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

Film Titles in Translation: The Original Trilogy

Looking through my most recent posts, it seems that things have been a little bit serious around here. While I hope everyone has enjoyed the range of topics covered we all need a bit of light relief on occasion and this post is a return to the blog’s roots.

It has been quite a while since I first uncovered the basic trend of translators tackling titles dumbing them down or sexing them up before going on to look at sequels and series in translation as I did in the first two iterations of this series, but a sequel to the sequel was always on the cards as I just love the topic.

Rather than limiting myself to looking at movie trilogies (which would undoubtedly prove to be an unrewarding task), however, this post is a bit more of a mixed bag as I aim to get closer to unravelling the mystery of what goes through the mind of some translators. And hopefully there will be some laughs along the way.

So how about starting with some clear attempts at ‘dumbing down’ to get us back in the saddle? One great example is Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer. In France this became Wedding Singer – Demain on se marie ! [Wedding Singer – Tomorrow we’re getting married] while in Italy they went for Prima o poi me lo sposo [Sooner or later I’m marrying him], effectively giving away a huge chunk of the (albeit fairly predictable) plot turns.

Sticking with Sandler, you’d think that translating a title such as Happy Gilmore (being the name of the main character) would be a straightforward task – keeping that same name in the film would surely mean keeping the same title? And while this proved to be the case in France, in Italy (while the protagonist’s name did not change) the title became the unbearably explanatory Un tipo imprevedibile [An Unpredictable Guy].

Finally in this little section, hugely popular comedy Step Brothers also seems to have fallen prey to this method. In Italy, the title became Fratellastri a 40 anni [Step Brothers at 40] with a tagline of ‘Grown up but not yet mature’ and in France it was translated as Frangins malgré eux, literally meaning ‘Bros despite themselves’ or something like ‘Reluctant bros’ in marginally better English. In Quebec, however, where the country’s bilingual nature dictates that all films must bear a French translation even when the version in France would just take the English name (a policy usually resulting in strange titles such as Retour à Brooklyn [Return to Brooklyn] for Requiem for a Dream), they do a much better job of translating the title by keeping it simple, using Demi-frères [Step Brothers].

While the method of explicitation – or dumbing down – has been used on a regular basis to translate film titles (with or without justification), there still remain so many examples of translations which don’t seem to show any method at all. This serves to make the area so interesting and one obviously rich source is the James Bond series. In general, the titles are translated extremely closely throughout the series, but there is one period in particular that caused endless problems.

In Italy from 1985-89 the films’ titles seem to go completely crazy. You couldn’t even really hazard a guess at which films  Bersaglio mobile [Moving Target], Zona pericolo [Danger Area], Vendetta privata [Personal Vendetta] were meant to be but these three are the actual translations of A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill respectively.

While the fact that the first two of those three also suffered with their French translations, becoming Dangereusement vôtre [Dangerously Yours] and hilariously Tuer n’est pas jouer [Killing is not Playing], demonstrates the difficulty in translating these particular titles, the utterly forgettable results make you question how much thought they actually put into the translations (incidentally, in France they perhaps sensibly used the literal Permis de tuer for Licence to Kill). Meanwhile, the three most recent films in the series have all used their English title in Italy and France. Either this is an indication of the more recently developed allure of English in those countries or the translators just gave up.

Even now there are bizarre translations being produced on a regular basis. Take, for instance, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In France the titles stick very close to the English (with the exception of the fourth film On Stranger Tides which, when dumbed down in a similar way to the examples above, becomes ‘The Fountain of Youth’) but the first two Italian titles in particular are very interesting.

The first, The Curse of the Black Pearl in English, was translated as La maledizione della prima luna [The Curse of the First Moon] while the black pearl (perla nera) is used in the film so there appears to be no reason for the change – the best I can come up with is that the phrase prima luna rolls off the tongue much more easily than the awkward perla nera… Any thoughts?

Meanwhile the second film (Dead Man’s Chest) becomes La maledizione del forziere fantasma [The Curse of the Ghostly Treasure Chest] – another strange alteration to make, although thankfully the titles of the later films in the series don’t show the same insistence on being about a curse!

After all that, however, it’s worth mentioning that there are many excellent translations out there that have clearly been carefully considered in terms of their cultural validity and relevance to the film itself. One such example is the translation of Seven Pounds. The English title comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in which the central character demands the payment of a pound of flesh from those who are in debt to him, while in the film Will Smith has a debt to repay for the seven lives he took in a car accident.

In France the title becomes Sept vies [Seven lives] to avoid causing any confusing, as the French for ‘seven pounds’ is identical to ‘seven books’ (both are ‘sept livres’) and France also uses kilograms instead of pounds. Then, in the Italian version, the title was changed into Sette anime [Seven souls] which was of much more impact for the audience who may have been unfamiliar with the original reference.

Guest Post: Film Titles – A Puzzling Matter.

Having enjoyed Joseph’s articles on translating film titles (The Good, the Bad and the Inexplicable and the sequel), I accepted his ‘challenge’ to talk (well, write) about English film titles translated into Romanian: the good and the bad.

