When Speaking the Same Language Doesn’t Mean Being Able to Communicate

Today we’ll shift gears a bit and recommend a highly awarded film: “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” directed by Wayne Wang.  It earned itself the distinction of Best Film at the San Sebastian Film Festival, it received the Signis award as well as the Cinema Writers Circle award.  In addition to all these awards for Best Film, Henry O (Mr. Shi) received the prize for Best Actor at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Yiyun Li.  The fact that the author of the novel was also the script writer for the movie has most likely been one of the main factors that allowed the film to be such a successful adaptation of the book.

Beyond the profound critique of Chinese society and the issue of the lack of communication between parents and children, what I want to point out in this translation blog is the genius with which the oft’ mentioned issue of linguistic barriers is developed: the father (Mr. Shi) and his only daughter (Yilan) have poor communication when speaking in the same language and when their affection towards each other is obvious.  Nonetheless, Mr. Shi can “communicate” with an unknown woman with whom he speaks in another language, English, which neither he nor the Iranian woman (Madam) speak well.  The scenes of communication-lack of communication are really incredible between these two strangers who tell each other their deepest life dramas practically without words (yet intelligibly).  Each one of them even ponders what the other has said in their mother tongue, when they evidently haven’t understood it…and between it all, somehow they manage to communicate.

This is a movie that linguists simply can’t afford to miss…