N°2 | A Very Bad Santa: Adaptation as Cultural and Linguistic Dissolution in the Translations of Le Père Noël est une ordure

Corinne Oster

Abstract :

The contemporary Western world has been the site of intensive and inegalitarian exchanges between languages and cultures, that translation has been fundamental in shaping. Remakes may be considered as specific types of translation marked by both cultural and linguistic interpretation of previously released or published works, while subtitled versions of films offer a closer “translation”of the original into target cultures and languages. Yet many of these attempts at transferring culture have failed, as demonstrated by one of the most significant failures: the remake and the audiovisual adaptation of well-known French play and filmLe Père Noël est une ordurefor the American and British markets. Analyzing specific features in each of the currently existing versions of the text makes it possible to look at questions of cultural adaptation and linguistic equivalence.

Résumé :

Le monde contemporain est un site d’échanges tout aussi intensifs qu’inégalitaires entre langues et cultures, que la traduction a fondamentalement contribué à façonner. Les remakes peuvent être considérés comme un cas de traduction spécifique, marqué par l’interprétation culturelle et linguistique de films originaux. Les films sous-titrés quant à eux offrent une traduction plus “proche” d’un original dans la langue-culture cible. Pourtant, force est de constater que nombre de tentatives de transférer la culture échouent, comme l’illustre un de ces échecs les plus patents : le remake et l’adaptation audiovisuelle du film (et pièce de café-théâtre) célèbre Le Père Noël est une ordure, pour les marchés américain et britannique. L’analyse de quelques dispositifs spécifiques dans chacune des versions existant actuellement de ce texte permet d’examiner certaines questions d’adaptation culturelle et d’équivalence linguistique.


        An often-repeated assumption is that the increasing globalization of the Western world has made it easier to adapt cultural products from a source culture to a target culture, and that Western cultures are currently going through a form of universalization which, due to the diversity of languages, partly takes place through translation.

        To be specific, the Western world has been the site of intensive—and inegalitarian—exchanges between languages and cultures, and translation has been fundamental in shaping these linguistic and cultural exchanges, while translation studies, for their part, have been a crucial tool for analyzing and understanding them. Lawrence Venuti has stated that (successful) translations throw bridges between cultures and create new communities that can gather around the translated text (477). Failed translations, however, can be very instructive in identifying the mechanisms at work in this type of transfer. Failed translations and/or adaptations do exist, and they are bound to happen when two cultures fail to communicate properly.

        In 2011 in France, one out of six published books—and one out of three novels—was a translation (Pelletier), and on the French film market, American films ususally perform better than French ones in cinemas (CNC).[i]This apparent homogeneization of culture, however, does not go both ways. On the American market, “[f]oreign-language films [currently] represent less than 1% of the domestic box office [“at a time when Hollywood movies account for 63 percent of the global box office”]” (Rickey; see also Miller). This blatantly inegalitarian transfer naturally raises the question of the hegemony of English (and mostly American English) as the great equalizer of Western popular and literary culture (there is a similar trend with the general linguistic transfer between English and other languages).[ii]

        It is crucial, then, to understand that many French cultural products, seemingly produced in similar cultures, may not be as transparent as their American counterparts seem to be for French people. The case of American remakes of French films is quite revealing in this respect. These adaptations (which can be identified as a form of translation) are what translation theorists would call target-oriented equivalents of French films (resembling in great part what George Mounin described in his study of the 18th century’s “Belles Infidèles”), transposed into the American target language and culture. And, more often than not, these adaptations have merely been pale reproductions of the originals—in part because they are often conceived as short-term consumer products with a limited distribution lifespan.

        There are, however, more fundamental reasons for a failed translation or adaptation, which will be illustrated here through a particular case of cultural transfer: the two existing “translations” of a staple of French comedy: Le Père Noël est une ordure, a work that became famous first as a play in 1978, then as a movie in 1982. The movie and the filmed theater performance still air on French television every year during the holiday season, and although a subtitled version of the film exists, it has never been released in the US or in other English-speaking countries through domestic distribution networks.[iii] A US remake of the film, Mixed Nuts was released in 1994, transposing the diegesis of the original movie into a target American culture (Los Angeles, CA) and experiencing a thorough failure.

        We should keep in mind that the main types of film transfer (remake, dubbing and subtitling) pose distinct problems: on the one hand, remakes deal with the global, semiotic adaptation of an original “text-image” while dubbing and subtitling retain most of the original text-product, and attempt to translate its language within the constraints inherent to dubbing (lip syncing) or subtitling (a short, written text embedded within a moving image).

