Translationships 6: Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE and Translation as Process
by Magdalena Edwards
TRANSLATIONSHIPS is a column by Magdalena Edwards. Magdalena is a writer, actor, and translator born in Santiago, Chile, and based in Los Angeles, California. Magdalena translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including the work of Clarice Lispector, Márcia Tiburi, Silviano Santiago, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. Her translation of Julio Cortázar’s Letters From Mom will be published by Sublunary Editions on January 25, 2022. Magdalena is currently working on a book-length project titled Translationships. More on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
A translation is an attempt to get back to where we were coming from in an entirely new way; as we move through the process, we discover that where we are arriving is not quite the same, it is often quite different and always enriching and exciting, even if a little bit terrifying.
I have seen Denis Villeneuve’s new film DUNE twice. The first time was with my husband and three kids, and we were all mesmerized. It was our first experience as a family back at a movie theater after almost two years. A few rows behind us, there was a gaggle of young people ranging from older middle-school students to early high school age. These young people continually got up during the film to go socialize outside. When the antsy kids left during one of the many scenes punctuated by silence – as the theater was imbued in said delicious and tensional silence – we could hear their noisiness from beyond the theater door. Villeneuve’s DUNE is built upon many silences.
I contend that Villeneuve’s DUNE is a story of translation. Even more specifically, this is a story about Timothée Chalamet’s Paul and his emerging role as a translator who moves between silence and sound, and between cultures, languages, kingdoms, generations, social stations, gender, and waking life and what we might call reality.
The second time I saw DUNE was with my filmmaker friend Lucia Senesi. We attended a screening hosted by Women In Film at Warner Brothers, which was enormously exciting. We not only sat in a spacious big-screen theater to watch the movie without any disruptions or distractions – though by now I had begun to think of the young kids who interrupted my first viewing experience as somehow part of the storytelling – but there was also to be a Q&A with director Villeneuve, his producer Mary Parent, and Jacqueline West, the film’s costume designer.
What struck me even more during this second viewing was the importance of the relationship – or translationship – between Paul and his mother Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Lady Jessica teaches Paul many of the skills he acquires for his translator’s toolkit, including: a special sign language that they use together at critical moments to communicate through gesture and thus undetected by those nearby, and how to command others to do one’s bidding at a particular pitch that seems almost to be telepathic. Lady Jessica also models for her son – without him even fully understanding it until well after his visit with Charlotte Rampling’s exquisitely terrifying Reverend Mother Mohiam – what it means to translate, or be in translationship, across cultures, languages, and identities.
Children with hybrid identities such as Paul – who on the most immediate level straddles two worlds as the heir to both the House Atreides, through his father, and the Order of Bene Gesserit, through his mother – often become bridges across cultural communities. The question that falls squarely in Paul’s lap is not so much whether he will take up the task of being a bridge, but what kind of bridge he is going to choose to be? His youthful curiosity and open heart lead him to move forward through each new experience and challenge with sensitivity fueled by his observations and his unwillingness to make assumptions about anyone.
Paul is also ostensibly in the process of growing up – in many ways DUNE is a bildungsroman – and yet, his story offers up a burning question: Can a boy become a man when his mother is at his side, guiding his choices and even what he wears, at every turn? This is a pertinent query in the 21st century as so many young adults and adults – not to mention kids (except the ones at the theater the first time I saw DUNE) – are tethered to their parents both digitally and physically. How can Paul – or any of us for that matter – transition (or translate) ourselves from childhood to adulthood with our parents at our elbows, whispering nonstop in our ears?
The scenes between Paul and Lady Jessica, how they work together and problem-solve and even battle opponents, contrast his scenes with the men in the film: Oscar Isaac’s noble and loving Duke Leto, Jason Momoa’s moving Duncan Idaho (I’ve never seen Momoa so gorgeously directed and cannot wait to watch him under Villeneuve’s direction next), Josh Brolin’s Gurney (who speaks in a kind of iambic pentameter that evocatively tempers his sheer brawl), and Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, who feels both otherworldly and grounded in the earth. These men’s repeated appearances confirm for us visually and spiritually that Paul is not yet a man. As Paul seeks out his manhood, the challenges he begins to experience – especially the ones his mother cannot accompany him on – create a path for him to begin learning how he will walk through the world as someone who used to be a boy and is now becoming a man.
Translation is, in many ways, about process and not at all about getting somewhere. I say this because no translation can be a copy of the original. A translation will likely not even manage to be a mirror that reflects the original, because that would be too derivative, too constrained by the starting point. A translation is an attempt to get back to where we were coming from in an entirely new way; as we move through the process, we discover that where we are arriving is not quite the same, it is often quite different and always enriching and exciting, even if a little bit terrifying. “Same same but different,” as a friend of mine says.
I asked a question about DUNE and translation during the Q&A at Warner Brothers and had the opportunity to hear Denis Villeneuve, Mary Parent, and Jacqueline West give their answers. I’m sharing here the footage of the Q&A with the permission of my film colleague Tyra Hughes. You can hear my question at the 22:12 mark followed by three fascinating answers. Villeneuve speaks of DUNE and culture shock, curiosity, identity, and open-heartedness. Mary Parent speaks of how fear can be a mind-killer, and about what we have yet to learn about not subjugating the other and ourselves. Jacqueline West notes how the costumes she designed for Paul can mark his transition into manhood as an heir apparent to a dynasty in extinction – from boy to warrior.
I assume it’ll be no surprise when I confess that I plan to return to the theater to watch Villeneuve’s DUNE again. Upon a third viewing, I’m sure I’ll experience new aspects of the film and its characters’ journeys through translation and the process of travelling across and between cultures, languages, translationships, sound and silence, dream and waking reality. I haven’t yet touched upon the fact that DUNE is also an adaptation of a novel by Frank Herbert, and that it already exists as a feature film two times over: first, a version made by David Lynch titled DUNE (1984), and second, an incomplete project attempted by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a journey and process traced in his documentary called JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2013).
Villeneuve’s film is the first installment of at least two and, in many ways, an extended prologue and “only the beginning.” I insist that instead of looking forward to what comes next at this time, we should revisit the starting point and sit with the process that Paul has embarked upon. The process can be enough, and the attempt to translate can too.
Magdalena Edwards writes the Translationships column for Hopscotch. Her published translations include the work of Noemi Jaffe, Clarice Lispector, Silviano Santiago, Márcia Tiburi, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. Her translation of Julio Cortázar’s Letters from Mom will be published by Sublunary Editions on January 25, 2022. Find her on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, December 7, 2021