Lost and Found in Translation: Imagining a Masterpiece

Lost and Found in Translation: Imagining a Masterpiece

Thomas J. Scheff

As I watched, I wondered where the film was going. By the end, I still didn’t know. Bob whispered into Charlotte’s ear when they parted. If I knew what he said, I might not have been puzzled. But I didn’t. All I or anybody else could hear was his last phrase: “OK?” and her response, “OK.”

Apparently, I was not alone. This film has an unusually large number of customer comments in the DVD section of Amazon.com: over 1.8 k. They seem to be nearly equally split between loving and hating the film. My guess is that the hating half found the film too difficult to understand on first viewing and gave up.

In my own case, I didn’t give up. I worried instead. After it played in my head awhile, and seeing it a second time, there were several more issues. 1. The title: was there something specific that was lost in translation? 2. The first image in the film: why, without comment, are we shown the back of a woman’s transparently clad body while she sleeps? 3. Finally, why do the film and the two lead characters make fun of the Japanese?

It is Bob’s whisper that seems crucial, however. The whole meaning could depend on what you imagine. Having him say that he will be in touch hints at a Hollywood happy ending, a conventional romantic comedy. It is possible that many who saw the film assumed that it was. Even so, the deck doesn’t seem to be stacked that way. Though a romance, it’s not typical. Whatever you call it, the film can be seen as affirmative: any of us sinners can find a moment of grace.

Romantic it is. Bob and Charlotte sleep together; they even spend the night together, but without sex. Sexual attraction is only in the air, never acted upon. Their relationship is chaste. So what kind of relationship do they have? Over a century ago Karl Marx wrote that the most important human need is connection with other human beings. Before they met, they both seem to have been drowning in a sea of disconnection. The force that binds them together is not sex, but immediate connection. As if after holding their breath for years, they are breathing again. Toss this idea around: the meaning of life might lie in the quality of our connections with other people.

As backdrop the film presents disconnection in many guises, forms and gradations. Most flagrant is the non-connection with those Japanese who address them in Japanese. The scene of shooting the TV whiskey commercial is a seminar on minimal connecting.

The shoot director speaks at some length to Bob in Japanese. Yet the words are translated to Bob as a single sentence. Bob replies to the translator in a single sentence. But his words are translated back to the director in many sentences. When Bob queries the translator, she says she has told him everything.

To a person who understands Japanese language and culture, what Bob finds ridiculous might not be funny. Japanese is very formal, highly sensitive to differences between speakers. The translator’s status is much lower than the director, her boss, and Bob, a celebrity. Her speech must indicate this difference.

Bob doesn’t realize that his own language is also sensitive to status differences, but less formally, expressed nonverbally. But all this is literally lost in translation. Bob, the director and the translator are all disconnected, because they don’t understand each other’s culture, and they don’t understand that they don’t understand. They are disconnected to the max.

Bob has only the weakest of ties to the hotel staff and his business associates. They are strictly business with him, and he with them. He seems particularly repelled by the mechanical quality of the florid welcomes and farewells. He is softened only slightly by the over-the-top antics of the Japanese host in his TV appearance. Both Bob and Charlotte are confused and sometimes repelled by the Japanese culture that surrounds them.

The scene with the old man in the hospital shows that Bob has no clue to the Japanese language, even when he tries to understand. In English the question that the man asks Bob repeatedly is “ How long have you been in Japan?” Bob tries sign language, but to no avail.

Most of the disconnection is subtle, however. The film shows that even between intimates who speak the same language, most of the message is lost in translation. The translation necessary is not between languages, but between two people who have different modes of expression, thoughts, feelings, and desires. The two married couples don’t talk about these differences. Their conversations concern topics distant from the moment, (events, carpets, children, diets, etc.) rather than their relationships in the moment. What is going on, RIGHT NOW, between us? Unless they address their differences, they will never understand each other. The vital core, mutual understanding, is lost in translation.

Charlotte is frustrated in her attempts to reach her husband, John (The most generic name he could have: he’s just a John.) His attention is on himself, his job, and the celebrities he kisses up to. When he does focus on Charlotte, he is critical: “Why are you always making fun of everything? Not everybody can go to Yale.” There is one message: he doesn’t have time for her.

Her link to her sister Laura is also weak. At one point Charlotte is upset; she felt nothing watching a sacred ritual at a temple. Since her husband is away, as usual, she phones Laura. But Laura doesn’t understand. Part of the problem is that they are not face-to-face. There are also indications, however, that it is not just the phone.

Lack of understanding is the name of the calls between Bob and wife Lydia. She is often distracted by their small children, Adam and ZoŽ. But the problem seems to go deeper. In the course of trying to help Lydia choose between carpet samples she sent him, Bob says, “I’m lost.” Lydia says, “It’s only a carpet, Bob.” Bob says, “That’s not what I meant.” Lydia DOESN’T say “Well, what do you mean? They are never on the same page. In one call Bob says “I love you” to the dial tone: Lydia had hung up just in time to miss the punch line. Their timing, and everything else, is off.

