Lost in Translation and the Magic of Study Abroad

Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Image via Focus Features.

There are those times when things in your life seem to align, converging around a particular subject, which seems to keep popping up by happenstance. For me lately, that subject is study abroad. Recently, I’ve worked on a number of writing and editing projects related to study abroad – one a collection of study abroad recollections compiled by my university’s College of International Studies, and one an article for a French business school (for whom I do occasional freelance work) extolling the global mobility of its international graduate students. At the same time, I’m teaching an orientation class for a group of freshmen with whom I discuss study abroad as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I’ve also been planning the second round of a two-week study abroad trip I co-led with my husband, a professor of art history, early this past summer.

All this has made me reflect even more than usual on my personal experience studying in Dublin, Ireland for a semester as an undergrad. I say “more than usual” here, because I’m always reflecting upon this experience – one of the most life-altering I’ve had. I met my husband on that program, for one thing. But it was so much more: in an alternate universe, there’s a Maura who never studied abroad, and I wouldn’t know her – I might not even recognize her.

Coincidentally, this month also marks the 14th anniversary of the release of the film Lost in Translation, which I distinctly remember going to see at Minneapolis’s grand Uptown Theater on opening weekend. Today, film snobs might be inclined to dismiss this film as another impressionistic Sofia Coppola movie about the ennui of privileged white people (which it is). But the film meant a great deal to me, in no small part because of the way its release straddled my study abroad experience. I was a junior in college at the time it was released, anxiously anticipating my upcoming spring semester abroad. Overall, I saw the film three times in theatres – twice that fall and once more in spring. The first two times, I was buzzing with apprehension for my own uncertain near future. By the third time, I had been living in Dublin for three months, and was already convinced I never wanted to leave.

In my experience, Lost in Translation captures exceptionally well the transition one faces when traveling abroad for an extended period of time. Though not expressly about study abroad, the film is about two lost souls, adrift in their lives and further alienated by the experience of being in a foreign country. It begins with recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), adrift in Tokyo while her husband travels for work. She travels alone around the city, hoping to be struck by something inspirational and meaningful. But she comes home feeling empty. She calls a friend back home crying, unable to really explain what’s wrong (side note: part of what’s wrong with Charlotte is her marriage, a fact I did not pay much attention to upon my initial viewings). Her friend doesn’t get it – she’s in Tokyo. What’s to be sad about? “Have the best time!” her friend chirps, by way of goodbye.

But then Charlotte meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a similar fish-out-of-water, and the two strike up a friendship. She begins to come out of her shell, and before she knows it, she’s running through the streets of Tokyo laughing, still confused as hell by her life and her surroundings, but also awash in the glow of connection – with a new culture, with new friends, with a new spark of independence.

This is, of course, not how the study abroad experience goes for everyone. But it was dead-on for me. When I arrived in Dublin, I was excited: ready to travel, see interesting things, and make new friends. But it didn’t happen right away, and I ended up doing something I never thought I’d do – crying on the phone to my parents and my boyfriend back home about how things weren’t going as planned. Ireland in January is cold and incredibly dark, I managed to catch a nasty flu, and from my brief interactions with other students in my program, I was convinced they were boring and I had nothing to say to them. The truth was, I didn’t even know them yet. But I felt alienated and scared, worried I didn’t have what it took to adjust. That I would squander what was supposed to be the best six months of my life.

I did not transition as quickly as Charlotte, but by March, I could look back and barely relate to my January self. Pushing through my shyness (and my superiority complex), I realized I had been wrong about the others in my program, and I connected with a group of friends. I was enjoying my courses, meeting new people of various nationalities and falling in love with the city. I started to wake up every day with a sense of jubilation, like a kick-drum to the heart: this is my life. And the best thing about it was the knowledge that I made it by myself: that I had forced myself out of my comfort zone for what felt like the first time, and I could actually see it paying off in the here and now.

When I saw Lost in Translation before going abroad, I focused on the latter half of the film, when Charlotte and Bob connect and start to fall in love with Tokyo. I dismissed the film’s pervasive thread of loneliness and confusion as the melodrama of movies. It took me until that third viewing to feel the resonance of the film’s early scenes: I had experienced the same emotional disorientation as Charlotte in my first month-and-a-half of study abroad. In retrospect, I kicked myself for not expecting it. And I vowed not to forget that in real life, as in a good movie, the highest highs are hard-won. Anything else is a fairy tale, a fantasy. It’s not interesting to watch, and it’s not interesting to live.

That’s what I tell anyone who considers studying abroad (and especially anyone soon to embark on this journey for the first time). That almost more than anything, it’s that feeling of accomplishment, of newfound independence, that makes it worthwhile. And it’s probably no accident after all that the theme of study abroad keeps emerging in my life: I keep driving myself back to this experience, this one that shaped me forever.

Toward the end of Lost in Translation, Charlotte says to Bob, “Let’s never come here again because it will never be as much fun.” And I know she’s right in my case, too, that study abroad in your early twenties is a singular experience, one never to be recaptured. But I tend to see study abroad not as the end of something but the beginning: of a life in which new experiences, places and cultures are prioritized, and the fear of the unknown is vanquished.