As a film lover and a linguist, I could go on and on and on and on (you get my drift) about this topic, but I’ll try to be brief (sort of).


The Good

In this category, I am going to include films whose titles have been translated literally and worked just fine (without resorting to unnecessary gimmicks and metaphors, although I have to admit I do like the French title for ‘Jaws’ – ‘Les dents de la mer’) and those whose titles have been changed for the best.

Literal translation

Some films titles that have kept the same meaning as the original and are excellent examples that sometimes a literal translation can work: ‘The Godfather’ (Nașul), ‘Jaws’ (Fălci), ‘The Sixth Sense’ (Al șaselea simț), ‘Black Swan’ (Lebăda neagră).

Slightly changed

Some translators have done a brilliant job. Speaking of brilliant, take for instance ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The Romanian translation  – ‘O minte sclipitoare’ – means ‘a brilliant mind’, which definitely conveys the idea of the film. Had the translator used ‘frumoasă’ (the exact equivalent of ‘beautiful’), it would have sounded awkward.

To Kill a Mockingbird’  – the only change was made to mockingbird, which was rendered as ‘singing bird’. The change is perfectly justified, as there is no popular term for ‘mockingbird’ in Romanian and using the scientific name was obviously not a choice. Although there is a bird called ‘gaiță’ which can mimic other birds’ sounds, this word is also used with a pejorative connotation (a person who talks a lot without saying anything meaningful). So, excellent choice.

Finding Nemo’ became ‘Looking for Nemo’ (În căutarea lui Nemo). While English is a lot more flexible in using the gerund form, somehow that does not work the same way in Romanian, as a noun would be used in constructions such as the one in the title.  And since the corresponding noun for ‘finding’ would have sounded clumsy, the translator found the perfect solution. Well done!

Some Like It Hot’ – ‘Unora le place jazz-ul’ (Some like jazz). Well, with so many different meanings of the word ‘hot’ in English, I am afraid it would have been impossible to find a perfect equivalent, so I think the title is pretty decent.

The Bad

Now comes the fun part that you’ve all been waiting for!

To be fair, there are titles that cannot be easily translated as they convey a (sometimes, ‘double’) meaning which must be looked for in the word collocation/formation or even more deeply, in the setting, history or tradition of the characters involved. Words of foreign origin – loan words – puns (especially if they are the result of ‘merging’) may be extremely tricky and require special attention. In my opinion, no title should be translated before the film has been watched to the very end and thoroughly understood. A foreigner doing a translation into their mother tongue had better check a few film reviews before making up their mind what to do with the title. The top film critics of the world have probably written a word or two about it.

There are several categories of badly translated titles. Some, the less horrifying category, may not be far from the original but still don’t have the same effect upon the viewer as the original ones would do. Others tend to keep little of the original meaning (together with its underlying impact) simply because they have not looked at it as carrying a metaphorical meaning instead of the literal one. A third group comprises those titles which are not at all translations of the original ones but adaptations or interpretations, someone’s idea regarding the ‘essence’ of the film which is not always what the director and screen writer had in mind.

Why turn ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ into ‘The prison of angels’ (Închisoarea îngerilor) when there is a proper noun followed by another quite ‘translatable’ common noun in that title?

Or why pick one of the least relevant meanings of the word ‘dark’ and decide to translate ‘The Dark Knight‘ in such a way that it comes to mean ‘The Black Knight’ (Cavalerul Negru)? Does the character seem to wear too much ‘black’ in the film or should the translator have found another word?

Déjà vu’ starring Denzel Washington was translated ‘Dincolo de trecut’ (Beyond the past). While it sounds great, it could have very well been left as ‘Déjà vu’, as this French borrowed term is used in Romanian in the same way, so there would be no confusions.

But my pet peeves are the titles whose translations contain spoilers. Why ruin it for the viewers? See below:

The UnbornMisterul Gemenilor (The mystery of the twins). Great! Thanks!

Bruce AlmightyDumnezeu pentru o zi (God for a day). Hmmm, I wonder what the film may be about?

There would be a third category – the untranslated (which can sometimes work and sometimes… not really), but I’m afraid I will bore you to death, so I’ll stop for now.

The list and comments above are, of course, subjective (some may have a different opinion), but I would say I have tried to be as objective as possible (as an experienced linguist).

There are so many things to explore when it comes to film translation, that one post is not enough. While writing this, I also delved deeper into the topic and wrote another article, Challenges in Film Translation published on our blog, which deals with issues such as slang, swear words and nicknames. Hope you enjoy both reads and comments are always welcome.


About Alina
I am a former teacher, translator and interpreter with over 8 years’ experience, now Managing Director at 
Inbox Translation, a London based translation agency. I am a language geek who likes to keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry. When I am not writing on my own blog, I am writing on other people’s. You can get in touch on Google+ and LinkedIn.


Joseph: I just want to quickly thank Alina for agreeing to be a guest writer and especially for the excellent post; if any other readers out there would like to tackle a topic from my blog from a fresh perspective or in another language pair then please do get in touch ( or leave a comment). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and it would be great to publish some similar posts in the future!