Translating Calendar: Breaking Bridges and the Necessary Absence of Subtitles in Atom Egoyan's Calendar (1993)

If the task of the translator is to build bridges between languages and cultures or, as Walter Benjamin suggests, to find that "intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original," then Atom Egoyan's Calendar seems to do the exact opposite. Instead of building bridges, it burns them. Instead of echoing the original, it creates new and unintended meanings. As a result, both viewer and protagonist are led into a mind-boggling jumble reminiscent of post-Babelian times: separating, excluding, and alienating everyone involved. In her article, "Speaking a/part: Modalities of Translation in Atom Egoyan's Work," Monique Tschofen observes that Egoyan has typically "refused to translate other languages when they appear in his work." This refusal is not arbitrary. In the case of Calendar, Egoyan's decision not to subtitle the many languages that fleet by, on and off screen, is arguably motivated by his desire to let his viewer experience how it feels to encounter a wall of incomprehensible sound and be prevented from participation. Or, as Tschofen writes, "Egoyan reproduces in the viewer who does not understand [other languages] a sensation of alienation and disorientation that mimics the experience of his exiles onscreen."

Calendar stands out from Egoyan's other films because although Egoyan snubs subtitles for all the foreign languages that make a passing appearance in it, he does use an interpreter to render into English the film's principal foreign language, Armenian. The interpreter, known in the list of characters as the Translator (played by Arsinée Khanjian), is both the Photographer's (Atom Egoyan) wife and his gateway to the Armenian language during their stay in Armenia. Their Driver (Ashot Adamyan), in turn, is the Translator and Photographer's gateway to Armenia, its history and culture. It is through him that the Translator and Photographer learn about much of the history of the monuments they visit, film and photograph. Symbolically, the Translator can be conceived of as the yearning Diasporan back on home soil, the Driver as the authentic Armenian on historical land, and the Photographer as the nondescript assimilated immigrant who prefers to identify with his adopted host-country than with his ancestral homeland. (In fact, being seen as an "authentic" Canadian is almost a point of obsession for him.) In this interpretation, it is hard not to view the Translator as a bridge between Armenia and the rest of the world—a tenuous bridge, however, that can easily give way if not tended well. And give way it does in Calendar—not only between the Photographer and his wife, who is seduced by the Driver (and Armenia), but also between the film and its (non-Armenian speaking) viewer.

As well-intended as the Translator's efforts are in interpreting back and forth between the Photographer and the Driver, it is clear from the outset that much is left untranslated. Many of the Driver's long descriptions of the history of the monuments being photographed are reduced to their bare minimum in translation; the unremitting monologue of a villager in Amberd makes it impossible for the Translator to keep pace; conversations between the Translator and Driver, overheard from a distance, are left untranslated; a song played on the guitar and sung by the Driver goes unexplained. And whatever is translated into English is often done so maladroitly or mechanically that one can only wonder about its accuracy. An instance of the latter takes place at Noravank Monastery when the Driver tries to convey to the Photographer that his painstaking set-up for a shot of the church was funny. Chuckling and gesturing, he has clearly found something humorous. The Translator's interpretation, however, is so bland and mechanical that all sense of humor is lost entirely and we are left with the Photographer responding, with the same mechanical blandness, "Well, I'm trying to find the right composition."

Miscommunications and non-communications like these abound in the film, some more subtle, some more obvious, but all of them contributing one way or another to the rift between the Translator and the Photographer. The film itself is structured as the etiology of this rift—the Photographer rummaging through his footage and memory in an attempt to understand how he and his wife drifted apart. As the film progresses and the pieces of the puzzle (and order of events) come together, we begin to understand that what ultimately drove the Photographer and Translator apart was his refusal to immerse himself in the culture she desired to draw near.

The Photographer's refusal to connect with Armenia is largely reflected in the film as sheer indifference on his part. At Saint Hripsime Church, he is plainly more interested in the battery-life of his camera than in the history of the monument he is photographing. "Well, I would prefer, first of all, if you let me do the videotaping," he says, when offered the story of the Church. This disregard for the history of the monuments he is photographing recurs throughout the film. When the Driver asks him whether he has ever felt the need to touch or feel the churches, his response is: "Hasn't occurred to me." And as to whether he would be interested in seeing the inside of the churches if he saw them in photographs like those he is taking, he says: "No, I'd just think that they're very, very beautiful places, and I'd think that they're very, very well composed, and beautifully lit, and very seductive."

The Photographer's shallow interest in the monuments he photographs squares with his shallow interest in the woman he has married. To the Photographer, his wife, like the monuments in Armenia, is a beautiful object to admire from a distance, on the surface, but not one to understand and engage with. The only time we see the inside of a church is when the Photographer follows his wife to see where she is going, but not to actually view the interior of the church. The monuments are mostly only shown from the outside and from one angle. The complexity of the history and architecture, like the complexity of human nature, is reduced through his photography down to a 2D calendar photograph—much like a pinup bikini model found in other calendars.

