw this online, I found myself cringing. I am generally disappointed when I see professions which are regarded as typically feminine being stereotyped in very obvious ways. So obvious, that we are already used to it: We don’t even stop to think for a second why on Earth the nurse on the screen is wearing little to no clothes when, in reality, they are highly specialised professionals with normal (instead of tiny and sexualised) uniforms.

This time, though, the stereotype hit close to my own heart. And, as a part of the profession which is being insulted this time, I feel like it is my duty to highlight the inaccuracies conveyed by this message.

Pauley Perrette playing NCIS's Abby Sciuto

Simplifying professions into a still image, without a deeper understanding of what they are and how they work can only lead to terrible results. NCIS’s character Abby Sciuto comes to mind, a forensic scientist with a goth look and a bubbly personality. There is nothing wrong with choosing a gothic style, and there is nothing wrong with being excited about your job. The problem is the simplification of all computer-related professions, for example, into the typical geek character. We are so exposed to these simplifications that, when we meet a coder or software engineer in real life who is not a huge, massive geek wearing thick glasses and being socially awkward, we find ourselves thinking: “Oh! you’re nothing like what I expected a computer person to be!”.

Translators seem to have fallen in a similar place: funny, geeky, quirky and frumpy. Frumpy. As if being taken seriously as a translator wasn’t hard enough already. We struggle on a daily basis to improve our professional image. We are constantly specialising to offer a better service in a terribly competitive market, and we are always trying to make the world understand the importance of hiring a good, professional translator as opposed to resorting to a cheaper alternative (such as getting a family member, a friend, or an employee to translate the content).

I would also like to address the sexualised portrayal of the translator, which can be seen in the first picture. Because what other explanation could there possibly be for the flower in her mouth?! This seems to happen to women quite often: sexy teachers, nurses, secretaries, librarians, and now translators. Should I be flattered we are important enough to be stereotyped in the same way librarians are? The answer is “no”, I shouldn’t be, because the stereotyping prevents people from understanding the profession and respecting those who practice it. You don’t get to see the translator for who she is nor the job she’s doing. That content is emptied in order to present an image, something to look at and admire for her body, not her mind.

At this point you might be thinking: “Oh, come on! That movie is not serious! It’s a joke! You have no sense of humour”, but let me seize this opportunity to remind you that the media influences public opinion in ways we are not even aware of. In doing so, it helps to erode the respect we feel for translators, and leads to people refusing to pay appropriate rates for a service they don’t consider important or worth their money.

Like Willy Wonka would say: Stereotypes, children, are a dangerous thing.

[Note 22/08/2015: I have just noticed that the article I was quoting confused the role of an interpreter for that of a translator. I didn’t intend to erase those who I consider part of my family, professionally speaking. However, my point stands true]

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