A translation is often the only means we have of even standing a chance of understanding other people. Of course, by being able to read and understand this, you can sleep peacefully at night knowing that there are teachers, translators and interpreters out there who are being paid to adapt the world around them to you and the rest of the English-speaking population: we read literature in translation, we watch subtitled and dubbed films and TV shows. In many respects, we have become slaves to others’ interpretation of reality.
But this isn’t an attack on the existing English language bias, nor on the sense of complacency and reluctance of those who speak English when it comes to learning foreign languages. Even if you’re a polyglot turned YouTube sensation who can speak 20 languages, the chances are that, out of the 6000 or so languages that are spoken on our planet today, there will always be at least one (if not many more) that eludes you. So when the conventional, spoken language fails, as it inevitably does, we have to seek other ways of achieving mutual intelligibility between two cultures which don’t rely on verbal communication alone.
No film illustrates the struggle to overcome the language barrier in a more human way than Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy-drama, Lost in Translation. Bob and Charlotte, played by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, are at very different stages in their respective lives: the former is in a mid-life crisis shooting Whiskey commercials when he should be starring in feature films, while the latter is married and recently graduated from Harvard, but hasn’t a clue what to do next. Fate brings together the two strangers in the bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo one evening, and it only takes a glance for them to figure out that they are both as lost and far away from home as each other.
After bonding over their jet-lag and a shared sense of irony about the culture shock that they are experiencing, they begin to venture out into the open together and soon discover that a human connection is possible even in the absence of a common language: they end up in a Japanese friend’s flat singing karaoke after being chased away by an angry bar owner armed with a BB rifle. Several days later, while Bob is waiting for Charlotte to have an x-ray, he strikes up a conversation with an old Japanese lady who bursts into laughter when he tries to imitate her unintelligible words and gestures, to which Bob responds with a smile—a rare occurrence in the hour and 41 minutes that comprise the film.
It takes meeting someone who is experiencing the same level of alienation for both protagonists to see the brighter side of a lack of translation. Not only that, but Bob and Charlotte manage to connect with the people who form part of the foreign culture in the absence of a common language, proving that acceptance on a human level and mutual respect is more important than a heightened cultural awareness and knowledge of the language. Having lost themselves, they find themselves again by going beyond words, losing the translation in the process.