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  • Writer's pictureAmruta

A tagline by any other name? The Barbie case study

"Elle peut tout faire. Lui, c'est juste Ken." "She's everything. He's just Ken." By now we can all agree that the Barbie movie was great but that some of its massive success can be attributed to the marketing blitzkrieg that preceded its release - by the end of summer, I couldn't look anywhere without seeing pink! When the campaign was launched, my Australian sister-in-law sent me this French poster with an accompanying tweet that said something along the lines of "interesting choice of words." [It's still not clear whether this is an official poster made by the French marketing team or simply a clever attempt by social media that was then retweeted by Warner Bros.] It was too hard to explain to her at the time that this translation was, in my opinion, a stroke of creative genius. After watching the movie, though, I realized just how clever it was. French speakers will chuckle and recognize the play on words here. "C'est juste Ken" in slang means "he can only f***." and not just "he's only Ken," as in the English. But the gag is not funny just because of the vulgar double entendre but because of how the first half has been translated. In French, "She is everything" has been changed to "She can do anything." It's a slight shift, but the impact is significant, because the passive construction of "she is.../he is..." in the English has been shifted in the French to "she can do.../he can only..." The sentiment of "men can do anything, while women are only good for one thing" finds its way into many an old saying in French society as well as around the world. By choosing to translate this tagline as a reversal of this crass statement, the words used mirror the reversal of roles that Ken and Barbie experience in the movie when going between Barbieland and the real world. It is only when Ken tries to replicate the gender norms of patriarchy in Barbieland that they both realize how much they have been reduced to what they can DO and the roles they must PERFORM rather than who they ARE as people. Anglo-Saxon speakers may find this translation vulgar, but there is so much more to it. Here's a version of the tagline that shocks the audience into laughter and brings home the casual sexism of it all, just like the movie. Now that's a masterstroke of cultural adaptation and localization in my books, at least!

Translation tacks is a series in which I break down all things translation.


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