What is called in the theatre “a miss” is the norm between both couples. If they are to understand each other, they would need to recognize and discuss their “misses.” Bob’s complaint in the middle of the carpet discussion, already mentioned, provides an example. By saying “I’m lost,” Bob shifts away from the topic (carpets) to their relationship. This shift could have been a step toward clarification. Even though they have been together for 25 years, the move is so new that either Bob or Lydia would have had to try a new tactic. For example, to signal to Lydia that he wanted to venture into a wholly new domain, Bob might have said “Hold on a minute, Lydia, let’s try to understand what we are doing right now.” He doesn’t, she doesn’t understand, the opportunity is lost.


Charlotte and Bob are disconnected from everyone, both in Japan and at home, except each other. They quickly fall into the kind of love that might be called effortless understanding. They joke, they complain, they are miserable from jetlag, but they are on the same page. If one has been disconnected for a long time, even a single moment of connection can be a triumph, an epiphany. Since they know very little about each other, their connection is not deep. One obvious difference is in age and therefore experience. Scarlet Johansson was 18 when the film was made; thirty-five years separates the actors who play Charlotte and Bob. But in their circumstances, ANY connection, no matter how shallow, can feel like paradise.

Being connected doesn’t miraculously solve all problems and eliminate all tensions. Nothing does. But connectedness might give one the feeling that issues can be dealt with. An attempt can be made, at least, to negotiate anything, no matter how tricky. Bob and Lydia seem to have given up hope long ago. Charlotte, much more recently married, may have reached the same point with respect to her husband during the course of the film.

Most of the times she seems to feel either rejected by John, superior to, or exasperated by him. But she negotiates with Bob, even under difficult circumstances. One example occurs when she knows that Bob spent the night with another woman (the singer who performs in the hotel bar). The next morning the first thing she does is not to attack, but to question him: “Is it because you are nearer to the same age?” She seems more curious than angry. Notice how abbreviated her message. She doesn’t have to explain “it” or who is nearer to his age than whom, because she knows he will know what she is talking about.

This tiny moment implies a moment of oneness: he doesn’t only understand what she means, but he understands that she will know that he will understand. As love poems and songs have proclaimed forever, two can for the moment become one:

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain. (Shakespeare’s Phoenix and Turtle)

Genuine love involves moments of mutual mind-reading that transform two persons into one.

Furthermore, Charlotte’s question can be read as an admission of her feelings, her concern that he might be more attracted to someone else then to her. Love connects not only minds, but hearts.  When you are connected, it takes little to convey everything.

One lesser question: why do Charlotte and Bob and the film make fun of the Japanese? An answer for the film is implied in a dying actor’s joke. He is visited by a friend who asks him: “Is dying hard?” He replies, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” The filmmaker might have wanted some laughs. She could have been aware that the Japanese would not be amused. Even so, they will not make up an appreciable part of the potential audience. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Charlotte and Bob seem to have had a different reason. Since they know relatively little about each other, they grope for connective tissue: to be united in their lack of understanding by ridiculing the Japanese. Charlotte and Bob are “us” against “them.” Any port in a storm. They are hiding from the pain of rejection in a foreign country. Although I know some German, my conversation is elementary. When forced to speak German, I feel demoted to a six-year-old. My face reddens or burns; I feel like a fool. Charlotte and Bob could ridicule the Japanese to cover up the embarrassment of not understanding or being understood.

The last little question:  why is the first image we get a rear view of Charlotte virtually naked while she sleeps? One of the published reviewers was on the right track with this one. He said that seeing a woman barely dressed can either be about sexuality or intimacy. Since sex plays little role in this film, the first image might suggest that we the viewers are going to get to know Charlotte intimately. Or more to the point, that the film is going to be about intimacy, the most important part of which is connecting. In the moment, at least, you know what the other person thinks and feels, and the other knows the same about you. Such a moment, however temporary and shallow, can overcome the feeling of being alone in the universe. It doesn’t happen that often in modern societies, where alienation rules.

Two of Bill Murray’s other films also seem to have been on the same track. Broken Flowers is a symphony of disconnection. The protagonist’s lover leaves him at the beginning of the film. He attempts to find out if he is a father by visiting four of his former lovers. He fails to connect, in varying degrees, with any of them. Finally, he can’t connect with a young man who might be his son. Six strikes and you’re out.

At the end of Groundhog Day the Murray character (Phil Connors) successfully connects with the woman he loves. But the hidden point the film makes is how extraordinarily difficult it was to get there. Given the time warp that is the film’s premise, one can’t know how much practice it took, but it could have been a hundred years. Since none of us have that much time, we are in big trouble. Although the film manages a happy ending, the underlying message hardly affirms the human condition. There is a canker in the rose.

