Chapter 3: Language Barriers

Language has played a huge role in the book Bel Canto but specifically in this chapter it has become a truly significant factor in determining how the characters interact with each other. Most of the focus on communication steams from Roxanne and the many ways she goes about facing and often overcoming the language barrier between herself and other hostages.

While talking with Roxanne Coss Father Arguedas mentioned at one point how “everyone said it would be important to learn English.” This somewhat struck a chord with me and so I started looking into the proficiency of English speakers in Latin America. As for proficiency according to the EF-EPI, an independent research organization, Latin America as a whole ranks quite low at around 48 out of 70 total points. As determined in a previous class lecture the story is set in Peru which holds a 51 out of 70 score. Interestingly enough there has been a steep increase in the english proficiency in Peru over the past four years jumping from 44 to 51 [1]. This data falls right in line with how Father Arguedas’ friends are trying to get him to pick up English.

Of course, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without talking about Gen, the overworked translator that has enabled so much plot progression within the story. Constantly Gen is translating in this chapter, from bargaining with Messner for the Generals to translating random words thrown his way like “dead” or “diabetic”. At one point Gen himself realizes the power he holds over others in this situation, he can warp the views of others simply by ever so slightly changing the translation. Katarina Reiss in her book “Translation Criticism” on page 108 describes how “even when two translators are in complete agreement on the interpretation of a text or passage, their translations in a target language will almost never be identical.” She goes on to say how the word choice is incredibly subjective to the emotional and psychological state of the translator at the time [4]. In one scene Gen is asked to translate for General Alfredo the phrase “All of this information will be checked by our people on the outside” while interviewing the hostages to determine their value. Although Gen, being the faithful translator he is, translates it mostly word for word he is still influenced by his own bias and dislike of the terrorists and so he replaces the word “our” with the word “their” which both separates himself from the Terrorist organization and further intensifies the opposition between the hostages and their captors.

There are many examples of language barriers sprinkled throughout this chapter. Roxanne and Father Arguedas used rudimentary sign language for expressing religious views was one of the most poignant events in this chapter due to how much they both struggled to understand one another. The first breakthrough actually happened through body language in the form of pointing. As Herbert H. Clark of Stanford University mentions in “Pointing and Placing” the function of context in a material situation is essential to providing meaning behind one’s pointing body language [2]. In a more generalized form Charles Peirce, creator of Peirce’s Theory of Signs, writes about how all signs, of any description, can be broken down into a simple three basic relation. This relation combines how the sign of an object is an associated action or behaviour, the icon which is the perceptual resemblance of the object in question, and finally the index which is the temporary status of the object. Combined these three aspects as Peirce describes and now invoking an interpret ant, or thought, of the object in another person’s mind is simplified greatly [3].

Roxanne was quite busy this chapter breaking down communication barriers left and right. Another notable scene was when Mr. Hosokawa and her were singing to each other after the accompanist had passed away. Through they lacked knowledge of each others’ language their shared knowledge of opera allowed them to essentially communicate in a form not too dissimilar to the way that the accompanist did with Roxanne while practising with her. As mentioned previously, context in incredibly important for establishing lines of communication. By having a shared experience or knowledge about a certain field context, like opera, the context of your responses and communication is predefined allowing significantly easier communication.

In conclusion, this chapter encapsulated the need and invaluable importance of having communication, whether it be through a translator like Gen or through more rudimentary sign language and contextual clues. As the story progresses and emotions intensify the importance of having a robust form of communication will only become more relevant.





– Michael Pedersen


2 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Language Barriers

  1. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hey Michael,

    I like how you focused on that quote from Father Arguedas, because it says something much deeper about that language. English is seen as an important language to people’s success in this global world. So much so that many other places have English as their second language. While looking up some more information about the spread of one language versus others, I found an interesting video starring American futurist and physicist Michio Kaku talking about how when human society reaches complete global connectivity, English will most likely be the primary language for our entire species, with each individual culture possibly retaining their native languages. These cultures won’t use them all too often compared to the primary language. That could possibly be a focus of future research, what causes a language to become so influential that it could have the ability to spread across an entire planet? Research venues could include economics, religious, political aspects, etc. Although some argue that in the future, Americans will have to learn Mandarin as China becomes a major world power.
    In your next area of focus on Gen, you mentioned how two translators can come to agreement about something but completely translate it differently in the target languages. This is an interesting conundrum about human languages. How each language can interpret the information differently, effectively providing a different perspective of a situation. Another avenue of research you could focus is on how language effects how we think? I came across a TedTalk a few years ago that discussed how language did that. It compared the structure of Mandarin and English and how through the differences in use of past, present, and future tenses, that someone who learns English is more likely to spend more money than someone who speaks Mandarin (one of the many comparisons I can actually remember). It has something to do with how the Mandarin language doesn’t have a distinction for those tenses and that they are all under one meaning.

    – Bekim Sejdiu


  2. courtfesette says:

    Hey Michael!
    I liked how you pointed out how Gen has the power to control the situation; how he can contort what one person says depending on how he wants or thinks the situation should go. I liked that you said this because I was thinkin the exact same thing. Being in his position is a hard job, but he is the right person for it. He is careful in how he translates others’ words despite how they are said to him. He should easily translate them verbatim, but he knows with the different personalities of the hostages that that could end badly with the generals.
    I find it interesting how we all, the readers, in class and even in your blog post say or assume that Gen holds the job title as translator and how he works for, well, everyone. I like, though, how Patchett throws in there and reminds us that he has only one employer: Mr. Hosokawa. Gen makes sure to translate everything in Japanese first, since the man he is dedicated to and works for is technically just Mr. Hosokawa and nobody else.
    I also liked your research findings by Clark and Peirce. I find it so interesting how a simple body gesture such as pointing can say more than words ever could. As amazing and useful this is, it can. however, lead to misinterpretation. You stated “now invoking an interpretant, or thought, of the object in another person’s mind is simplified greatly”; but what if this simplified interpretation is the complete opposite of its intended meaning? How something is intended is in the eyes of the doer, but how something is interpreted is in eyes of the receiver.

    -Courtney F


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