        This article will first study the translation/adaptation of culture in the remake of Le Père Noël est une ordure, focusing on the reasons for its very existence and analyzing the translation/transfer of humour and of cultural and social class markers—which are crucial in each of the film versions. I will attempt to analyse the reasons for the failure of the adaptation and discuss the concept of “translatability” of such a cultural product. The article will then look, from a micro-structural perspective, at some of the translation strategies present in the subtitles of the French DVD release for international viewers in order to assess the translation of these markers on the textual level. The conclusion will open on the role of English as a hegemonic language when translated texts come from a language and culture with a less central position.

        Translation studies, more specifically what has been termed the “cultural turn in translation studies” (which started with Susan Bassnett and Andre Lefevere at the beginning of the 1990s) insist on the role of culture in the translation process and advocate a cultural, social and political reading of the circulation of translations across the world. These tools have been instrumental in explaining how rewritings, whatever their form, are often manipulated to achieve various goals, whether economic or ideological.

        Remakes, or film adaptations, are a specific type of translation in the field of translation studies, which have traditionally worked within a dichotomy based on two general strategies: source-oriented, and target-oriented translation. This dichotomy was already present in the writings of Cicero or Saint Augustine, who discussed the difference between translating “a word for a word” and “an idea for an idea.” “Word for word” strategies insist on preserving the (often sacred) character and form of the source text in order not to taint it—often at the expense of readability and accessibility by the target reader—while the translation of “an idea for an idea” consists in prioritizing meaning over form, adapting it for the target readership in various degrees. Although it could be tempting to associate subtitling with source-oriented translation strategies and remakes with target-oriented strategies, this opposition remains somewhat theoretical. In the field of written translation, most published translations are target-oriented. But it also allows us to consider a particular policy regarding the importance of the source text: the process of preserving the foreign nature of a text for a target readership or audience (what Venuti terms “foreignization”) is considered by theorists such as Lawrence Venuti, Walter Benjamin, Antoine Berman, or Friedrich Schleiermacher as a fundamental strategy as the preservation of a source culture/language in the target culture/language also allows the latter to evolve and develop through supplementing the existing language/culture with the new one.

        Remakes, or adaptations (the word is also used in the field of translation), can be considered as a type of target-oriented translation because they conform to strategies of domestication of the original into the target culture. Just like Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt’s Belles Infidèles, they are loosely inspired by original (audiovisual) works and transformed in order to fit within a different target market and culture. Remakes are not just a matter of linguistic transfer, in which case we could just have a dubbed or subtitled film. They are full cultural transfers in which characters and situations are transposed into a whole new environment (usually the United States), erasing the original location and culture.

        These new cultural objects are not new in the history of translation. Early translators adapted Greek tragedies into Latin, but also into their home culture to make them fit into their environment. In the 17th and 18th century, French writers/translators adapted the works of ancient authors from Rome or Athens and made them “fit” for French audiences, i.e. conform to French taste and mores. During the fascist regimes of the 20th century, the predominant translation strategy consisted of adapting foreign works into the target culture, relocating them into their country and cities. In France, some genres, such as children’s literature, have also been notoriously domesticated and have often transposed their plots and settings into local cultures.[iv] However, this over-adaptative translation trend has slowly lost ground: translators now tend to keep elements of the source culture in their translations, and many rewritings (logically, according to Antoine Berman, as the target text or author becomes better known in the target culture after a first translation) tend to grant greater importance to the original. What is now an obsolete kind of transfer for most literature does not hold for cinema, however, as remakes, whether synchronic or diachronic, have been a staple of Hollywood business since its birth at the end of the 19th century, and are still marked by the cultural, linguistic and semiotic re-interpretation of previously released works.

In his book, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, André Lefevere reminds us that every act of translation takes place within the constraints of ideology:

Translation is, of course, a rewriting of an original text. All rewritings, whatever their intention, reflect a certain ideology and a poetics and as such manipulate literature to function in a given society in a given way. Rewriting is manipulation, undertaken in the service of power, and in its positive aspect can help in the evolution of a literature and a society. (vii)

