Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #77

The actor:Masatoshi Nagase
The character:Japanese Poet
The film:Paterson
The quote:“Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”

There aren’t a bunch of lines in here that I’ve chosen mostly for beauty or pure insight, but this is one of them. It’s an awful thought. Can we never really feel the water on our skin of language that isn’t ours? It seems to me that the best proof that we cannot comes from the translation of Japanese haiku into another language like English, where the absolute precision of the words is just lost a little bit. Perhaps this is why the haiku that stands out most to me is one by Richard Wright, who wrote:

In the falling snow.

A laughing boy holds out his palms.

Until they are white.

Jim Jarmusch has been messing around with foreign language throughout his oeuvre, from the Hungarian bandied about in Stranger Than Paradise to Mystery Train and its multiple stories in multiple languages to multinational Night on Earth, which is really the kind of thing you follow with subtitles or not at all. (I’m thinking about Roberto Benigni’s outlandishly funny extended monologue about his sexual history, one which proves lethal to his passenger, and how you could get about ten percent of the picture just from watching and the other ninety percent depends on knowing words like “sheep” in Italian.) Jarmusch is the right director to bring in this idea about poetry in translation, to think hard about what meaning is inherently lost in transference in the same way that energy is lost throughout a food chain. I also like that Jarmusch reuses an actor here in Nagase who was essential to Mystery Train, finding this through line between previous work expressing similar ideas.

There are only so many movies about poets out there. Novelists are easy pickings, because of the obvious narrative similarities between novels and movies, but poets present a different kind of challenge, a different kind of translation. Maybe it requires a different temperament for a director willing to be vulnerable, to be willing to allow words to shine more brightly than their images even though the best poetry (I say in my very old-fashioned way) tends to use words as images. No one will ever eclipse Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, nor do I think Paterson is the equal of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion. I do think Paterson is so successful, in that spare Jarmusch way, in making a world in which words can feel so much more memorable and spellbinding than place or sight. Even in an incredibly accessible movie, Jarmusch is still arranging difficult concepts with the wisest simplicity.

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