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The film Arrival is concerned heavily with language and translation, but as far as I can remember two things are not translated for the audience.

The first one is the circle symbol traced by the main protagonist and the Heptapod.

The second is the last words of General Shang's wife.

What is the translation of those moments?

I expect both moments to be full of meaning, so not putting any subtitles at those moments (even in VOST versions) is probably a choice from the director. But since we probably can translate them (several Heptapod symbols have translation, and Mandarin is a known language), my guess is that they offer some kind of second read on the movie.

2 Answers 2

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"In war there are no winners, only widows."

I can help you with the second half of your question, concerning General Shang's wife's last words. According to Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer during a premiere showing of the film, the English translation is "In war there are no winners, only widows."

The sequence is even more challenging because we're never given the dialogue MacGuffin. Heisserer says [Director Denis] Villeneuve debated whether or not to include subtitles for the line. The director opted to revel in the mystery. The writer wasn't as keen on keeping it a secret, and was happy to divulge. As he told the audience at Fantastic Fest, the line translates to: "In war there are no winners, only widows."

"I worked so hard on the dialogue in Mandarin for Denis," Heisserer wrote on Reddit. "Spent weeks crafting the lines that he finally approved! And then that scoundrel goes and doesn't use subtitles in that scene. I guess there's something to be said there about the nature of language. And I love Denis. But he's also a mischievous fox."

(Source)

This also confirms your speculation that the director himself, Denis Villeneuve, decided to omit the subtitle, whereas the screenwriter would have included it.

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We see Louise's half of the call with General Chiang in the screenplay;

"General, I'm calling from the American site. Your wife spoke to me in a dream. She said you'd help save the world by being braver than everyone else [...] War doesn't make winners, only widows."


We don't get a direct translation of Louise's Heptapod symbol, but we can discern from the dialogue that she said something like

  • "{We / humanity} {choose / chose} {to receive / to have received} {the weapon / the gift}"

Ian works out that we're being offered a gift, one that can also be used as a weapon. Shortly after she makes her choice we then receive the aforementioned gift (which turns out to be a complete history of Heptapod civilisation).

IAN: My god. It's not a problem at all, it's a choice.

He charges off, right out of the tent.

LOUISE Ian? Ian, wait—

EXT. BASE CAMP - CONTINUOUS 87

Louise trails after Ian, who's headed right for the pickup.

LOUISE: What choice?

IAN: That's what they're saying. It's like a warning label on a power tool. Whatever they're offering us, we can use it to flourish for millions of years, or we can do something stupid and end it all right now.

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