This sexual comparison may seem inapt on the surface, but not so if we consider that seduction—and sexual desire—is the film's central conceit. The Translator and the Driver seduce each other, the Photographer is seduced by the Translator, and the Translator herself is seduced by Armenia. We also see the same seduction in the women invited back to the Photographer's home to reenact his wife's seduction of the Driver. Interestingly, none of the women are Armenian or speak his wife's language. What matters most of all is that the language spoken to him is foreign and incomprehensible, so that the Photographer can relive the estrangement and exclusion he experienced in Armenia in order to reply to his wife.

Although self-imposed at the beginning, this exclusion is also a result of the Translator giving up her role in the second half of the film. By the end she barely translates anything at all. In fact, the closer she gets to the Driver, the less she translates for the Photographer, and the more excluded he feels, becoming merely a distant observer to the first two's intimate conversations. At one point, the Driver and Translator even leave the Photographer behind to go for a hike in Amberd; the scene dissolves into that of the Driver and Translator singing "Sari Sirun Yar" ("Beautiful Mountain Sweetheart"), a traditional Armenian love song. The final straw, the Photographer's plaintive voice-over at this moment reveals the pain of exclusion: "All that is meant to protect us is bound to fall apart, bound to become contrived, useless, and absurd. All that is meant to protect is bound to isolate, and all that is meant to isolate is bound to hurt."

Faced with the possibility of his wife leaving him for another man, the Photographer begins to feel the need to participate in their conversation and regain her attention. When he sees the Translator and Driver speaking in Armenian in front of Odzun Church, he interrupts their private conversation by asking her what they are talking about and pushes her to elaborate beyond her one-word response ("Children"). "What's he saying now?" he asks again, when she goes back to the conversation with the Driver. She responds with: "He says if we had children, we would have had better reason to come and establish ourselves perhaps in Armenia."

This scene is also significant on another level because it reveals a serious mistranslation that Armenian speakers would have picked up on. The Driver had in fact said "visit Armenia" not "establish ourselves perhaps in Armenia." As English speakers we understand from the start that the Translator is not a native speaker of English and that she often has trouble expressing herself intelligibly. What the non-Armenian-speaking viewer does not pick up from the start, however, is that the Translator's Armenian is more or less at the same level as her English. In other words, her mistranslations are not only one-way; they are two-way. Not only does the Photographer not always understand the situation, the Driver is just as confused half the time. As a result, instead of building a bridge between the Photographer and Driver, the Translator burns the foundations before they are even set. She does not do this deliberately, however—at least, not most of the time—she does it accidentally, simply because her language skills do not suffice for competent interpretation.

In the same way that the Photographer and Driver have no way to connect, so, too, the non-Armenian-speaking viewer has no way to connect with every layer of the film. The non-Armenian-speaking viewer has no other choice but to rely on the interpretation of the Translator, in the same way that the Photographer does, and has no choice but to guess at the meaning of untranslated dialogues, again in the same way that the Photographer does. In other words, the non-Armenian-speaking viewer receives the same sensation of disconnection as the Photographer, meaning that neither of them gets the full picture of what is happening and both are left guessing. And, arguably, this was precisely Egoyan's goal in Calendar: to give the non-Armenian-speaking viewer the same sensation of isolation and exclusion as the Photographer. By extension, this same viewer is made to see what happened in Armenia through the Photographer's lens only: as the Photographer builds his case against his wife, the uncritical non-Armenian-speaking viewer is likely to take his side. A more critical viewer, however, should be able to see through the Photographer and catch his indifference to her and her culture, though that is probably not what the Photographer intended. Until the very end, there is no evidence that he has come to terms with her leaving him or that he has understood why she has.

For bilingual viewers, the experience of the film should be somewhat different because they can create connections by correcting linguistic misinterpretations and understanding untranslated dialogues, which also means that their interpretation of the film should, at least in theory, be different from that of non-Armenian-speaking viewers. In all likelihood, the bilingual viewer also has the advantage of knowing Armenian culture and history, and therefore has access to the finer nuances of their conversations. Whereas the non-Armenian-speaking viewer only gets the filtered point of view of the Photographer, which is tremendously limited, the bilingual viewer can navigate between the Photographer, the Translator, the Driver, and everyone else in Armenia. This gives the bilingual viewer a fuller picture and makes it more difficult to share the same sense of exclusion and isolation that the Photographer feels, and, by extension, to empathize with the Photographer. Arguably, then, Egoyan's intended primary audience is not bilingual (Armenian- and English-speaking) viewers but non-Armenian-speaking viewers who know English, because only then can Egoyan intentionally break bridges between the viewer and the film via his refusal to subtitle the film.