Monitoring – On the Big and Little Screens - Translation Skills Training

Monitoring – On the Big and Little Screens

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In order to tell a good story, a writer has to weave a suspenseful plot.  This requires many aspects of the plot, characters and setting and sequencing of events (to name just a few) to be just true enough to real life so as to be believable or else so outlandish, as in the case of science fiction, that the audience will be willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a great story or powerful and appealing performances of characters.  It is no surprise to most adults that many aspects of our favorite movies or television programs do not depict things as they really are, but not everyone in the audience will pick up on the same details as being true to life or not.

When it comes to elements of a tale that are unfamiliar to most people, writers can get away with more exaggerations or deviations from real life.  Thus, police will be able to tell you when a “cop show” does or doesn’t depict the way they really do their jobs.  Likewise, doctors, lawyers and other professionals can pick holes in what to the civilians will seem plausible but doesn’t correspond to reality.

Monitoring, one of the job functions of Analytic Linguists, is no exception.  The fact that Analytic Linguists do not do their jobs in public, but in secret locations (some fixed, some mobile), enables screenwriters of television shows and of movies to take a few reasonable liberties – but on the whole, they get it close enough to right as to make objections seem like quibbling over nothing.  After all, how Analytic Linguists listen in on a conversation involves technology, an aspect where too much detail can easily detract from the plot.

However, there are a few whodunits, in which the work of monitors briefly, but brilliantly, take center stage and enable law enforcement to solve a crime.  The importance of monitoring, transcribing and translating is significantly parallel to that of forensic science, so parallel, in fact, that the work of Analytic Linguists is the forensics of language – not well known because it is performed out of public view.  In this week’s Blog, I’ll present two examples, and provide links to the shows so my readers can see for themselves and enjoy a glimpse into the work Analytic Linguists do behind the scenes.

The first example is from a famous television series.  The 1974 Columbo episode entitled Identity Crisis, in which Peter Falk (Sept. 16, 1927-June 23, 2011) plays his famous role as the seemingly bumbling detective Colombo, co-star Patrick McGoohan plays a person named “Mr. Brenner,” a double agent involved in international shady dealings, murders a character named Henderson, a part played by Mr. Falk’s other co-star, Leslie Nielsen.  The course of the intrigues and the twists and turns of Columbo’s investigation, in which Mr. Brenner is also known by the curious code name Steinmetz, eventually ends up in the scene that fans of Columbo eagerly anticipate: the moment when Columbo unravels all the clues and solves the crime (such scenes are not true to life but are de rigueur in Columbo episodes and many other whodunits).  If my readers wish, they can see the scene, beginning at approximately [01:56:00 et. seq.].

It turns out that Mr. Brenner had tried to create his own alibi in the manipulation of a tape of a speech which his secretary typed up for him.  Columbo is presented as the astute and attentive listener.  It is not the words of Mr. Brenner that prove him to be the murderer – there are two background noises that when placed into the physical and temporal context of when and where Mr. Brenner claims he had made the recording, reveal that he is lying.

The first sound is the sound of a clock, chiming 11 times.  The second sound Columbo notes is the sound of window blinds being suddenly shut.  The sounds in the recording are the same as the sounds of the clock and the window blinds in Mr. Brenner’s office, just behind his desk.  The problem for Mr. Brenner’s alibi is that the sun does not shine in that window at 11:00 a.m. and that therefore, the time at which Mr. Brenner recorded his speech does not support his alibi.

Since monitors work in secret locations, neither a real or fictional monitor would be familiar with the physical setting in which Mr. Brenner had made the recording.  No monitor is seen in the episode, just as Mrs. Columbo is never seen in any episode, only talked about!  However, a monitor-transcriber, real or fictitious, would have identified the background noise and placed a square bracketed time stamp within the transcript at the proper minute and second of the recording in which they were heard on the tape.  These details would have come to the attention of Columbo so that he could make sense of these important details in his usual, brilliant way.

The second example is from the Big Screen.  In the 1995 Martin Scorsese hit, Casino, there is a realistic, albeit humorous scene.  It depicts what Analytic Linguists do when they monitor a court-ordered oral communication intercept.  In this scene, it is not a phone that is bugged, but a room.

The narrator’s voice is that of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro, as he is recalling what movie goers are seeing and hearing:  Nicky Santoro, played in this scene by Joe Pesci, incriminating himself while the FBI is listening through a bug planted in the ventilation system in the ceiling.  In another scene in the movie, viewers do see the face of the monitor, but in this scene, viewers twice see only the monitor’s hand, a cinematographic touch which augments the monitoring process’s clandestine nature.  Viewers see the monitor’s hand writing down two names mentioned by Joe Pesci’s character: [Phillip] “Green” (played by Kevin Pollak) and [John] “Nance” (played by Bill Allison).  The note-taking is true to life, since monitors take notes as they listen to live intercepts or later when they review recordings.

In the literary world, translators are invisible – and their job is to be invisible, in order to bring across others’ writings so convincingly that readers will feel as if the novel, poem, play or short story was written in their language, not as a translation.  Ironically, when translators succeed, they are invisible.  In like manner, monitors, transcribers and translators working as Analytic Linguists, are behind the scenes – literally, even in the movies or your favorite television crime show.  As the depictions described in this week’s Blog show, Analytic Linguists solve crimes just as surely as forensic teams who do autopsies.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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