One of the projects to deal with in our English lessons at the FOS Pfennigparade in Munich was LOST IN TRANSLATION by Sofia Coppola.

In superficial terms, „Lost in Translation“ seems to be a film in which nothing much happens.
Silence is more expressive than dialogue and poetic lyricism dominates spectacle.
„Lost in translation“ explores cultural dislocation, loneliness and emotional estrangement by highlighting the gap between seeing, hearing and understanding. Setting her film in Japan, Coppola creates an extraordinary platform for Bob and Charlotte, who discover in one another familiarity within an unfamiliar context.
The intensity of „Lost in Translation“ lies in its small, seemingly insignificant, quiet moments.

Jet lag induced insomnia ensures that Bob and Charlotte are out of pace with the space and time of their new environment. Coppola`s fascination is featured with the ellipsis between dialogue and its translation and the intimacy that Bob and Charlotte discover against the frenetic setting of contemporary Tokyo. Meaning arises from the gaps between hearing and understanding, stillness and movement in the spaces in between.

Locating her American characters as visitors to Tokyo, Coppola is able to depict a sense of alienation that is highlighted by existence in a foreign land. The two protagonists find themselves in a different time zone, dislocated in time as well as space.

Their temporal dislocation is emphasized by Charlotte and Bob’s jet lag and insomnia, conditions that ensure that they are out of step with their surroundings.
Coppola represents this best through Charlotte’s wide open eyes as she lies on her hotel bed captive in the arms of her sleeping husband John.

Distance from home is emphasized by Bob’s fax machine that springs to life and spits out hand written notes in the early morning hours, banal questions about decor, shelving and carpet color, tedious reminders of home.

Coppola updates the romantic conventions of „the missed opportunity“ and the „too late“ to separate and parallel Bob and Charlotte’s initial experience of Tokyo.

She explains that „Lost in Translation“ is about being disconnected and looking for moments of connection: There are so many moments in life when people don’t say what they mean, when they are just missing each other.

Bob and Charlotte become linked by their experience of unfamiliarity, the feeling of being literally lost within a new time and space and disorientated within their separate lives.
Bob, in particular, is a character who defends himself with irony, but in his professional and personal life he has reached a point of crisis.

Charlotte’s transformation can be measured by her initial response to Japanese culture. Calling home to her friend Lauren, Charlotte tearfully reveals that she didn’t feel anything when she recounts her visit to the temple in Kyoto. Her alienation is compounded when she discloses „John is using hair products. I don’t know who I married“. This falls on deaf ears with a distracted voice on the other end of the phone asking to catch up when she arrives home. „Lost in Translation“ emphasises the disconnection between watching and experiencing, hearing and misunderstanding. Charlotte’s room at the Park Hyatt Hotel elevates her high above the streets, a modern castle in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Tokyo landscape is on view for Charlotte, but she remains anonymous.

Charlotte’s distance and alienation is emphasised by a point of view shot that Coppola constructs between Charlotte and a traditionally dressed Japanese bride who she passes in a park. And while Charlotte recognises the blush of new love in the downcast eyes of the bride, this only highlights her isolation.

What does Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whisper into Charlotte’s (Scarlett Jahansson) ear in that sublime moment when he walks back to her on a crowded Tokyo street at the end of the film? The final kiss and the whispered secret could be perceived as the ultimate indefinable moment:

Depicting a surreal landscape through exhausted, delirious eyes, „Lost in Translation“ draws from a dream-logic where questions remain unanswered.

In recent interviews Coppola confesses: Ultimately I like it better that you don’t hear it, that you can put in what you want them to say.

LOST IN TRANSLATION got the OSCAR for Original Screenplay at the 76th Academy Awards in February 2004.

(adapted from Sight and Sound, vol. 14/1, 2004
and Filmmaker: the Magazine of Independent Film, March 2004)


Walter Leder