Translating ‘Lost in Translation’ Seven Years Later

ON
Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Photo: Focus Features

I was recently sent the link to a 2003 article in the “New York Times” headlined “What Else Was Lost in Translation” and it was something I had never known about Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation having to do with Bob’s (Bill Murray) filming of the Suntory Whiskey commercial.

Of course, we all knew the director (Yutaka Tadokoro) was giving Bob much more information than what his interpreter (Akiko Takeshita) was translating for him, but I never knew the actual English translation of what Tadokoro was saying. It would seem back in 2003 Motoko Rich was well ahead of me in getting the answer.

Rich also says the scene came out of Coppola’s own experiences while promoting her first film, The Virgin Suicides, in Japan and also adds Bill Murray never knew what the director was saying. “I like the fact that the American actors don’t really know what’s going on, just like the characters,” Coppola said.

Below is the translation of the scene from Rich’s 2003 piece and just below that I’ve added video of the scene with a translation that’s relatively similar but not exactly the same. I don’t know a lick of Japanese so which one is more accurate is beyond me.

DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the INTERPRETER:): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.

INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.

DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey 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! (*EDIT* Motoko Rich contacted me to correct one line of his translation replacing “Cheers to you guys” with “Here’s looking at you kid”)

INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

BOB: That’s all he said?

INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.

BOB: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?

INTERPRETER (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you don’t mind.

DIRECTOR (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese): Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you understand?

INTERPRETER (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity.

BOB: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.

DIRECTOR: What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly, tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important! Don’t forget.

INTERPRETER (in English, to Bob): Like an old friend, and into the camera.

BOB: O.K.

DIRECTOR: You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?

BOB: O.K.

DIRECTOR: O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.

BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! (Then in a very male form of Japanese, like a father speaking to a wayward child) Don’t try to fool me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you even understand what we are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive. The sound of the words is important. It’s an expensive drink. This is No. 1. Now do it again, and you have to feel that this is exclusive. O.K.? This is not an everyday whiskey you know.

INTERPRETER: Could you do it slower and ——

DIRECTOR: With more ecstatic emotion.

INTERPRETER: More intensity.

DIRECTOR (in English): Suntory time! Roll.

BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you.

Beyond all this, it would seem when it actually comes time to get non-Japanese actors for Suntory commercials they just didn’t speak. Take the two following Suntory Whiskey commercials with Sean Connery and Keanu Reeves as evidence.

Sean ConneryKeanu Reeves