this message will self-destruct: sherlock holmes and the adventure of the hapless interpreters

The most blatant example is human language, where people often attribute meaning to words in themselves, without being in the slightest aware of the very complex “isomorphism” that imbues them with meanings. This is an easy enough error to make…

The paraphrase of Godel’s theorem says that for any record player, there are records which it cannot play because they will cause its indirect self-destruction.
-Douglas Hofstadter, Godel-Escher-Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid


For any narrative, there are certain questions which both the writer and the reader agree not to ask, because (like the song that destroys the record player) they would undo it completely. For example, in the case of The Great Gatsby, everyone agrees not to wonder why Jay Gatz believes all fortunes are alike. Perhaps the world would be more fair if they were, but Gatsby isn’t supposed to be absurdly naive — does he honestly think nobody in “society” will make him for a bootlegger and exile him? Thanks to J. Hillis Miller, who discovered this useful metaphor first, I think of these forbidden questions as black holes: infinitesimally small objects, yet ones capable of punching a hole in the fabric of spacetime.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are at least two of these black holes. They are, of course, the photo-negatives of Holmes’s worldview, which is based on a belief in the infinite capacity of reason. One “black hole” is emotion, and Doyle confronts that problem in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is justly famous and (when considered in the context of the other tales) extremely problematic. In theory, Irene Adler never really goes away, living on in Holmes’s musings and in his heart. In practice, however, she disappears. If she stayed, she’d ruin everything.

(NB. Naturally, this point is lost on the people writing the American version of Sherlock Holmes [“Elementary”], and they are building a huge arc around her.)

The second black hole is harder to describe. It has to do with what Merleau-Ponty called “the phenomenology of perception”: the way in which our own finitude, our own embeddedness in any system we can observe and describe, limits and warps those observations and descriptions. For Holmes, the problem is every piece of data he can’t collect and verify. Most of the time, Doyle ignores those limitations, as he must.

In “The Greek Interpreter,” however, Doyle faces the music. He writes an entire Sherlock Holmes story in which Sherlock solves nothing (that needs solving, anyway), apprehends no-one, and is bested at every turn by his brother Mycroft. This isn’t a huge problem, however, because the criminals in the story can’t be bothered to go through with their own plot. They politely wait until the adventure’s nearly over, pack their bags, and leave. They kill an old man, mostly by accident, and his death is then avenged offstage, in the tale’s very last sentence, by a bunch of Greeks the reader’s never met. In fact, we can’t even be sure about the cause of their deaths, as the last sentence is mere conjecture: “Holmes holds to this day that, if one could find the Grecian girl, one might learn how the wrongs of herself and her brother came to be avenged.” Like Irene Adler, this troubling loose end extends into the future, a small wound, but one that will never heal.

The whole story is a comedy of futile efforts, and the joke isn’t just on Holmes. The “Greek” interpreter isn’t solely a Greek interpreter. He says as much to Watson and Holmes:

I am an interpreter, as perhaps my neighbour there has told you. I interpret all languages—or nearly all—but as I am a Greek by birth and with a Grecian name, it is with that particular tongue that I am principally associated. For many years I have been the chief Greek interpreter in London, and my name is very well known in the hotels.

In short, his designation is just a nickname. The criminals, who are indifferent to these niceties, kidnap him in order to extort a fortune from two rich Greeks. (I congratulate them for being very classy. When they decide to kidnap an interpreter, they pick the best interpreter in the country.) He interprets a conversation (under duress) between them and an old Greek man. The conversation really doesn’t require him, as the intent of the schemers is perfectly clear, and the Greek flatly refuses to even consider any of their demands. Meanwhile, the interpreter has an entire secret conversation with the Greek. This would be pretty exciting if he actually gained any information, but instead the conversation goes like this:

“ ‘The property can never be yours. What ails you?
“ ‘It shall not go to villains. They are starving me.
“ ‘You shall go free if you sign. What house is this?
“ ‘I will never sign. I do not know.
“ ‘You are not doing her any service. What is your name?
“ ‘Let me hear her say so. Kratides.
“ ‘You shall see her if you sign. Where are you from?
“ ‘Then I shall never see her. Athens.