        Even though Lefevere and Bassnett’s statement concerns literature, it can apply to cultural products such as films, and certainly to the rewriting of Le Père Noël est une ordure, whose ideological content, beneath the entertainment, can be clearly identified. The plot is just a pretext for comedy: Le Père Noël… takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline invaded by shady characters. Set in the early 1980s, it is transgressive on many levels. The protagonists are anti-heroes with whom the audience can hardly identify (a homeless drunk who beats his illiterate, pregnant girlfriend; two stuck-up, condescending Catholic volunteers who belittle the very people they are supposed to help; a depressed and duplicitous transvestite, a Yugoslav immigrant who keeps bringing his neighbors disgusting local food specialties…), yet it is also a scathing, politically incorrect criticism of the goody goody moral rigidity of well-meaning French Catholic society. Stuck somewhere between the progressive, post-1968 opening of popular culture and the conservative, traditional French society of the time, it is deeply anchored in French late 1970s culture and has thus become a fixture of both French comedy and “café-théâtre,” a popular form of entertainment that was highly successful with mainstream audiences (many “café-théâtre” performances were also filmed for television).

        In 1994, Hollywood produced a remake of the film ,which was released twice within a year, first under the title of Lifesavers, then Mixed Nuts. Both releases did not succeed in attracting audiences in spite of a prestigious cast that featured many great names of American comedy (Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner, Juliette Lewis…). The film, rated PG13, was a commercial failure under both released titles and went straight to video everywhere.

        The first official subtitling of the original film was released with the DVD produced by French group Studio Canal in 2005, 23 years after the film’s first release. There is no dubbed version of it, partly because English-speaking audiences are reluctant to watch dubbed films, and in part because the attractivity of the film abroad was considered as very limited for budgetting a dubbed version. The subtitled video is available in English only and the subtitles were made by a native French translator, which is unusual since translators mainly translate into their native languages. It is only available on the European market—mostly in England—, and to my knowledge, there is no plan to release it on the American market.[v]

        Obviously, both of these attempts at circulating the film outside France through adaptation or translation have failed. Let us examine the transformations made by Hollywood (remake) and by the French translator (subtitling).

The Film Remake

        In Encore Hollywood, Lucy Mazdon reminds us that “The act of remaking the films and the various ways in which they are received should be seen as related components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2). I shall therefore attempt to determine the nature of this cultural transfer (if there is indeed such a thing), and what within the source text (Le Père Noël…) determines cultural interaction and transfer into the target text (Mixed Nuts).

        Just like in Le Père Noël…, Mixed Nuts takes place on Christmas Eve in the offices of a friendship hotline that is invaded by unlikely and uninvited characters. The plot of the two movies is almost identical. Most of the dialogues, jokes and situations have been preserved, even if we can note a few omissions (a famous scene in which Zézette, the illiterate pregnant woman, attempts to fill in a social security form has, for example, disappeared from the US adaptation).

        Following a domesticating agenda, the location of the film has been transferred to California, and the American characters, although inspired by the French originals, have undergone significant modifications, especially concerning social class. Zézette, now Gracie (Juliette Lewis), no longer lives in a caravan by the highway with her violent, alcoholic and criminal partner, but runs a used clothing store by the seafront with her boyfriend Felix, a painter who tries to make it in the art world. Poor Yugoslav immigrant Preskovich has been replaced with a student in creative writing (Adam Sandler), whose recurring joke consists in playing the ukulele in just any situation. An evil landlord has been added to the cast, as well as a mysterious “seaside strangler.” The other characters of the original film/play, all dumb, narrow-minded and mean-spirited, have been replaced with imperfect yet good-hearted heroes a (young) American audience can identify with, and on whom the inevitable love stories and happy ending will focus.

        As a result, the provocation and dark humor of the original film have mostly been erased, both lexically (there are no more obscenities) and culturally. The reference to “café-théâtre,” implicit in the filmed version of the play, has also disappeared since most American audiences cannot identify this very French aspect of French culture. Because of the PG-13 rating (targeting families and thus ensuring the highest possible number of tickets), nothing has been left of the original political incorrectness—a notion that is undeniably imbedded in US culture (let’s just mention films such as Sixteen Candles and many teen movies of the 1980s, the films by the Farrelly Brothers, including There’s Something about Mary, released in 1998, just a few years later), as well as cartoons such as South Park, The Simpsons, Daria, or Family Guy. The humour in Mixed Nuts targets the widest possible audience and is supposed to comfort viewers rather than upset them. The representation of social class works to that end: because Hollywood did not want to make gratuitous fun of illiterate homeless people and immigrants, the precarious US population has a future: as artists, writers, wives and mothers. Following the same logic, their death has been ruled out. At the end of the original French play, a gas explosion kills all the characters and annihilates any attempt at a cathartic resolution, one way or another. The end of the French film, although it does not go as far, shows the characters feeding the dead body of a random and innocent elevator serviceman to the animals at a zoo. The end of Mixed Nuts settles all of the uncertainties the plot has created: a final nativity scene shows the birth of Gracie’s child among general bliss, and the seaside murder mystery is resolved, absolving in the process the seemingly gratuitous killing of the random character—who happens to be the serial killer (a resolution which works quite smoothly in a country that endorses the death penalty). What takes place is thus what has been called “normalization” by translation theorists—a frequent phenomenon in translation (if not so obvious), which here has been pushed to its extreme limits, reminding us of Baudrillard’s simulacrum (a copy without an original). What has been created with Mixed Nuts is a product made to fit cultural norms and enact traditional Hollywood propaganda about the pursuit of happiness—a complete misinterpretation of the original film which can be remembered, consciously or not, as an acerbic criticism of fake good sentiments.

