LOST IN TRANSLATION: Existentialism and The Language Barrier


When I first watched Sofia Coppola’s melancholic Lost in Translation, I had no means of relating to it. I was in my mid-teens, hadn’t yet left the security of my hometown, and only knew the wonder of cities in short bursts of vacation. For all its beauty and tact, the film didn’t touch me – I didn’t understand why.

Years later in 2018, sulking in my dimly lit apartment in Barcelona, I thought it might be time to revisit it. Because maybe now I could understand, maybe leaving home at 18 and moving not just to a student building or house in a nearby town but to another country had awakened an ability to connect with a story about an older man and young woman navigating a city they couldn’t possibly know – a city that brought up existential reflection and questions about their place in the world.


Living somewhere you have no connection to makes you a nobody, it renders you new and without background – one of the most freeing things a person can do. But in that physical freedom and fresh start, there’s wandering of the mind. Staring out large windows and remembering you are voiceless in a sea of millions, admiring the beauty of the buildings and lights but being fearful of their neutrality toward you. You could disappear entirely into the crowd – and without a sound. The world is still, and you’re moving through the bustle like a hazy signal left over from something before. Something real; but not quite tangible yet. A soul with no weight to it – you may as well be a ghost. Yet there are small moments of integration, where the surroundings begin to be less clinical and impersonal. You look for comfort in the only thing left that could bring it: People. Suddenly they are everything.

For Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the same is true. In moments like Charlotte flower arranging with the locals, she looks at people speaking and understands nothing, but kindness transcends words and she can feel as if she might belong temporarily because of a small thing like a smile. The highs are higher and the lows are lower when you’re living a new life; when every interaction is either validating or disorienting.

I remember my first and last drive through Barcelona, sitting in the back of a taxi with a driver I could not talk to in any real depth. I looked at every window, person, and car. When I first arrived in the city, I went through a days-long grieving process. In my writing, I described the home-sickness as a depression that focused all its attention on faux nausea. I came looking for catharsis, meaning, and purpose. Instead, I realized no matter where you are, you’re the same and life isn’t a movie. But my experiences, good and bad, allowed me to self reflect and really find something in Coppola’s lonely mood piece.

Lost in Translation (2003) – source: Focus Features

The Beauty of Being Alone

Lost in Translation is special in the sense that we get to experience another person’s solitude in a mundane way. It’s something we don’t often see, and even if people tell us how they feel, you don’t usually get to breathe it in the way Coppola allows us to here. Where others may have seen pointless wallowing in space, Coppola sees clarity and the truth of the fact that we are the most “us” when we’re alone. There is only one constant companion in life, one that cannot be lost – it’s the voice in our heads every second of every day, spectating on the information being received by our brains. Bob and Charlotte’s downtime between meet-ups is followed carefully and is just as meaningful in the film’s narrative as the time they spend together.

Charlotte gazes out of her hotel room window at the huge city – beautifully captured by Lance Acord’s subtle cinematography. She came with her boyfriend, a successful photographer. She’s not successful, she’s just there. Charlotte, like so many young people, is having difficulty in finding her place. Watching her boyfriend leave every day to go to work while she stays in bed or aimlessly wanders reminds me of that distinct feeling of worthlessness during unemployment, or that god awful gap between college and your first full-time job. It can even be traced back to melancholic childhood summers when school was out for summer and it felt like you had done everything there was to do in the world; but there was still 3 weeks left of vacation. To get up and start something new seemed too much effort, whereas sitting in the living room of my childhood home for days on end, watching beams of sunlight come through the window, illuminating the dust in the air and warming the carpet where the light touched it was everything.

Crossing Paths

Although at very different places in their lives, the characters in the film both share the same feeling of displacement. Bob is a wilting movie star, in Japan for business. He flutters awkwardly around coordinators in his hotel and shoots a commercial that frustrates him due to a lack of communication with the director. In instances like these Lost in Translation can be taken literally – but the title can also be found in the depths of Bob and Charlotte’s budding relationship. Their connection is indecipherable in an unusual and satisfying manner, not strictly platonic but not solely romantic either. They talk for hours on end but don’t seem to say much. The reading between the lines of their jokes and stories is what builds their characters. And it’s not until the end of the film that they’re ready to express what they mean clearly. For a while, they just stare at each other, then give a goodbye as if they were just acquaintances because they don’t know what to say. When Charlotte catches up with Bob as he begins to leave, they share one final moment. Charlotte whispers something in his ear, but we can’t hear it. It’s just for them, one pure moment of direct communication.

Lost in Translation (2003) – source: Focus Features

In the second half of the film, Bob and Charlotte contend with loss and the finite reality of things. After a meaningful block of time together, they feel it coming to an end. See, even if your new circumstances weren’t perfect, there’s still something particularly dreadful about the day you leave. You find yourself considering staying, which is madness, but occasionally a friendship or a romance help to surpass hardships. There’s no right answer and you can ask the same question every day with no new conclusions – do I stay or do I go? It’s a difficult question to quantify, not to me specifically, but just in how we as a species live life.

Parts of Lost in Translation left me cold, but as Bob makes his way back to the airport and the camera starts to pick up the beauty of Tokyo as if he were truly seeing it for the first time, just to add to the bitterness of leaving, I couldn’t help but cry for him. The person he feels like he might belong with is in a place he cannot belong to. Perhaps even worse a sting – maybe he can, but simply isn’t brave enough to find out. We are all destined to travel back home (whether it be physically or by raking through photographs and memories), we convince ourselves we should. It’s the eternal “what if I stayed” that holds the most weight.

Published by Trudie Graham

Trudie is an entertainment critic from Scotland. She loves comics, tattoos, and Mamma Mia.

4 thoughts on “LOST IN TRANSLATION: Existentialism and The Language Barrier

  1. It reminds me of my first days in New York. I spoke the language of the city, mostly – although I moved to Spanish Harlem, despite speaking no Spanish – but it was a far cry from my upbringing in the Canadian north. In my case, though, I have stayed. I’ve built a life here, met someone… and now the idea of going back home seems stranger than the idea of staying.


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