That’s the whole exchange. If the conversation with the conspirators had gone on longer, we probably would have found out a) whether the old man likes Athens, and b) how often he buys a new hat, and perhaps even c) whether he eats sweets before dinner (keeping in mind how they ruin your appetite).

Then, in a remarkable display of poor judgement, the Greek puts AN ADVERTISEMENT IN THE NEWSPAPER for people HE ALREADY KNOWS HAVE BEEN KIDNAPPED. This exasperates the criminals. Look at it from their point of view — they have to drop everything, kidnap the interpreter again, and see him home to their hideout, even though (as noted above) they’d rather just get the hell out of London. Afterwards, their unsupervised lair catches on fire with its prisoners still inside. Sherlock, Watson, and Inspector Gregson arrive and stumble through its morass of smoke-filled rooms, finding the Greek and the Greek interpreter in time to save the latter (but not the old man, who dies in a very thrilling manner — of smoke inhalation).

In the larger context of the Holmes/Watson stories, it is unclear what we should make of the newly-introduced character of Mycroft. Is this the key to Holmes’s mysterious habits and personality? One would think so, were it not for the fact that Mycroft never leaves “The Diogenes Club” and never closes cases he has solved. Through Mycroft, Doyle’s ongoing theme of translation and interpretation enters the foreground. Mycroft represents a bad interpretation of Holmes — Holmes as armchair philosopher. Eventually, Mycroft even inspires Watson to see Sherlock in a better light. Watson decides that Sherlock, unlike his brother, has the energy required to translate understanding into action.

Watson’s epiphany, however, is the sort of epiphany that seems profound only to men like himself — men who ultimately don’t trust profundity, and prefer to settle their tab with it as quickly as possible. At first, “The Greek Interpreter” suggests that people and words are products of context and heritage. Doyle begins with a conversation “after tea on a summer evening… [on] the question of atavism and hereditary aptitudes. The point under discussion was, how far any singular gift in an individual was due to his ancestry and how far to his own early training.” In other words, is a person the sum of their surroundings? If so, that makes it even harder to know and sympathize with another human being. In such a world, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “each of us is all the sums he has not counted.”

Following this theme, the story digresses about the differences between Mycroft and Sherlock, affirms the influence of heredity, and then demolishes its own theory. Mycroft is supposedly smarter, but both brothers solve the puzzles of their latest case at the same time and reach the same conclusions. It turns out to be an easy case. Mycroft is supposedly lacking in energy: “I really had not the energy to follow it up save in a very incomplete fashion,” he says of one case, and later comments that “Sherlock has all the energy of the family.” Sherlock says much the same thing to Watson. After giving all these proofs of his great lethargy, Mycroft…well… immediately begins to follow up on the interpreter’s case with the most energy and vigor of anyone.

Mycroft can’t explain it himself. “You don’t expect such energy from me, do you, Sherlock? But somehow this case attracts me,” he says. The turnabout only makes Mycroft more of a cipher, and none of our questions about him get answered. Instead, he is living proof that all sorts of narratives (for example, about the character traits each Holmes brother inherited, and to what degree) ultimately malfunction, for reasons that may never come to light.

Amidst all these random, indeterminate, and contradictory events, Watson’s heroic portrait of Sherlock (energy! combined with intellect!) begins to look a little flimsy. It is flimsy, actually. For example, how can someone like Holmes, possessed of such immense vitality and regard for the truth, fail to look into what became of “the Grecian girl”? The story doesn’t say. It is content to be grotesque. It is a flaw in the vast architecture of Reason. I would argue that Doyle wrote “problem stories,” just as some of Shakespeare’s plays are “problem” dramas. Furthermore, because (unlike in Shakespeare) these treacherous stories take place in the same fictional universe as the rest of Sherlock Holmes, they shake the universe down to its foundations. “The Greek Interpreter” makes right and wrong, correct and incorrect, appear largely undecidable — or else solvable, but of no practical use.