        In Le Père Noël…, the plot is also a pretext for the dialogues, refined throughout the multiple performances of the play, both in terms of text and acting. These dialogues have a heavy cultural charge which is lost when adapted into English. The thick texture of the text, its “essence” (as Benjamin might say), or its “poetics” (Meschonnic) have been erased in the process of adaptation and translation.

        Finally, the success of Le Père Noël in the original French is based on the principle of repetition (repetition of the film throughout the years, repetition of the dialogues among fans), which have fostered the creation of a common culture around the film/play. Lucy Mazdon, talking about Austin Powers and James Bond, notes the tendency of contemporary cinema to include intertextual references as a source of audience satisfaction: “The bricolage of post-modernism has become a feature of many recent [Hollywood] films. Indeed, the ability to recognize ‘quotations’ and references has become an important feature of contemporary viewing practices and a rich source of audience pleasure” (qtd. in Durham 8). This repetition as a pleasure principle also applies to the multiple viewings of the French movie, which both strengthen its comedy value and the feeling of belonging to a community.

        It seems that what Lucy Mazdon identifies in remakes as “components of a wider process of cross-cultural interaction and exchange” (1-2) does not apply to Mixed Nuts: the exchange is very limited as there is no remaining trace of any of the multiple layers of French culture in the target product, an “ugly infidel” that seems to be a good illustration of the failure of the here omnipresent domesticating process of translation, and a confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s theory according to which meaning is not what is essential in translation. What we have here, rather, as he wrote in 1923, is “the inaccurate transmission of an inessential content” (16).



        Is the subtitling of Le Père Noël a more “faithful” translation of the original film? When compared to a remake, the strategy of translating a film with subtitles is closer to Venuti’s “foreignizing” strategy since it aims at preserving the film within its cultural and linguistic context while providing limited access to its meaning: subtitles are usually short, viewers still have direct access to the original language and setting, and they are made to watch and listen to unfamiliar images and words while reading the subtitles.

        Subtitles are complex devices that have a specific status in translation and are subject to specific restrictions: in terms of length, speed, coherence with the audio and video text. They also have to take extra-linguistic elements into account (setting, sound, light, movement—camera and characters…). With these constraints in mind, which can also be used as tools to help translators through strategies of compensation, subtitles should still take into account the stylistic aspects of the text as much as the meaning it conveys. The text of Le Père Noël, as mentioned earlier, has a specific status in that its script has been carefully crafted and partly conditioned by audience reception through the multiple performances of the play. It could also be argued that it is an illustration of the French tradition of quality dialogues represented, for example, by the texts of scriptwriter Michel Audiard whose lines are also part of French popular culture heritage. It is noteworthy that the text of the play was finally published by Actes Sud in 2000. It would thus seem essential for the translator to account for this, even though the format of subtitles renders the task particularly arduous.

This analysis will be based on the official series of subtitles,[vi] sorted into different categories: (1) Cultural references, (2) Slang, (3) Accent and “broken French”, (4) Wordplay, (5) Compensations.


Cultural References

        Paul Bensimon says that cultural elements tend to resist the translation process (10), which seems to be proven by the remake of Le Père Noël… As for subtitles, Teresa Tomaszkiewicz lists a number of strategies to translate cultural references in film dialogue and turn them into subtitles (these categories can overlap in some cases; qtd. in Pettit 45).

