NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Literally Lost in Translation


Lost in Translation might be one of the oddest Western romance films ever made. It contains no sex scenes between the main two lovers, there’s a giant age gap, there’s minimal kissing and the relationship develops not through montages but through conversations. This isn’t to slam the likes of 500 Days but Lost in Translation makes a special case for love and it makes a much more unique case when it comes to the role of linguistics and the barriers of language.

In this week’s Weekly Analysis I’ll be taking a look at emotion and truth, language and love and trying to find what is truly lost in translation. This is a film that has a lot more to say on the modern relationship and cultural barriers, but for now I’d rather isolate the analysis down to the language barriers and their emotional impact on the two main characters.

Before saying or interpreting anything I’d like to just say that Bill Murray gives probably the performance of his life in the this film. His smile during the photography scenes are wrapped in layers of emotion, conversations over phones seem tangible and his wry humor manages to bleed through and punctuate the tragedy brilliantly. Scarlett Johansson, a very young Johansson might I add, manages to look like the prettiest button in the universe and also flex her respective talents as an actress. The ‘smile’ scene really shows off her charm and innocent attractiveness, removed of the sensuality that so many expect of her nowadays.

Lost in Translation isn’t a film about humor or smiles, not really, it’s about love. It’s about how untranslatable of a concept it truly is and how different cultures and language try to operate within the concept. The opening shot of the film takes us into some foreign neon landscape, removed of familiarity, as Japanese sentences are spoken and then seemingly spoken back again in English. Among the Eastern iconography and foreign symbols, Bob (Murray’s character) spots a picture of himself holding whiskey adorned with Japanese lexicography. He wipes his eyes in disbelief that he could exist among the outside images.

There’s lots of shots which confirm the themes of loneliness and entrapment in a foreign world and culture. The first shot of Bob in an elevator is him, the tall American, placed at the center of a clique of short Japanese businessmen. It’s lonely being the center of attention, and the drudgery of fame and talent is also stressed as a core theme. The aftermath of success and the bitterness it brings also bites into Bob’s character, he references and practically laments over the films he did “in the seventies” that, now, he seems removed of color, life and, well, love. Charlotte re-ignites some kind of youthful charm in him; seen in his very clothes, language, karaoke skills and humor.

Bob’s first work effort has been scrutinized by a lot of film writers. He’s meant to look at the camera whilst holding some whiskey. The Japanese director gives his vision of the scene to Bob, in a long-drawn out sequence all in Japanese before the translator simply says “he wants you to turn to the camera”. With an ounce of effort the entire Japanese language is reduced to a simple direction. Bob even asks if he wants more from him but the quality is removed. Some things just can’t be translated, just like love. Charlotte too, confused herself, tells of how she heard monks chanting but “didn’t feel anything” and that, to an outsider, sometimes language (even of mystic ilk) can have no power at all.

It’s not just the Japanese-English translation that is a language barrier, but the barriers within the English too. Charlotte’s husband laughs horribly with a woman from his past, Kelly, and there’s a sense of history between them. They obnoxiously laugh and exchange small little catch-up sentences between the obvious referencing to something romantic. Charlotte, and by extension the audience, just can’t tell what they’re really talking about. Sometimes language can’t articulate history or real emotion, it is itself a barrier to feeling and to the truth.

Music is also a place of language barriers. At one point, in casual conversation, one person asks of another that they “don’t listen to hip-hop?”. Another point of barrier is the karaoke sequence mid-way through the film. We’re clued in to the importance of this scene, but Bob’s looks at Charlotte and the use of song lyrics instead of conversation might just obfuscate some meaning behind their connection. There’s a barrier between us and the two character’s mental states, for once we’re not on the same emotional page. Then it clicks. On a second watch we see exactly the moment when Bob and Charlotte discover each other in a different light, the moment when their own idiosyncrasies and idiolects cannot unearth their real relationship.

The carpet scene is probably the most bizzarre method of communicating the same themes. Bob’s wife’s letter reads that she likes the “burgandy”, but Bob doesn’t know which is “burgandy”. The carpet samples fall on the floor and we’re not sure either. Bob is left to pick out the color for his study without actually being anywhere near it. Color and fashion and the ‘visual’ cannot be communicate just by a few words, sometimes things need to be in person. This is in opposition to the role of technology that is shown throughout the film. Bob yells at a Japanese exercise machine that seems leagues ahead of him, and his own mindset seems lost in the neon wreckage of Tokyo’s skyline. Picking out fashion pieces, writing letters and other ‘traditions’ cannot be translated; they have inherent qualities that cannot be just replicated within the modern world. 

All of these methods and themes all back up the central focus of Lost in Translation, orchestrated beautifully by Sofia Coppola. There’s a moment in the film where Bob flicks through the TV channels and sees his own self, in a film, and Japanese dubbing played over it. He finds himself too lost in translation. The film is about love, about how its power perhaps can’t be found in art or language or in any sort of communication. We don’t hear the last whispers of Bob to Charlotte because we wouldn’t understand them, the whisper itself is all that comes close to describing the true and unique bond between these two people. Language barriers are sometimes worth keeping, celebrating and sometimes worth destroying for the sake of love, emotion and humanity.