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Body Language Translation

In previous entries, we mentioned in passing the translation work of movies, TV shows, and other audiovisual content. In that entry, as in similar ones, it is taken for granted that the translator must circumscribe his or her work to the characters’ verbal communication – but what happens with all of the non-verbal communication? What must a translator do with facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.?

The English movie Withnail and I is a great challenge for translators due to the unintelligible accent of many of its characters. In this movie, the owner of a rural tavern taps his nose with his index finger to signal that he is about to say something to the protagonists that must be kept a secret. This gesture would elude the vast majority of spectators who do not have the “translation” of such a gesture.
The case of Inglorious Basterds, in which a character disguised as a German soldier gives himself away when he signals the number three with his fingers while trying to order a round of drinks, makes this non-verbal communication one of the most tense moments of the film and exempts the script’s translators from having to delve into the difference between one gesture and another (using the thumb, index, and middle finger or using the index, middle, and ring finger to indicate the number three).
In Argentina or in Italy, joining the ends of the fingers upwards communicates an interrogative, while in Israel it expresses the wish that the receiver of said gesture interrupt his or her discourse.
The offensive raised middle finger, although fairly international, has an equivalent in the Great British Isles, where the index and middle finger are used to express a similar meaning. As legend has it, in one of the wars between France and England, the latter was able to neutralize the Gaullic onslaught by cutting off the French archers’ middle finger (without this finger, it was impossible to shoot arrows). Thus, the English began to lift their index and middle fingers in order to mock this situation.
It is possible, and even expected, that films force the contrast of gestures of the different corners of the world; likewise, it is possible that the work of translators at some point – by necessity – may transcend the scope of verbal and written communication and reach the territory of body language. We await that moment with a thumbs-up.