  • (1) Omission, whereby the cultural reference is omitted altogether.
  • (2) Literal Translation, where the solution in the target text matches the original as closely as possible.
  • (3) Borrowing, where original terms from the source text are used in the target text.
  • (4) Equivalence, where translation has a similar meaning and function in the target culture.
  • (5) Adaptation, where the translation is adjusted to the target language and culture in an attempt to evoke similar connotations to the original. Strictly speaking this can be considered a form of equivalence.
  • (6) Replacement of the cultural term with deictics, particularly when supported by an on-screen gesture or a visual clue. (This category is the only one that is different from the traditional translation categories used in general translation)
  •  (7) Generalisation, which might also be referred to as neutralisation of the original.
  • (8) Explication, which usually involves a paraphrase to explain the cultural term.

        As the chart below shows, subtitles for cultural references tend to be generalized / neutralized: bar tabac, bûche, Fleury-Mérogis have all been replaced with their hyperonyms: party, dessert, jail. One reference is missing: les lépreux de Jakarta have simply become lepers, and Kissinger is used as an equivalent for Albert Simon, an old weather forecaster unknown outside of France, whereas the translator borrows the name of the restaurant, Castel, supposed to remind viewers of high-class French food culture. Naturally, all of these strategies also work within the length requirement for subtitles. The effect of the subtitles, whose “poetics” disappear in translation (partly compensated, though, by the existence of a visual invariant), is merely the translation of meaning while erasing most of the cultural elements in the process.

Cultural references:

Et un bar-tabac qui ferait réveillon en bas de chez vous? Couldn’t you go to a party or something ?
Et en plus je n’aime pas la bûche. I hate dessert anyway.
Oui, c’est le Noël de Fleury-Mérogis. Yes. To people in jail.
J’ai presque fini les gants pour les petits lépreux de Jakarta I’m almost done with the gloves for the lepers.
Moi-même j’ai fait la connaissance d’Albert Simon. Take Kissinger
J’ai rendez-vous pour le réveillon chez Castel. I have a table waiting at Castel’s 


Slang, Sociolects and Broken Language

        A notorious feature of the original film is the language used by the characters. Pierre, Thérèse, Mme Musquin and Katia speak proper, sometimes very conservative, French, while the language register of Félix and Josette is supposed to mimic that of the lower classes. In addition, the characters sometimes use broken French which is used to create comedy through unwanted puns and plays on words.

In her analysis of slang in the American film derived from the South Park series, Maria Jesus Fernandez insists that it is crucial to preserve the equivalence of meaning between languages when translating insults and slang:

 The attraction of South Park lies in its political incorrectness taken to the highest level. However irritating some viewers may find the film’s reliance upon taboo language, it is essential that the translation of swearing be effective in order to retain the integrity of the film. If the translation is too literal or ineffectual, particularly if it tones down or masks the original text, the result will sound artificially distanced and the comic impact lost. (214)

        This is perfectly valid for dubbing. However, we know that hearing slang shocks less than reading it, and subtitles have to take this element into account so as not to hurt the reader’s sensitivity. Authors of subtitles therefore tend to normalize slang and familiar language when they write. Even if compensation strategies may be used, loss is unavoidable.

        At first sight, it seems, however, that usual neutralisation strategies have not been enforced. Slang and profanity are often preserved, and have been used systematically to replace every occurrence of familiar language. One hypothesis to explain this choice is that the author of the subtitles Memni, a French translator, is aware of the importance of preserving this aspect and decided that profanity should be preserved. However, another explanation is that native French speakers often underestimate the need for toning down (written) slang when translating it into a target language which is not their own.

        That being said, we can see that lexicalized collocations (sac à vin, tête d’hareng, tête de veau, pauvre type…) have been replaced with more vulgar equivalents that do not belong to the original language register. This is what we could call “adaptation-amplification” of the original text (as far as language register is concerned). Fabrice Antoine argues that such adaptations are legitimate when lexicalized phrases have aged and are “cumbersome” because they no longer correspond to what the reader/audience would understand today (15), even though, the awkward, dated quality of these expressions is what the French audience appreciates. But the “adaptation-amplification” also comes with a less rich vocabulary (as these amplifications are also normalisations and lexical neutralisations), and while the original dialogue can compensate in part for this loss, a non-French speaker will have a hard time making the difference between familiar language and slang as it is used in the subtitles. The following examples show unusually vulgar English language translations for French slang, as well as “literal” equivalents for vulgar phrases and expressions.


