Trapped in Toyland: Effective non-translation in Toy Story

A far cry from last time’s outing, which listed some of the best online resources out there to help you get better acquainted with translation studies as a discipline, today’s post is perhaps a bit more fun.

As one of the defining films of my childhood, Toy Story has always had a special place in my heart and I wanted to look at some of the interesting tidbits that have emerged from its global success – the trials and tribulations of translating such a tale for toy lovers around the world… if you will.

While I’ve tackled the translation of film titles on several occasions in the past and regard it as an extremely interesting topic, the fact that Toy Story has retained its English title quite consistently around the globe seems to suggest that this line of enquiry is one of little merit.

There is the obligatory French translation (Histoire de Jouets) in Quebec, and in Italian the subtitles added to each film seem to follow the formula of dumbing down titles in translation that I discussed in my other posts on the topic (the first becomes Toy Story – Il mondo dei giocattoli [The world of toys], the second adds Woody e Buzz alla riscossa [Woody and Buzz to the rescue] and the third adds La Grande Fuga [The great escape]), but there is little else of note. However, it is precisely this non-translation that counter-intuitively offers some interesting insights that I will look at in more detail later in the post.

Of course, there’s the usual mix of tricky translations to deal with within the film’s narrative. The riddle of Al’s Toy Barn in the second film is one great example that sees the toys struggling with the meaning of the car licence plate LZTYBRN (Al’s Toy Barn with the vowels removed). In French, the translators completely ignored the significance of the licence plate, having selected a fairly literal translation of the shop’s name (La Ferme aux Jouets d’Al) that was impossible to link to the letters available. I’d certainly be interested to know if there are any more creative versions in other languages that manage to incorporate the licence plate.

Furthermore, one interesting point is that the film’s iconic theme tune – Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend in me’ – is actually translated into French (Je suis ton ami – below) and Spanish (Hay un amigo en mi). While the Spanish version is used in conjunction with the ‘Spanish Buzz’ gag in the third film and adopts a flamenco-based orchestration, the French version is something of an oddity as the song’s lyrics have just been translated and played over the existing music, something that is quite rare. Indeed, the entire French soundtrack received this same treatment in a move that is perhaps due to the slightly more Anglo-skeptic nature of French audiences (something to be discussed below) or is perhaps just a challenge that the movie’s producers set themselves…. Either way, it is well worth a listen for the clever transposition of the lyrics.

However, the most interesting insights come from outside of the main storyline and the title of the second film in Italian mentioned above hints at this point of interest – the clue lies in the fact that Woody and Buzz remain untranslated. While Woody’s name, coming from the African-American Western actor Woody Strode, could easily be translated to reflect a similar cultural reference, Woody, Buzz and several of the more minor characters’ names are consistently left unchanged or, if altered, are translated simply to reflect to real-life toy that they depict (e.g. M. Patate / Señor Patata – Mr. Potato Head). This retention of the same names is particularly true of cultures that are more accepting of English – such as Italian, where all of the characters’ names remain untranslated – and it is a clear indication of the powerful marketing strategies operating on a wider scale.

In the case of France, meanwhile, where there is more pride associated with the native language and a less favourable opinion towards Anglicisms, there has been more of an effort to rebrand the names (Buzz Lightyear becomes Buzz l’Eclair, for example, and Wheezy is renamed Siffli in an attempt to match the pun – an opportunity that is not taken in Italian or Spanish) but ultimately the importance afforded to the core marketing terms (Woody, Buzz, Toy Story etc.) overrides this cultural trait.

Furthermore, the names that are translated in French are themselves equally concerned with positive marketing as they are always well thought-out, catchy and in-keeping with general naming trends among toys: Slinky becomes Zigzag, Stinky Pete becomes Papi Pépite [Grandpa Nugget – using the mining reference], Bullseye becomes Pile-Poil [spot-on, exactly] and Hamm becomes Bayonne (a famous ham-making region in France).

The memorable nature of these names and the repeated use of rhyme and alliteration mark these out as something beyond the ordinary translation. Indeed, the translation of names in France was not only a tool to provide a small touch of humour to viewers but also a means of marketing the toys to the general public, a clever opportunity that was perhaps slightly ignored by the Italian translators (although the merchandise still undoubtedly sold well in Italy under the English branding). Ultimately, it’s not surprising that all of the toys were successfully marketed in France (anyone want a Pile-Poil doll?).

