After arriving at Phnom Penh airport (which has a frightening display of uniforms and brass), I was picked up by a driver who was employed by our hotel. A good-natured bright young man, he immediately informed me that he wanted to practice his English on our journey. That was fine, given my Khmer is almost non-existent so we chatted as he weaved in and out of the flocks of scooters drifting up and down Phnom Penh's boulevards. His economic future, he told me, was in mastering English and becoming a translator.
This belief is widespread: and there is some reality to it. Cambodians do spend many hard hours studying and learning English. For sure, in a city populated by Anglophone well-wishers, do-gooders and business folk, translators are in demand. Apart from the sheer effort it takes to learn another language (and given Cambodia was a French colony, English is not a "natural" part of the country's history), translation is an extraordinary art.
In the ideal world of objective truth and pure facts, some claim that translators must be fully transparent, a neutral cipher, merely delivering up the question uttered. Translators according to this view must have no opinion and no impact on the scene before him or her – be it a business transaction or an interview. The reality of course is so different. Translation is always "imperfect" – words are never identical from language to language, and bring along with them culture, history, beliefs and world-views. And the translators are of course people whose identities are constructed through their language and their history. Cambodia's traumatic past is never far away, framing, filtering and shaping their understanding.
I decided early on as a director to include my translators as characters, given the crucial role they play, their own dramatic and painful histories and my admiration (given my own limited skills) of the linguistic abilities they display. Filming the process of translation also reveals much about documentary filmmaking. Translation slows and staggers the flow of information, revealing the mechanics of communication, miscommunication, comprehension, misunderstanding and cultural difference.
A rhythm is established that we settle into. In Brother Number One, the triumvirate of the translator, Rob, and a subject (sometimes a victim, other times a perpetrator), are all on screen. We see the translator ask the question we, Rob or I, pose. The answer cannot be too long as the translator must absorb the answer, mentally interpret it and relay its content. At times, the translator will ask in Khmer for clarification and a mini-interview, inaccessible to all of us Westerners, will ensue. Throughout this process, Rob scans the faces, reads body language, without understanding the words, keen for information. The roles then switch, with the subject watching Rob's response to his or her answer - at times with apprehension. Time is slowed and waves of emotion, anger, and sorrow can hang suspended, breaking slowly.
Translators can become overwhelmed with empathy for Rob, or, as often their own sorrow or anger rises to the surface. They can become too emotional to continue, or they interject with their own questions, their buried pain rising to the surface. I see them too frequently soften content so that the blows fall off Rob more lightly – they feel compelled to relay answers but also know that they will hurt. While I watch, it makes me reflect on the power, still, of the Anglophone speaker. Despite the world being in a "post-colonial" age, English, known as the "business language" appears to rule. In a country like Cambodia, deeply impoverished but with some real entrepreneurial spirit, the ambitious buckle down with English dictionaries painstakingly teaching themselves English word by word, so they can help those (yes, filmmakers, aid workers, businesspeople) that ironically are supposedly there to help them. I kept thinking, if that effort could be directed elsewhere: to their own professional development, to the acquisition of practical skills needed by their own people, perhaps, we the "helpers" would be less needed.