The Translators (Les Traducteurs)

‘Christie meets Hitchcock in a twisty nailbiter’ is the way David Stratton describes The Translators, and I wish I’d thought of that nutshell tagline myself.

I don’t usually quote other critics, but by way of introducing his review of this terrific new French thriller, David told an interesting story about what happens at advance screenings for new movie releases these days:  critics have their mobile phones confiscated and ‘rather ominous men in black stand by the screen watching the audience.’   

Stratton says he never imagined similar maximum security precautions being taken in the publishing industry to prevent piracy, but that’s what happens in this story, on a scale that makes David’s movie screenings look downright relaxed.   

Here, the property under protection is the third and final part of an internationally successful series, The Daedalus Trilogy.  Think the Lisbeth Salander Millennium stories, or, in a different genre, the Harry Potter books, to get an idea of what is at stake financially.  Throw in a dash of mystery a la Elena Ferrante; nobody knows the identity of the Daedalus author except the publisher, Angstrom, and nobody has met this reclusive genius except him. 

Angstrom has hired a group of nine translators to produce the major foreign language editions of the soon-to-be-published last Daedalus.  He assembles them in a chateau in rural France.  Inside the chateau is a virtually impenetrable bunker built by its former owner, a Russian billionaire convinced that the end of the world was nigh.  This is where they will live and work. 

Outside working hours the living will be easy.  They have their own rooms, there’s fine food and drink, and they have access to a spa, a swimming-pool, and a games room. 

On arrival they are minutely scanned for anything remotely capable of recording or transmitting information, including pens and paper.  They are not allowed to bring anything into the bunker with them, nor to take anything out, although the impecunious young Italian manages to hang onto his skateboard.  Their every move is monitored, and they are watched over by heavily armed Russian thugs.  No expense or precaution has been spared to ensure that not a skerrick of information can escape their gilded cage. 

But sure enough, information does escape.  The first pages of the book appear online, and person or persons unknown threaten Angstrom that unless he pays up, more will be published and the ransom price will go up as each payment deadline is passed. 

This is when things start to get scary for the nine translators, for surely it’s one of them who’s doing the leaking and the blackmailing.  Angstrom’s drops his thin veneer of Mr Nice Guy, and he becomes a monster of angry intimidation.  As more of the book is made public every day and the price goes up, he resorts to such nastiness as cutting off all power in the bunker and plunging his captives into utter darkness.  Shudder.  Panic mounts and they descend into paranoid finger-pointing and in some cases, hysteria and despair.  There is violence. 

Meanwhile, the screenplay intermittently cuts to flashbacks and flash-forwards that give us the backstory and the set-up for the denouement.   Sequences set in the outside world allow more of the story to unfold in real time.  It really is quite ingeniously plotted as well as being edge-of-the-seat suspenseful. 

Friends have asked what language it’s in.  I had to think about that one…It’s a French movie, and the book is to be translated from French, but much of the dialogue is in English, as you would expect when multilingual people get together these days.  But you don’t feel as if you are watching a ‘foreign’ movie.  All ten languages – French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Greek, Italian, Danish, German and Chinese (that’s how it’s described in the movie) – get a run at some stage.  Indeed the language differences play a part in the plot when certain characters communicate in languages unknown to the others or to their captors. 

It’s an ensemble piece and there are no ‘name’ actors, although I did recognise the young seismologist from the brilliant French espionage series Le Bureau as one of Angstrom’s staff.  Le Bureau, incidentally, is the best thing on television, I reckon.  But that’s another story. 

I don’t like graphic violence in movies and I can tell you that in The Translators, while the violence isn’t exactly underplayed, it isn’t sickening. 

If like me you love a good mystery thriller, go and see this one.