The screen adaptation, however, banishes Doyle’s complicated, unsettling details. Opposite Basil Rathbone, the Greek interpreter changes from an overlooked genius into a dull functionary, fluent in exactly two languages, English and Greek.


A few months back, I mentioned the splendid new blog written by Emma Becciu, an interpreter with whom I worked at Agape last summer. Most recently, she’s written the first two installments in a planned trilogy of posts about interpreters in movies. Her first post is essentially a satirical study of the way movies use interpreter characters; very often, as a minor character, the interpreter is an amplifier, making blatant whatever the audience is supposed to feel in a given scene. In other words, the interpreters are there primarily for our benefit. The resulting scenes, in movies such as Babel, wallow in sentimentality and seem almost proud of being unrealistic.

Her latest post is more indignant than satirical, because the problems run deeper. She looks at three films about interpreters, all of which present interpreting as a useless piece of over-refinement. We have already seen how useless “the Greek interpreter” turns out to be; he’s downright contagious, and Sherlock comes down with a nasty case of futility, as do the underachieving criminals.

The titles of the other two films, Charade and Lost In Translation, speak volumes. In both films the interpreter is pointless. In Charade, Audrey Hepburn returns reluctantly to her job as a simultaneous interpreter. Soon after, her work is disrupted and trumped by a seduction, one that infiltrates the translator’s booth and (of course) does not need to be put into words. Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation turns out to be a return to themes from “The Greek Interpreter” — as in Doyle, the interpreter is a go-between for two parties who have nothing to say to one another. An American actor is forced to work with a Japanse director. They have completely different approaches, and hold each other in contempt. This stonewall is patrolled by a comical, unscrupulous interpreter who says whatever he thinks might save the shoot.

It is a pleasant twist, in “The Greek Interpreter,” that Mycroft hangs out in “The Diogenes Club.” Diogenes, after all, was both Greek and a Cynic. He also lived as simply as possible, without even a roof over his head. (Instead, when necessary, he took shelter in a barrel.) The Diogenes Club is a haven for elitism and misanthropy; it is a terrible interpretation of his legacy, as bad as Mycroft’s distorted portrait of Sherlock. These movies about interpreters are rejections of the interpreter’s mediated world. They celebrate the immediacy of contempt, in Lost In Translation; of desire, in Charade; and of action, in Doyle’s story. By doing so, they trap us in a soundless, muted space. Becciu is close to the issue, as an interpreter herself, and her post is tinged with the disappointment she feels when she realizes these “classic” films portray her work as a charade.

“I think [the director] said more than that,” Bill Murray says to the smug, smiling interpreter. It is a rare moment for his jaded character; for once, he’s paying attention. Unfortunately, his moment of solicitude fizzles out. The problem isn’t Murray’s rudeness, the problem is that the director’s words ultimately don’t really matter to the film. Caricature subs in for character; in Charade, the yes/no of seduction — “Shall we get out of here?” — erodes all other conversation, making the interpreter stutter and repeat.

The words don’t matter, but the wholesale loss of them does. We mourn an inability to name the world, to grab hold of things by their names. With the mute button on, everything in Lost in Translation is intimidating, uncomfortable, strange. Everything in Charade is aglitter, but the sets look like sets, cynical and stereotyped. Worst of all is faithful John Watson, giving Sherlock credit for “solving” a case in which all the misunderstandings don’t matter, because, as Sherlock expresses it, “The problem which we have just listened to… can admit of but one explanation.” Sherlock is quite right, and the explanation goes like this: “What did he say?” is the most important question in all three films. It is also the one question that spells danger, the one nobody is supposed to ask.