The most famous scene from Lost in Translation—the one from which the movie gets its title, I suppose—is undoubtedly the photo shoot scene. The translated version goes like this (at least according to IMDb):
DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san, you are relaxing in your study. On the table is a bottle of Suntory whiskey. Got it? Look slowly, with feeling, at the camera, and say it gently - say it as if you were speaking to an old friend. Just like Bogie in Casablanca, "Here's looking at you, kid" - Suntory time.
TRANSLATOR: Umm. He want you to turn, looking at camera. OK?
BILL MURRAY: That's all he said?
TRANSLATOR: Yes. Turn to camera.
BILL MURRAY: All right. Does he want me to turn from the right, or turn from the left?
TRANSLATOR: Uh, umm. He's ready now. He just wants to know if he's supposed to turn from the left or turn from the right when the camera rolls. What should I tell him?
DIRECTOR: What difference does it make! Makes no difference! Don't have time for that! Got it, Bob-san? Just psych yourself up, and quick! Look straight at the camera. At the camera. And slowly. With passion. Straight at the camera. And in your eyes there's... passion. Got it?
TRANSLATOR: Right side. And with intensity. OK?
Yeah, that was pretty funny. Japanese people are funny. So is Bill Murray.
Sometimes, I get pulled from my desk to be an interpreter. This never quite seems to work properly. I mean, it's fine when you're at a bar and your foreign friend is pissing off a couple of girls and their friend is like
FRIEND: What are they talking about, anyway?
ME: They're debating Yasukuni Shrine. He's saying it's the prerogative of the government to decide whether to go there and she's going on about Asian relations. It's pretty stupid, actually.
FRIEND: Yeah, isn't it?
ME: There are such better things to talk about.
ME: Like what would you do if I kissed you right now?
FRIEND: Here? Uh, there are people watching...
ME: They won't be watching in that conveniently-located unisex restroom. Tally ho!
The first time I was asked to do it seriously was for a courtroom proceeding involving testimony by an American guy. When we entered the courtroom, I discovered that the opposing counsel spoke perfect American English and was incredibly willing to nitpick everything I translated, and obfuscate his questions enough to make it impossible for me to figure out what he wanted to say.
OTHER SIDE: (in Japanese) American vagabond! What is your income here? Speak now or forever hold your peace!
ME: Uhm... (looks hesitatingly toward the lawyer)
OUR SIDE: Uhm... (looks hesitatingly toward the judge)
OTHER SIDE: (in English) Your income! What is your income in Japan?
DEFENDANT: Er, thirty thousand a month.
ME: San man en, to iu koto desu...
DEFENDANT: That's dollars, asshole, not yen.
JUDGE: Thank you.
That experience showed me that it can often be better to leave things out.
The next interpreting job I got was in a heated negotiation over a technology licensing deal. Our client was an American company run by a no-bullshit Silicon Valley-type manager who didn't speak a word of Japanese. On the other side was a wall of Japanese managerial types.
I showed up at the meeting with one of our senior associates, Otsuyama-sensei, a Japanese woman about half my height who knows lots of English but has no hope of ever speaking it. The pre-meeting went something like this:
CFO: ...So I think we will have to have that provision amended accordingly.
CORPORATE COUNSEL (on speakerphone): Certainly. That's going to make it impossible to capitalize the income. Okay then, we'll go with it.
VP/ASIA: Do you see any problems, Ms. Otsuyama?
(Otsuyama continues to read through the change log; I kick her under the table)
OTSUYAMA: Oh, ii. Uh, it's OK?
CORPORATE COUNSEL: In that case, we should move on to Section 13...
And then the meeting was no better. It started like this:
THEIR CFO: (in Japanese) For starters, let's talk about the pricing scheme. I know what you're proposing but you need to see how the mechanics are going to work at our end. (five minutes of finance babble and whiteboard scribbling deleted for your protection) Is that acceptable?
OUR CFO: Uh, Mr. Sekicho, can you translate that for Palo Alto?
OTSUYAMA: (whispers) They want to extend the term from 18 months to 24 months.
ME: Oh. Hey, Bob, you there?
BOB (on speakerphone): (sound of clicking away from the porn site he must have had open on his desktop by now) Ah, yeah, I'm here!
ME: They want 24 months instead of 18. What do you say?
BOB: I say tell them to stick it up their ass!
ME: Ah, yes, Tanaka-san, he says it will be very difficult to accept 24 months at this time given the circumstances with their other providers.
Before long, I was doing the condensing myself.
THEIR GENERAL COUNSEL: But your company will want to exclude that from Section 43. It's really in your best interest. You're aware of the provision in the Tax Convention that allows you to obtain zero percent treatment for that sort of payment, aren't you? That's the reason we put that in there, for your own best interest.
(the VP/Asia and I simultaneously lean backward in our chairs to talk behind everyone else)
ME: Escaping taxes under the treaty. You know anything about that?
VP/ASIA: No. Do you?
ME: Um, (to Otsuyama) are we supposed to be giving tax advice?
OTSUYAMA: No, we send that out to our zeirishi.
ME: Ah. Well, we'll find out for you then.
VP/ASIA: Excellent. Hey Bob.
BOB: Uh, yeah, I'm here!
VP/ASIA: Bob, we've got a tax question...
(sound of Bob turning white)
VP/ASIA: ...they say they'll get us an answer on it.
OTSUYAMA: (whispering) Or we could just open a book.
ME: Ah, yes, Tanaka-san, we will confirm that and report back to you as soon as that has been completed. Is that acceptable?
But you know, the real question is, how much was really lost? So much of what we say is just bullshit, fluff to cover up our point. Lawyers are among the most guilty parties, but look around you and you'll see that everyone's doing it. Maybe the world needs more translators everywhere. Maybe there's a lot we could afford to lose in translation.
About the movie again, this basically sums it up:
A NODER: Hey sekicho, you should really see Lost in Translation.
(one week later)
ME: I saw it. It was pretty cool.
SAME NODER: Yeah, didn't you love the opening with Scarlett Johansson's ass?