The Whisper

What about the main question? Two early scenes hint that Bob will say goodbye. When Charlotte asks Bob about his wife and children, he acknowledges that it’s tough with the wife. After saying that having kids means a big change, he continues “But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk, and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.” This comment suggests that he is devoted to his children, and feels responsible for them. In fact, if taken literally, it means that he finds his children even more delightful than Charlotte. He will stick around to be a good father, even if he and Lydia fail as husband and wife.

It’s obvious that he also finds Charlotte delightful. The difference is that although he loves her, he doesn’t feel responsible for her in the way that he does for his children. When she is explaining how completely lost she feels in her marriage and her life, he tells her “You'll figure that out. I'm not worried about you.” Goodbye, Charlotte.

After writing the above, I found online a rendering of Bob’s whisper (by Steve on Felix Salmon’s blog): "I'll always remember the past few days with you...don't part mad, tell him the truth? OK?” She responds “OK" The last part about not parting mad indicates that Charlotte has told Bob she is going to leave her husband

Since I had no way of judging Steve’s credibility, I gave a recording of the whisper to a computer technician on my campus (Alex Sanchez). He independently came up with the same words as Steve, adding that the last part was much clearer than the first part. Whether these words were scripted or improvised on the spot by Murray I will take them to be part of the film.

The whisper lasts about six seconds. The first half implies that the relationship is ended. The second half, shifting ground, doesn’t contradict the first part. Giving Charlotte advice on leaving her husband indicates Bob’s care and concern for Charlotte, but nothing more.

Unhappily for my essay, this last encounter involves many events crowded into a short scene. Here are several of them: 

  1. Charlotte smiles faintly when she first sees him
  2. Bob hugs, strokes her hair
  3. Charlotte smiles
  4. Bob whispers in her ear for about 6 seconds, Charlotte looks miserable.
  5. They hug
  6. Bob kisses Charlotte on the mouth for about 4 seconds
  7. They say “Bye” to each other.
  8. Charlotte smiles a bigger smile.

 9.  Bob hugs, kisses on her cheek

10. Bob walks backward toward the waiting limousine. She smiles, he smiles back.

11. Charlotte turns around to look again, but he doesn’t.

Bob kissing Charlotte so passionately is the only real kiss between them in the whole film. It seems to be big trouble, in that it contradicts the noncommittal character of what was said in the whisper. Perhaps my interpretation is incorrect, or it could indicate conflict in Bob, or the scriptwriter. The most I can make of the scene as a whole is that it implies that the attunement between Bob and Charlotte was not only shallow, but also unbalanced. 

If they were attuned, as I have suggested, she might have understood the meaning for their relationship of his comment about his children, and also when he told her that she would figure out her life. If that were the case, then she wouldn’t have been surprised and crushed when he left her.

Her response to his telling her that she will figure it all out doesn’t give away her feelings. But her reaction to his expression of devotion to his children is quite clear: she smiles in a way that suggests she likes and admires him all the more for his loyalty to his kids. She doesn’t seem at all disappointed, so she might not have understood it indicates that he will return to his family.

In their last scene, Charlotte is not surprised, but she is clearly upset. As he hugs goodbye, we can see her eyes over his shoulder. She is crying and clearly unhappy. Perhaps she understood that they would part only abstractly, but didn’t feel what that would mean to her until the last scene. It is also possible that the understanding between them was not balanced, that he understood her more than she understood him, and that she was more enamored than he.

Even if their attunement was incomplete in this way, the film still reaffirms Marx’s idea: connection is so important that only a few moments of it could transform their entire lives. If that is the case, the film is still an affirmation, especially when compared to Broken Flowers and Groundhog Day.

Perhaps the cleverest thing about this film is somewhat difficult to articulate. I will call it the nesting of marital alienation within the larger frame of disconnection between cultures. The setting, two foreigners adrift in Japanese society, can be thought of as a signal to the audience to pay attention to the less obvious alienation between marital partners.

At the heart of the story are three intimate relationships: the two marriages, and the temporary relationship between Bob and Charlotte. It seems to me that it would have been much easier to miss the point had these three relationships been set in Manhattan or Kansas City. The configuration of the story obviously invites the comparison of cross-cultural and interpersonal alienation. But it also compares the two marriages and the much less alienated relationship between Bob and Charlotte. Without these comparisons, marital alienation is so much the rule in modern societies that viewers might have been much less likely to notice it. It is the way this device is used to call attention to the details of the difficult and subtle issue of alienation/connectedness that suggests to me that this film is a work of art.

31759 lostfound  june  20  06

My thanks to Mairead Donahey and Terry Motoo Dauer for comments on an earlier draft.