Translating “In Translation”: Episode 15, Season 1 of ABC’s Primetime series, Lost

by Lakshmi Kumar

“There is a widely held view that no homogeneous audience exists any longer, only a fragmented audience with distinctive tastes,” (Rantanen 2005: 95) writes global media expert, Terhi Rantanen. Lost epitomizes global entertainment media’s response to the growing awareness of this heterogeneity, reflecting a move away from an American-centric cultural imperialism and a move towards an attempt at understanding the global diversity that is becoming a normalized and constant part of living in contemporary society. The show marks a cornerstone in global entertainment, focusing more on the connections rather than the differences between its wildly diverse characters—of which the major connection is one of a paradoxical fear of and desire for technology. With a cast full of personas from around the world, distinct not only in race and nationality, but in age and social class, including even a central character who does not speak English, this American show strengthens the contemporary critique of the one-way model of global communication, exemplifying, as Rantanen points out, just how ‘complicated’ the “processes of reception, interpretation and appropriation of media messages” (Thompson 1995: 171) are today.

In Season One’s 15th episode, “In Translation,” American viewers were met with an hour of Primetime television programming communicated almost entirely through subtitles. In fact, halfway through the episode, we hear the sonic sludge of vocal sounds Jin (this particular episode’s main character) hears when the other characters speak in English, a language he doesn’t understand. He, and the television audience, are suddenly surrounded by sounds that have a vaguely Korean intonation (Jin is South Korean) but mean nothing—we are hearing through Jin’s, through the foreigner’s, ears. This is just one example of how throughout the series, viewers are impelled to relate to the outsider, to the ‘Other.’ Referring to a previous argument concerning Jin, Michael says to Sun (Jin’s wife), “It’s not my problem, it’s yours.” But on Lost, ABC’s infamous and popular series airing during one of the most competitive time slots on television, these postmodern characters are forced to interact and deal with each other in a way that most contemporary people do not anymore: tribally—face-to-face; and more importantly, they seem to excel in this setting, addressing and repairing issues that they had left dormant in their lives ‘back home.’ Again and again, the characters and the audience are met with the problems of connecting with others, of creating a community, face-to-face, unmediated, without the help of familiar technology or media—emphasizing the idea that there is no escape, from the island and from each other.

Hurley, a stereotypically overweight American character, reaches out to Jin in a tense moment but is only met with silence. As he walks away, Hurley mutters, “You want to be an outsider? It’s your business.” Superficially, this scene is straightforward and addresses again the impossibility of connecting with another person when you do not speak the same language; but it quietly reasserts a continuous theme on Lost: the difficulty of connecting with those around you and our tendency to shut others out when situations become difficult—this tendency gaining greater prominence as more media develops to provide ever more distractions. This latent desire for direct social interaction matched with a mistrust of technology— firmly rooted in the show’s inception and mythology as the show begins with a dramatic plane crash and the characters’ subsequent assumption that they will be rescued only to find out they will not—permits the characters and the viewers to stop suppressing their anger like Japanese audiences once did as they watched Godzilla. Godzilla producer Tanaka Tomoyuki pointed out that Japanese audiences used the famous monster as a “substitution” for their anger, satisfying “everyone’s desire for destruction” (Allison 2006: 45). This anger and confusion about technology and its purpose is reasserted later in the series during the controversy arising from the question of whether or not to ‘push the button’ connected to a mysterious computer found in an underground hatch. This questioning of technology’s purpose and necessity can be seen to reflect the audience’s experience in the mediated globalized nature of today’s world. As Rantanen writes, “So here is one of the paradoxes of mediated globalization: at the same time as it connects people, it also distanciates them” (Rantanen 2005: 10).

Hurley’s attempt at befriending Jin and, as we see later in the episode, the youngest character Walt’s statement that he doesn’t want to move anymore because as he says, “I’ve been moving places my whole life…I like it here,” hark back to the knowledge that surprisingly, more and more people have admitted to a pervading sense of loneliness in today’s world of disappearing borders and constant communication.

Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self. In this condition of structural schizophrenia between function and meaning, patterns of social communication become increasingly under stress. And when communication breaks down, when it does not exist any longer, even in the form of conflictual communication (as would be the case in social struggles or political opposition), social groups and individuals become alienated from each other, and see the other as a stranger, eventually as a threat. In this process, social fragmentation spreads, as identities become more specific and increasingly difficult to share (Castells 2000 : 3).

As people depend more and more on the internet for their livelihoods while simultaneously becoming more nomadic and separated from their native origins, there is a growing trend in media and the arts toward creating subject matter that deals with this loss of immediacy, consistency, locality and tradition. In today’s global marketplace, this technologically-savvy and nomadic/displaced lifestyle is no longer a primarily American experience. “Giddens [1990: 17-21] writes that in pre-modern contexts both time and space were fundamentally linked to a person’s immediate location” (Rantanen 2005: 47). Lost, and particularly the episode “In Translation,” deals with this desire for a ‘fundamental linkage’ in a compelling way. “Our world is becoming senseless to many because, for the first time in modern history, we are relatively without place: we are part of a global world. Many scholars have referred to this as an identity crisis” (Rantanen 2005: 54). Lost reflects the influence of technologically-mediated globalization on society as a whole, placing on center stage this ‘identity crisis’ that is no longer just an American issue but has developed into a global one.

In the context of this modern capitalist global economy, the traditional skills once that embarrassed Jin, a past he felt he needed to hide to survive in contemporary South Korean urban society, give him an edge on the island. In a world without technology and agriculture, a fisherman suddenly becomes a vital and highly prized member of society. This return to essentials, to the tangible connection between work and survival, is highlighted in this series. Unlike the Gilligan’s Islands of the past, Lost’s underlying themes focus on the ever-present longing to return to a time when survival related directly to human needs rather than displaced desires—the difference between naturalist and consumerist outlooks. However, the show still possesses culturally imperialist notions, reinforcing the idea that in today’s global media environment the cultural content of a show even as culturally cutting-edge as Lost cannot be described as anything but complicated. In one scene in “In Translation,” we witness a flashback to a visit Jin made to his childhood village to see his father, a poor Korean fisherman. As a solution to Jin’s marital problems, his father advises, “Go to America…save your marriage.” America still remains the symbol of ‘starting anew’ and in this scene the American mythology of a ‘land of opportunity’ is reinforced and paralleled with the new lives the characters begin on the magical island of Lost. But one must not forget that the American characters in other episodes escape to other places—Australia and Thailand to name a few—to find their own new beginnings. So while the show made in America by Americans is still America-centric, it still reflects the creative shifting away from the sort of straightforward cultural imperialism that historically was standard in media, particularly entertainment television, toward one that accentuates the complex subtleties of identity and communication in a globalized world.

The score even reaffirms the characters’ identity crises and forced return to a pre-modern context with its spare, spacey quality. It also highlights the underlying fear of technology and its effects on people and their relationships with its haunting, metallic and atonal atmosphere—one composed by Michael Giacchino, a former video game soundtrack composer, who is famous for having used airplane parts for the percussion on Lost (Ryan, “Lost Facts Found”)(constantly reminding viewers of the plane crash and how technology can let you down). The producers’ awareness of these underlying themes that audiences connect with can be seen in this clever hiring of a video game composer to work on their Primetime show.

This paradoxical desire and mistrust of technology comes out in other playful ways, utilizing the audiences’ recognition and awareness of the manipulation of music in their visual media. At the end of “In Translation,” Hurley pulls out a portable CD player and the audience hears a popular song by Damien Rice start to play, particularly noticeable because Lost uses lyrical pop music so rarely and self-consciously. The song starts up softly, unclear and raspy just as one would hear it on a Discman, but then as we enter the scene with Hurley, the music takes over in clarity and volume and we see a Lost beach scene in slow motion, full of television cliché and hopeful confirmation, until…the Discman’s battery dies. After Hurley’s frustrated attempt to get it started again, we along with him, are forced to witness the scene ‘as it is,’ in real time with only the sound of the ocean in the background. Lost wins in irony again and reaffirms the audience’s secret awareness that what we, a contemporary diverse global audience, may want is not always what we get, or more importantly, what we need. The television screen flashes back its answer: Reality it is, no matter how complex.