Lost in Translation

Although the title of my essay reminds of the 2003 American film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it isn’t going to be a film criticism. Nevertheless, I daresay the film itself is interesting and the idea of being lost in translation every now and then is reflected in the movie. Bob, being a famous actor, comes to Japan to star in the TV commercial of Suntory whisky. As he doesn’t know Japanese, the director has to explain everything by means of an interpreter, who does the job “perfectly well”.

Director [in Japanese, to the interpreter]: The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
Interpreter [in Japanese, to the director]: Yes, of course. I understand.
Director [in Japanese, to Bob]: Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid,”—Suntory time!
Interpreter [In English, to Bob]: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
Bob: …Is that all he said? [1]

This is a hilarious part revealing the characteristics of some interpreters, however the thing I would like to discuss doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem lies only in interpreter who may fail to translate some words and that will result in the loss of the meaning. To my mind the thing is much more complicated and complex. If the interpreter translates ‘հարսանիք’ as ‘wedding’, is there anything changed and is there a loss in the translation? Most of you will probably claim that there is no loss in translation and everything is done correctly. But is the Armenian ‘հարսանիք’ and the English “wedding” the same? For every Armenian ‘հարսանիք’ is probably the most important event occurring in life, the ceremony is connected with a lot of traditions and customs, as an illustration, honey-eating, plate-breaking, etc. For most American ‘wedding’ is a humble ceremony with the closest friends and relatives that supposes amusing activities like first dance, bridal shower, etc. Here we come closer to the concept of linguistic relativity hypothesis introduced more than 40 years ago by cultural anthropologist Benjamin Whorf. The hypothesis implies that what we perceive is influenced by the language in which we think and speak. Different languages lead to different patterns of thought.
Whorf formulated this hypothesis while studying the Native American language of the Hopi. He discovered there are no words in their language for the concept of incremental time: no seconds, no minutes, and no hours. Thus, it would never occur to the Hopi that someone could be half an hour early or late for a visit, because they have no words for the concept.
Each language has certain concepts that cannot be easily expressed in other languages. Thus, the expression “something we lost in the translation” doesn’t mean part of a statement was literally lost as it was translated from one language to another. It means an equivalent idea couldn’t be found in the second language, so part of the statement’s original meaning was diminished. [Steven Brydon, Michael Scott 237-238].
When we say “I love you “in English “ես քեզ սիրում եմ” in Armenian and “ich liebe dich” in German do we have the same impact? For some people this is a senseless question, because the expressions seem to be the same. Nevertheless, what about swearing or praying? It is not a secret that a curse in English may seem just a sound to us, but a curse in Armenian is definitely not just a sound. Or the translation of a prayer is surely not so closer to our hearts as the original one in our native language and that is why no matter how many languages we know, we pray in our mother tongue. Why should say­ing “I love you” be any different?
Hence, it can easily be proved that euphemisms, polite­ness, sug­ges­tive­ness, sar­casm, irony and passive-aggressive ges­tures — all risk being lost in translation.
The Little Prince of Antoine de Saunt-Exupéry mentions “Language is the source of misunderstandings.” And we come to believe that the idea is true; some words and phrases we give great importance in our mother tongue cannot be fully translated across cultural and language barriers. In this case translation or interpretation becomes very similar to the old game of “Spoilt Telephone”. Something is lost, and perhaps something is gained, but one thing is for sure, it does not remain the same.


  1.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_in_Translation_%28film%29
  2. Steven R. Brydon, Michael D. Scott, ‘Betwenn One and Many. The art and Science of Public Speaking”, 3rd edition, California State University, 2000.
  3.  http://www.lonegunman.co.uk/2010/01/18/words-and-phrases-lost-in-translation/



Posted on March 12, 2012, in All and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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