Lost in Translation Once Again

Most likely, the literate crowd tuning in to my rants and raves here in Mysterious Orientations will be familiar with the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. This is a flick that resonates for me on several levels; in many ways, it parallels the story of my experiences in Japan.

For the few who might not know the film, it is about a semi-washed-up actor,  Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who goes to Japan to film a Suntory whisky commercial (for $2,000,000!; okay, this is one major area in which the narrative diverges dramatically from my life story…). In Tokyo he meets a young American woman at loose ends (Scarlett Johansson) and the two strike up a brief yet strangely intimate friendship, a pair of gaijin adrift in a city they cannot begin to comprehend. One of the fun things about the movie in its US iteration is that the Japanese language segments are not subtitled, leaving the non-Japanese speaker in much the same muddled frame of mind as the lead actor. So it was with a good deal of enthusiasm last night that I rented a Japanese DVD of Lost in Translation from my local video store Geo (pronounced “Gay-O”). My plan was to watch it with the Japanese-dubbed soundtrack supplemented with English subtitles, in anticipation of finally getting the unexpurgated translation of the Japanese-only parts of the movie that had gone straight over my head the last time around. The first such scene occurs as Harris is filming the Suntory TV spot (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory Time…”). The director gives him about three minutes’ worth of animated instructions, of which Harris naturally does not understand a word. His helpful but harried female translator listens carefully to the director’s protracted tirade, then turns to Harris and sums it up with “He wants you to turn…looking camera, okay?” Harris looks at her incredulously and asks, “That’s all he said? (pregnant pause…) Uh, okay, does he want me to turn from the right or the left?” The translator turns to the director, asks a lengthy question, and receives another drawn out response from the mercurial young fellow, a response laced with impatience and perhaps verging on anger. The flustered translator turns back to Harris and says “Um, right side…and with intensity.” “Is that everything?” Harris asks dubiously. “It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.” A classic Bill Murray deadpan to the camera is followed by a resigned shrug; “Okay”, he says, and take one commences. It was an incomparably funny scene if you didn’t speak Japanese, so I could hardly wait to find out what was transpiring on the other side of the language barrier. No such luck, however; I guess it was intended that monolingual English speakers never be privy to that part, for while the rest of the movie’s Japanese soundtrack was appropriately subtitled, the director’s undoubtedly hilarious rant was conspicuously left untranslated, yet another facet of Lost in Translation forever lost in translation. Rats!

I was reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story I read once about General Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam in the final days of the war. At one point in his speech, he delivered a complicated anecdote, a joke of sorts, to an amassed crowd of Vietnamese dignitaries. His translator waited politely until Westmoreland had finished, then took his turn at the microphone; in no more than thirty seconds, he translated into Vietnamese a story that had taken several minutes in its original English. At the end, the crowd erupted in laughter and spontaneous applause. A short time afterward, at the reception, the general cornered the translator and asked how it had been possible to effect the translation so succinctly. The translator replied, “Ah, very easy: I simply said that the general had just told a joke; would everyone please laugh and applaud.” I’d have loved to see the expression on the good general’s face…


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