-Tell me about the interpreter.

-Born here, but lived mostly in Africa and Europe. She studied music in Johannesburg and linguistics at the Sorbonne and various countries in Europe. 


-British mother, white African father. Moved here five years ago. Interview couldn’t have taken long. She’s just what they want. She is the UN. 

-Can she cook?

-What else do we know? Since the initial clearance. Is she married? Does she have a child? Does she belong to any clubs? Is she registered to vote? Democrat? Republican? What religion is she? Who is she?

The Interpreter opens violently in the fictional African country of Matobo and transfers abruptly to United Nations headquarters in New York where we are introduced to a Tower of Babel. The film is about a white, female United Nations interpreter called Silvia Broome who overhears a plan to assassinate a head of state due to give a speech at the General Assembly. The language, Ku, is one she speaks as she grew up in Matobo. Secret service agents are assigned to keep the president of Matobo safe and to inspect Silvia’s credibility. I have chosen five characteristics that third culture individuals possess and how they are shown in the character Silvia Broome.

  • Confused loyalties: She claims she wants a life of quiet diplomacy and that is why she works for the United Nations but she has an emotional response when she hears Ku and when she is interpreting for certain delegates. The interactions compel her to contact those from her past, her brother by email and an old friend by telephone. The secret service agent discovers she is a dual citizen and has a Matoban passport. She orchestrates a meeting with a member of the Matoban opposition on a bus in the city, demanding information on the situation of the country and her brother’s fate.
  • Interpersonal sensitivity: It is Silvia’s job to explain the meaning of information and translate orally. She is attuned to voices and what people are saying. But paradoxically, she struggles with communicating who she is to those who have not shared her background. She is empathetic but it is not easily reciprocated. This has been an issue for me all my adult life. Even with my siblings as though I’m one of five, they were raised or have lived in different countries to me. That is why I enjoy meeting old friends as we share collective memory if only from a pocket of time.
  • Cultural intelligence: She uses Matoban vocabulary, phrases, idioms and stories to get through challenging situations she faces. Matoban culture has informed her culture. Arguably, it is hers. Silvia Broome sounds an alarm about a particular and international situation she has dexterity in. She sees the wood for the trees but nobody listens to her.
  • Identity: The secret service agent is more and more suspicious of her the more he finds out about her, especially when he sees a photo of her at a peace or protest rally in Matobo. She tells him that photo of her was from a long time ago.This resonated in that TCKs have their lives interrupted but there was nonetheless a sensation that my life kept on living in each country I left. I have often imagined what if…?
  • Rootlessness and Restlessness: She is on the go at all times. On her motorbike, she is nimble and can disappear quickly. When a colleague is asked questions about her, he is not sure how to respond. She gets on with people but she keeps people at arms length. She is so difficult to track that the secret service agent is frustrated with her, asking how he can protect her if he doesn’t know where she is. He tells her she has a ‘dark history’. Silvia is jumpy and shifty in her behaviour. At the end of the film, she announces that she is being expelled from the United States. She does seem happy to announce she is moving back to Matobo, returning from an exile. It is this land she misses, the land she fled, the land where her brother died. She is tired of being accused of lying about who she is. She just wants to be who she is.

An excellent drama on interpreters and their dissembling qualities is Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness. In this episode you see the police investigating the murder of a Bosnian refugee in London. It eventually leads to Serbian war criminals determined to silence the last witness to a massacre a decade before.

Incidentally, the dialogue I highlighted at the beginning of the blog is representative of how people can talk about third culture individuals. Her white African father is from where exactly? Kenya? Namibia? South Africa? We don’t know. Europe is also dismissed as though it does not contain more than 50 countries. The question about whether she can cook projects that Silvia’s background is desirable. Is it? The Interpreter is the only film I’ve seen with a third culture adult as the main character. If you know of any others, please get in touch.