“The Translator” Brings the Syrian Dilemma to the Big Screen

7 February, 2022
Ziad Bakri stars as Sami Naj­jar in The Trans­la­tor, with Yum­na Mar­wan as his siter-in-law Karma.

The Trans­la­tor
is avail­able in the U.S. on iTunes, Ama­zon Prime Video, Google Play, VUDU, and Cable On-Demand plat­forms (Com­cast, iNDe­mand, Vubiq­ui­ty, Cox, etc). Euro­pean VOD release dates haven’t been released.


Jordan Elgrably

The sto­ry begins thir­ty years before the Arab upris­ings in Dam­as­cus, with par­ents and kids join­ing a street demon­stra­tion from their bal­conies, cheer­ing on pro­test­ers as they call out, “we want free­dom! we want dig­ni­ty!” While his fam­i­ly mem­bers shout slo­gans from the bal­cony, young Sami, already adept at Eng­lish, is try­ing to tune into the BBC on the large fam­i­ly radio, to see if the world knows what’s hap­pen­ing in Syria.

Fast-for­ward to the 2000 Olympics and pro­fes­sion­al trans­la­tor Sami Naj­jar is inter­pret­ing for a star Syr­i­an ath­lete in Syd­ney. Stand­ing before cam­eras and the inter­na­tion­al press, Sami makes a calami­tous slip of the tongue, a faux pas that will change the course of his life, push­ing him into exile. Though he stays in Aus­tralia, Sami’s thoughts are nev­er far from what is tran­spir­ing back home.

At the heart of The Trans­la­tor from Syr­i­an film­mak­ers Rana Kazkaz and Anas Kha­laf is the Syr­i­an dilem­ma — and the dilem­ma of all peo­ple who yearn for polit­i­cal free­dom — what can you do to fight oppres­sion? How will you act? When will you speak out? Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans have the lux­u­ry, by and large, of polit­i­cal free speech. We can shout from the rooftops and pub­lish what we want, with­out fear of being arrest­ed and dis­ap­peared — not that Amer­i­can and French cops, for instance, don’t bash heads, shoot tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets at us, arrest and bul­ly Black Lives Mat­ter or Gilets jaunes pro­test­ers. But we don’t van­ish into pris­ons of the Mukhabarat; we don’t antic­i­pate that we might be mur­dered for speak­ing out.

Talk­ing about the gen­e­sis of The Trans­la­tor, co-direc­tors Kazkaz and Kha­laf admit that at first, when civ­il unrest broke out in 2011 and they were liv­ing in Dam­as­cus, they did noth­ing. “We did not par­tic­i­pate in the peace­ful demon­stra­tions that took place at the begin­ning of the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion,” they say. “Although we sup­port­ed the demon­stra­tors, we did not lend our voice. We were afraid to. Afraid to be arrest­ed, tor­tured or killed.” The hus­band-and-wife team had young chil­dren of their own, a daugh­ter and a son, in 2011, and they were not pre­pared to risk every­thing. Years lat­er, how­ev­er, they wrote the script (with Mag­a­li Negroni) and raised the mon­ey to make a film that would pay homage to fel­low Syr­i­ans who risked or lost their lives. Kazkaz and Kha­laf admit that, “although we ful­ly rec­og­nize that mak­ing a film about the rev­o­lu­tion pales in com­par­i­son to those who risked their lives to par­tic­i­pate, this film nonethe­less rep­re­sents the need to testify.”

The Syr­i­an dilem­ma, accord­ing to one exiled Syr­i­an I talked to, who had spent time in Bashar al-Assad’s jails, is the hard choice one must make — to either join the fray, or say nothing:

“You have three posi­tions to take, in 2011: Pro-regime, pro-rev­o­lu­tion or silent major­i­ty. Okay? You have to fall into one of these three categories…I put those three options in front of me. Def­i­nite­ly I’m not going to be pro-regime, that’s for sure. Between silent major­i­ty and the pro-rev­o­lu­tion, I would say because I under­stood why we got to that point, and because I had a dream that we need to move the coun­try from this sit­u­a­tion to anoth­er sit­u­a­tion, and that can­not be done if every­one is going to say if I act, it’s going to be dan­ger­ous to the peo­ple around me, so I’m not going to act; then nobody will act and we will just stay as we were. So yes, it was an adven­ture. We lost the adven­ture, we did not win, but we tried.”

