Lost in Translation

I watched a DVD yesterday. Lost in Translation. I’ve seen it a few times before, and I think it is one of my favourite few films ever.

I was surprised by what I had misremembered about the movie.

It’s a love story. I remember thinking of it as a movie about feeling alienated. I knew it was chaste, but I thought it was more platonic. I had totally forgotten that they kiss at the end. And that the big night out was such a brief part of the film, rather than its climax. And that Bill Murray’s character (Bob Harris) cheats on his wife with the singer from the hotel bar.

This time through, I noticed a couple of other things too, both of which relate to the meaning of the title. I’d be interested to hear if you’d also noticed these, and whether you thought they might be significant.

I remember it being a film that really resonated with me. But the dialogue in the film is sparse.  And what there is is almost all mundane. There’s a great scene in a restaurant, where Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is talking about how she stubbed her toe:

Bob: Oh, my gosh! When did you do this?

Charlotte: I did it the other day, it hurts, y’know?

Bob: Didn’t you feel any pain?

Charlotte: Yeah, it really hurt.

Bob: That toe is almost dead.
[Charlotte laughs]

Bob: I think I got to take you to a doctor, you can’t just put that back in the shoe. Well, you either go to a doctor or you leave it here.

Bob: [regarding Chef] He’s smiling. You like that idea? See they love black toe in this country.

Harris and his wife talk about carpet. Harris and Charlotte talk about how they wish they could sleep. Charlotte and her husband talk about work. There’s lots and lots of silence.

The parts of the film that appear to directly address Charlotte’s search for meaning are empty. When Bob finds out she majored in philosophy he says ‘I hear there’s a great buck in that.’ When Bob and Charlotte discuss the self-help tape – ‘A Soul’s Path’ – she denies it is hers.  When Bob admits he also owns it Charlotte asks, ‘Did it work for you?’ He jokes, ‘Obviously’. 

And yet every scene is full of emotion.  Maybe Coppola is showing that meaning can get ‘lost in translation’ into words. That could be why the final, transcendental moment in the film is inaudible.  

[Thanks to audio restoration techniques, you can hear what Bill Murray said on this video. Exercising surprising will-power, I chose not to listen.]

2.  I had read on the Guardian’s website a description of the film being racist to the Japanese. But watching it this time through I think it satirises the Americans just as much. The Hollywood actress and her gang come in for an especially unsympathetic portrayal.

While Bob and Charlotte display minimal interest in speaking Japanese, the locals are often guilty of addressing them in streams of Japanese they can’t decipher. Much of the film is unintelligible to either the Japanese or American characters, and the lack of subtitles mean the audience gets the same experience.

The break-downs of understanding are necessary, and not only for their comedy. I think the reason the film is set in Tokyo, not Boston, Vancouver or Sydney is that all the language problems are another way of illustrating the inability to communicate that marks the film.

What did you think of Lost in Translation? Is it any good? If I watch it again will I pick up something completely different? And did you know Scarlett Johansson was only 18 when she made the movie?!

Published by


Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. I have always hated this film – just a bunch of middle class whingeing about having an all expenses paid trip to Japan. Sux to be them.
    It’s not the dialogue or lack there of – it’s my total inability to empathise with either Bob or Charlotte which makes it tough going. Maybe if they spoke even less I’d like them more.
    So I tried to watch the end dialogue since I had nothing to lose. But it’s been removed – just go straight to youtube.
    Anyway – the final line is nothing special – and now I feel bitter that for a moment I cared what either of them said.


  2. Thanks for commenting!

    Knowing what Bill Murray said is not the same as knowing the end of the movie. The point of the movie is that it *is* inaudible.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s