Lost in Translation

Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier

Lost in Translation

Book Pages: 216 Illustrations: 30 illustrations Published: August 2010

Author: Homay King

Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Film, Theory and Philosophy > Psychoanalytic Theory

In a nuanced exploration of how Western cinema has represented East Asia as a space of radical indecipherability, Homay King traces the long-standing association of the Orient with the enigmatic. The fantasy of an inscrutable East, she argues, is not merely a side note to film history, but rather a kernel of otherness that has shaped Hollywood cinema at its core. Through close readings of The Lady from Shanghai, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lost in Translation, and other films, she develops a theory of the “Shanghai gesture,” a trope whereby orientalist curios and décor become saturated with mystery. These objects and signs come to bear the burden of explanation for riddles that escape the Western protagonist or cannot be otherwise resolved by the plot. Turning to visual texts from outside Hollywood which actively grapple with the association of the East and the unintelligible—such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo: Cina, Wim Wenders’s Notebook on Cities and Clothes, and Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain—King suggests alternatives to the paranoid logic of the Shanghai gesture. She argues for the development of a process of cultural “de-translation” aimed at both untangling the psychic enigmas prompting the initial desire to separate the familiar from the foreign, and heightening attentiveness to the internal alterities underlying Western subjectivity.


Lost in Translation ... offers a broad historical guide to the changing politics and depictions of East Asia in Hollywood films and American culture more generally. It further offers readers a new range of psychoanalytic tools to help see where the traces of internal alterity are effaced and made manifest.” — David H. Fleming, Film-Philosophy

“Those engaged with questions of Asian and Asian American representation, and post-colonial theory more broadly, will find in Lost in Translation engaging meditations about difference and the way we respond to the ‘other’. Likewise, King’s text will resonate with readers seeking new formal interpretations of cinema, and particularly of mise-en-scène. One significant attribute of Lost in Translation is King’s philosophical inquiry about loss and mourning, but also conversely of pleasure, when we find ourselves confronted with the unknowability of otherness.” — Nina Seja, Media International Australia

“[T]he book is an interesting read. Moreover, it makes a vibrant contribution to the important area of film studies that attends to ways of reading the other within diverse cultural and cinematic frameworks and this is to be welcomed.” — Belinda Smaill, Screening the Past

“King's own arcade of analysis remains a formidable structure. With critical equanimity, she interweaves a variety of discourses—between psychoanalysis and phenomenology; film theory and cultural history; even classical Hollywood and experimental works—to undo the notion of their opposition and instead reveal their mutual investment. This book is a foundational work for future studies of not only the West's cultural interplay with East Asia, but broader concerns of alterity and the enigmatic in Hollywood itself.” — Ana Salzberg, Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature

“The Orient is not just a cast of stereotypes but a visual world as well. With brilliance and gorgeous prose, Homay King uncovers the mise-en-scène of Orientalism and the cinema. She examines what is at stake when ‘Asia’ comes to stand in for an unintelligible alterity—an enigmatic signifier—that animates our psychic lives. Elegant and sophisticated, this tour de force sets a new standard for film theory, visual culture, psychoanalysis, and studies of race.” — David L. Eng, author of The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy

“With Lost in Translation, her powerful analysis of Asia as an ‘enigmatic signifier’ for those who inhabit ‘the West,’ Homay King stages a compelling encounter between psychoanalytic theory, especially as reformulated in the texts of Jean Laplanche, and the politics of racial, national, and ethnic representation. Identifying East and West alike as sites of internal alterity, this smart, provocative, and persuasive book resists the familiar reductiveness of multiculturalist piety in order to insist on the ongoing work of finding ourselves, no less than our others, as always already in translation.” — Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive


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Price: $24.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Homay King is Associate Professor of Art History at Bryn Mawr College.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. The Enigmatic Signifier

2. The Shanghai Gesture

3. The Chinatown Syndrome

4. The Great Wall

5. The Lost Girls



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4759-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4743-9
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