Pris­on­er X

Sami Naj­jar tries to get word to the out­side world in The Trans­la­tor.

“The adven­ture,” as Pris­on­er X put it, con­tin­ues in Syr­ia and Sisi’s Egypt, where today an esti­mat­ed 60,000 polit­i­cal pris­on­ers lan­guish in jail — and nobody knows pre­cise­ly how many Syr­i­ans have been dis­ap­peared or mur­dered by Bashar al-Assad’s crim­i­nal regime.

In any event, there comes a time in Sami Najjar’s life when it no longer suf­fices to be a trans­la­tor, to inter­pret the words and deeds of oth­ers. Until 2011, Sami remains a more or less pas­sive observ­er, while friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers take great risks to demand basic polit­i­cal rights. The crux of The Trans­la­tor is how the pro­tag­o­nist will find new strength to face his adver­saries in Syria.

In addi­tion to pre­sent­ing the cen­tral Syr­i­an dilem­ma to act or remain silent, Kazkaz and Kha­laf address the mat­ter of the translator’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to faith­ful­ly relay the words of oth­ers, giv­ing the role its due grav­i­ty, but the film is not real­ly about the inter­nal con­flicts that trans­la­tors rou­tine­ly deal with in their work. (For a thor­ough exam­i­na­tion of the many chal­lenges trans­la­tors face, I rec­om­mend Anna Aslanyan’s inspired book Danc­ing on Ropes: Trans­la­tors and the Bal­ance of His­to­ry — Pro­file Books, 2021.)

Cen­tral to the strife in Syr­ia and this film is the ques­tion of whether inter­na­tion­al pres­sure or opin­ion had any effect on the Syr­i­an regime — could a phone call or a threat from a west­ern leader get Bashar al-Assad to do any­thing, such as release pris­on­ers or end a mil­i­tary siege? The world’s abil­i­ty to react to the plight of ordi­nary Syr­i­ans and come to their aid remains a nag­ging stres­sor in the film. After­wards I found myself won­der­ing just how much inter­na­tion­al pres­sure did to alle­vi­ate the bit­ter real­i­ties in Syr­ia, or in places like Sara­je­vo, Rwan­da or even the Tianan­men Square protests and mas­sacre, in Bei­jing in 1989. Whether and how much inter­na­tion­al pres­sure made any dif­fer­ence in Arab upris­ings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya remains the baili­wick of his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars of the Arab Spring.

Rana Kazkaz and Anas Kha­laf are Syr­i­an with dual French and Amer­i­can nation­al­i­ties. They live in Doha after leav­ing Dam­as­cus due to the Syr­i­an con­flict. They have writ­ten and direct­ed five short films and are devel­op­ing sev­er­al fea­ture films. Their last short, Mare Nos­trum, start­ed its career in fes­ti­vals with selec­tions in Sun­dance and Dubai, and has now received over 110 inter­na­tion­al selec­tions and 36 awards. The Trans­la­tor is their debut fea­ture film.

The Trans­la­tor is a well-craft­ed thriller that main­tains a steady lev­el of stress and anx­i­ety in the view­er, con­vey­ing how it feels every day when you go out, liv­ing with para­noia, not know­ing if you will be arrest­ed, or if when you get home, your loved ones will still be there.

To live in a dic­ta­tor­ship, one must cope with a near-con­stant state of uncer­tain­ty — either that or dis­en­gage with drugs, as many polit­i­cal­ly oppressed peo­ple do in Syr­ia, Egypt, Sau­di Ara­bia, where many are hooked on amphet­a­mines, or Iran, where opi­um, much of it traf­ficked from Afghanistan, con­tin­ues to be the escape of choice.

With­out giv­ing any­thing away, The Trans­la­tor ends with an unex­pect­ed twist. Any­one who has ever asked them­selves what they would do in a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion can ben­e­fit from a view­ing of the film.



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