Find Your Muse by Getting Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation poster

Lost in Translation came out just before I went to Japan for the first time. Watching it in the cinema, I was entranced by the otherworldly atmosphere I was hoping to find in the real Tokyo.

Now, whenever I load the DVD and see the Tokyo night skyline, I’m transported back to a balcony 15 storeys up, on the verge of an adventure in the neon city.

Lost in Translation isn’t about creativity, although its characters include actors, photographers, singers, musicians and other creative types. And we’re given no indication that the events in the story have any influence on either Bob’s acting or Charlotte’s writing.

But creativity is about life. Whatever else they do, Bob and Charlotte will never forget those few days they spent together in Japan. They’ve left an indelible impression on each other.

And the creative process moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes getting nothing done is the most productive thing you can do. Sometimes you do your most important work when you’re not working at all. Sometimes the most pointless, stupid, ridiculous experiences are the ones that teach you the most and lead to your biggest discoveries.

So here are some of the impressions Lost in Translation made on me, and what they may (or may not) have to do with your creativity.

Get Lost

For foreigners, one of Tokyo’s biggest attractions is its strangeness. It’s like walking through a neon looking-glass. Everything looks hyper-modern or old-fashioned. You can’t read the signs or menus. Walking the streets, you’re usually the only non-Japanese face in the crowd. It’s bewildering and exhilarating.

No wonder Bob and Charlotte like it. When you’ve lost your way in life, there’s nothing like alienation to make you feel at home. But you don’t need to be stuck in the wrong relationship to feel the benefits. Any time you start to feel stale or in a creative rut, going somewhere new and disorientating can reawaken your wide-eyed curiosity.

Nobody Understands You

Mastering Japanese is the least of Charlotte and Bob’s communication problems. Even their partners seem to speak a different language. It’s a relief for both of them to meet someone else who at least understands that they don’t understand.

Once you realise human beings don’t really understand each other, you have two choices: shut yourself off from other people; or make an extra effort to connect with them and be kind.

Stop Making Sense

Someone had to explain to me what was going on in the scene with the ‘stockings’ lady. But I actually prefered it before I understood it.

Later in the film, I’ve still not worked out why those guys start firing laser machine guns in the bar, and whether those weapons are actually used on the streets of Tokyo. If you know, please don’t explain it to me. I’d rather be confused. Sometimes an explanation is the last thing you need.

Get into Trouble

Bob knows he shouldn’t be whoring his talent in Tokyo. Charlotte knows she shouldn’t be neglecting her dreams for a husband who hardly notices her. They both know they shouldn’t be hanging around with each other so much. It can only lead to trouble.

But sometimes trouble is just what you need. Trouble tells you what’s missing from your life. Trouble can be a good teacher – if you take the trouble to listen.

Live In Between Days

Bob is taking a break from his proper work to make adverts (the ultimate in-between media). Charlotte is tagging along with her husband’s photo shoots. They keep meeting in corridors, bars, a hotel lobby, and finally on the Tokyo street – quintessential in-between places.

What’s happening in between days in your life?

Nothing’s Perfect

Charlotte is having second thoughts about her marriage. After 25 years, Bob is in marriage counselling. Tokyo will haunt them both as a missed opportunity. But they know falling into each other’s arms would create as many problems as it solved.

As Charlotte says:

Let’s never come here again, because it would never be as much fun.

They only have a few days together. A few days of stolen moments and mistakes. They both know it’s not perfect, but they have to make the most of it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make something perfect.

Don’t Drink Too Much Champagne

Charlotte never gets to open the champagne with her husband. Bob groans when he sees the empty champagne bottle on the window sill and hears the singing from his bathroom.

Champagne launches and awards ceremonies are a byword for media business glamour. All glitter and fake smiles. The world where Bob spends most of his working life. The world of Charlotte’s photographer husband and Kelly, his celebrity client. And the jazz singer in the bar.

Champagne is intoxicating, but Bob will tell you it leaves one hell of a hangover.

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Lip readers and soundtrack enhancers have had a field day with the movie’s final scene. But anyone who tries to tell you ‘What Bob really said to Charlotte’ is missing the point. If we knew that, it would spoil the ending.

There would be nothing left for us to add to the scene. No space for us to imagine the message each of us understands but could never put into words.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Some of my best ideas and creative work have been born from getting into trouble or potential trouble and those points in your life where those unspoken words can be deafening.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for a very thought provoking post. I cam really resonate with it.

    Elliott Smith wrote: “Burning every bridge that I cross, to find some beautiful place to get lost”. I think we all need to do that sometimes (within reason) to rejuvenate our writing and creating.

    Travelling is a great refresher, but even just trying one day where you break all of the routines and habits, fighting them tooth and nail and wandering through the labyrinths of your mind. The strangest of places can reveal the most beautiful things.


  3. I think I like this post a lot more than I liked the movie! Seriously, great reading of a film I found impenetrable, and lots of good advice as well.

  4. Hi Mark,

    I loved this post! And I really loved that movie.

    Yes, I always find that my creative process flourishes when I allow myself to get lost and stop making sense and , my personal favorite…. get into trouble!

    In fact, when I REALLY get into trouble creatively is when I try to hard to follow the rules and do what I think is expected of me. That’s when I lose touch with my own individual voice which of course makes me want to drink champagne!


  5. ‘Experimentation’ by entering unknown territory or interacting with people we wouldn’t usually mix with can spark dormant parts of ourselves – I’ve had something peculiar go off this week and am having great fun with it.

    I wrote to a YouTube singer to say she had a great voice but all her work was ‘covers’ and asked her if she could write her own material. She said she couldn’t write yet, wanted to know if I could write her a song and I said no. And then I did, right out of the blue (I used to like doing poetry); and I’ve written her 3 more too and she’s working on turning them into a reality right now.

    How on Earth that happened I’ll never know but sure is fun. Just bought myself a ‘how to write songs’ off Amazon.

    Haven’t got a clue what a semi-clef is. She’s got some translating to do, eh?

  6. This is really great. Makes me want to travel and get into some trouble. Also makes me want to watch Lost in Translation again.

  7. Thanks everyone, you can probably tell it was a great excuse for me to watch the film yet again…

    @Carl – yes, the internet is waking up all sorts of charactes inside us we’d never have guessed existed before: