Humanities Fiction: Translation and ‘Transplanetarity’ in Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

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Abstract

One of the more interesting science fiction movies of recent years, at least to Humanities academics, is Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 alien-invasion movie, Arrival. It is a film which not only features a Professor of Linguistics as its heroine, but the plot of which is organised around the critical global importance of a multi-million dollar translation project. This essay compares the film with the original novella upon which it was based – Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998) – to examine the role translation plays in both, with the aim of placing this in the context of the crisis in the Humanities which has marked universities over the last few years, and can be linked to a more general crisis in liberal values. While founded upon a time-honoured science fiction scenario the movie also clearly articulates the sense of global peril which is typical of much of the cultural production of our current times, manifested in fears about ecological catastrophe, terrorist attacks, and the anthropocene, etc. Another of its crisis-points is also ‘very 2016’: its ability to use science fiction tropes to express an anxiety about how liberal values are in danger of being overtaken by a self-interested, forceful, intolerant kind of politics. Arrival is as much a work of ‘hu-fi’ as it is ‘sci-fi’, that is, ‘Humanities fiction’, a film which uses Chiang’s original novella to convey a message about the restorative potential of ‘Humanities values’ in the face of a new global threat.

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