So what can Toy Story tell us about translation? Above all, both the translation and non-translation of various elements within and surrounding the films demonstrate that the power of global marketing consistency can be more influential than linguistic considerations when mediating between cultures, particularly when the source language enjoys the kind of global hegemony that English does. Toy Story is quite unique in its marketing potential (how many children could resist the lure of wanting a Woody or Buzz of their own after watching the film?) but this is a choice that is reflected in many translations these days, where a brand must choose between comprehension and consistency in their branding.

In this particular case, even the decision to leave the title as untouched as possible is a strategic one (rather than being the result of laziness). The film’s logo and distinctive colour scheme are now instantly recognisable and this greater consistency has ensured unrivalled brand value on a global scale rather than fragmenting international markets.

Ultimately, aside from the lovable characters, enjoyable storylines and clever marketing, it seems that the strategic translation choices (or the lack of translation all together) made along the way have been one of the key factors in the series’ continuing success that saw the first film alone make $361 million worldwide.

To infinity and beyond / Vers l’infini et au-delà / Verso l’infinito…e oltre! / Hasta el infinito… ¡y más allá!

– Buzz Lightyear


8 responses to “Trapped in Toyland: Effective non-translation in Toy Story”

  1. I think I should be ashamed to admit I haven’t watched ‘Toy Story’. Sure, it’s well known, even I could recognise the logo and colours and even some characters, but I haven’t watched it. I really can’t remember hearing of it until recently (in the last few years) – probably the first Toy Story was not very popular in Romania, the second one was released when in my late teens (still, I don’t remember this film as being popular, or maybe I had other interests) and the reason I know about it is probably because the third one has been hugely popular in the UK – I remember seeing the ad on lots of buses for example.

    Phew! What a long introduction. Now, going back to it, I had a look at the title in Romanian and it was translated ‘Povestea jucăriilor’ (followed by ‘2’ and ‘3’ respectively). As for characters, I tried to do a bit of research, but the info is pretty confusing. I guess I’d have to watch it to see it.

    ‘Eu sunt amicul tău’ (I am your pal) is the translation of the song title.

    Loved your post, as usual. Like you, I am very interested in this area of translation and now you’ve sparked my curiosity. I’ll let you know about the Romanian translation (shortly I hope).

  2. Since most of the names of the characters seem to reflect a certain trait, they should be translated. A bit of creativity and imagination goes a long way. Oooh, now I’m really excited to see what was translated, what wasn’t, what the Romanian translation was and how I would have translated it. New post idea, thanks!!

    1. Hi Alina, glad you like the post! Thanks for the comment and your dedicated research! It’s interesting that the title was translated in Romanian – maybe that was part of the reason that it wasn’t quite so successful over there 😛 Who knows…
      I’d be interested to see what the characters were called in the Romanian version too, like you say there’s great scope for creative translations there! The way the Harry Potter characters’ names were translated is a great example of what’s possible in this kind of situation.
      If you get a chance to watch the second one in Romanian, look out for the LZTYBRN riddle about 20 minutes in, I was really hoping that the French translation would’ve found some creative way to explain it but was sorely disappointed! 🙂

      1. I can’t wait to get started on this (*rubs hands excitedly*) As for the LZTYBRN riddle, I think it would be nearly impossible to replicate in other languages. As I don’t know the whole story, I can’t say anything yet. But assuming Al’s Toy Barn had been translated in the first film, it would have been kept in the second, hence the difficulty to come up with an alternative. However, if Al’s Toy Barn only appeared in Toy Story 2, then maybe there would be a solution. Although the letter ‘Y’ only appears in Romanian in foreign words (e.g. yoga), so it might not be easy. I’ll have a look and see.

  3. Another thing I wanted to mention, but I forgot: I think the best way deal with translating titles, characters and anything creative is to work in a team (or at least a pair) – you know what they say: ‘Two heads are better than one’. Add ‘The more, the merrier’ to the equation and you’ve got a pretty good formula I’d say. Of course, a lot of brainstorming and research are required as well.

    1. Definitely, couldn’t agree more. With a series of this magnitude, I’d imagine that there were teams of translators slaving away – although sometimes you do get the feeling that it could have been just forgotten all together….

  4. Interesting discussion Joseph! I often think Disney work with some incredibly creative translators – the French translations of the songs in the Lion King are just inspired. I agree with Alina too, teamwork seems the best way to approach any creative work like this. (Also, I’m now going to have You’ve got a friend in me stuck in my head all weekend, it’s a great earworm, that one!)

    1. It certainly is! I love the French lyrics too. Thanks for your comment Carol, I wonder if their previous work on projects like the Lion King convinced Disney to give translating the Toy Story tracks a go? The songs are much less integral to the movie so they could’ve certainly got away with leaving them unchanged.

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