La connasse de SOS ? That cunt from SOS ?
Tête d’hareng ! Fuck off, you scumbag !
Sac à vin ! You sonovabitch !
Casse-toi tu pues ! Go away you asshole !
M’approche plus, tête de nœud ! Get back, you prick !
Tête de veau ! Fuckface !
Je t’encule, Thérèse ! Je te prends, je te retourne contre le mur… Well, Therese, fuck your ass, fuck your cunt…
Je t’encule Josette, tu me baises et je te retourne, je te rebaise et tu me suces, tu m’entends, Josette ? Fuck you Josette !
Mais avec quoi tête de nœud ? Fous moi la paix, four à merde ! Screw you, fuck you, you cocksucker !
Encule-toi tout seul, espèce de malpoli ! Go fuck your own shitty asshole, motherfucker !
SOS mon cul, vieille ???! Je te pète la roulette, peau de couille I’ll burst your asshole cuntface !
Vous en étiez à « peau de couille ». Que se passe-t-il ensuite ? You stopped at ‘cuntface,’ I believe. What comes after that ?
Qu’est-ce qu’elle me dit la mongolienne ? What did that freak say ?
Tu vas voir ce que j’en fais de ta feuille pauv’ conne, va ! See that form, you bitch ?
Je vous conchie ! I piss on you !
Ta gueule Miss Monde ! Tu bouges pas, tu restes là. Stay put, Miss Universe !
Pierre, ils ont aussi buté le travelot! Hey, they bumped off the queen too !


Accents and Broken English (Preskovich / Zézette)

        Preskovich, the Yugoslav immigrant, and Zezette, the illiterate homeless young woman, both speak in broken French, lexically and syntactically. Preskovich’s lines are all characterized by missing determiners (j’ai pris  travail de nuit, c’est  petite douceur) or truncated sentences (je suis monté pour me joindre ), supposedly syntaxic calques for the structure of slavic languages. Subtitles have neutralized all of this wording and turned his speech into grammatically correct sentences, strategically counting on the audible accent of the character on screen to convey other forms of displacement.

        Josette’s (and Félix’s) speech is mostly characterised by improprieties, often made up by the authors with wordplay (ton tricot de porc / ton tricot de corps, il m’écrase la pomme des dents / la pomme d’Adam). But there are also barbarisms and lexical creations, or vocabulary used out of context (kiki). The subtitles use two general strategies to deal with this: neutralization (kiki becomes dick—a neutralization-amplification) and adaptation (Adumb’s apple / D-shirt), cleverly playing on what Rudy Loock has termed “visual dialect,” i.e. misspelling a word otherwise pronounced normally and using the written misspelling to convey the implied meaning.

 Accent & broken language:

1/ Preskovitch :

J’ai pris travail de nuit. I work on the turnpike at night.
C’est petite douceur. It’s so sweet
Non mais c’est vacances aujourd’hui. Je vous ai apporté “doubitchous”. Not at all, I’m off tonight. I’ve brought you some “dubbiccu”
J’ai entendu des pétards, je suis monté pour me joindre. I heard firecrackers. I came for the party.
Je suis passé vous chanter un assortiment. Ca peut vous délecter. I thought I’d sing some folksongs… You’d love them.
Je vous présente toutes mes confuses. Please ex… confuse me.
Non, c’est « kloug ». No, it’s « klug ».


2/ Zézette / Félix* :

Y’avait ton slip et ton tricot de porc, qu’était à bouillir. Your underpants and your D-shirt, you dumb ass!
Il m’écrase la pomme des dents! You’re squeezing my Adumb’s apple.
J’ai les jambes en coton-tige. My legs feel like Q-tips.
Thérèse c’est ma bienfaiseuse. Therese is my benefactoress.
Jprends mes clipes et mes clopes et jme tire d’ici. J’en ai ras l’bol de c’gourbish. I’m splitting. I’m through with this rabbit shithouse.
C’est pas moi qui m’dispute, c’est lui. He started it.
*Ca m’a sanctionné le tendon. It cut a tendon.
*J’ai même essayé d’intenter à mes jours. I even tried to kill myself.
Tu crois qu’il a un gros bazar? Think he’s got a big one ?
Un gros kiki! Parce que Félix il a un très gros kiki. A big dick! Felix has an enormous dick.
Faut vider le déchargeur! Better empty the magazine !
Eh ben tant pire! Tough shit!




        Because of the nature of linguistic equivalence, translating wordplay within the framework of subtitles can be perceived as an additional constraint. Yet, Henrik Gottlieb suggests that it is not, because non-verbal elements can contribute to the solution.[vii] Translating this type of humour is thus not more difficult in audiovisual texts than in regular texts. Yet it is not always easy to do so.

        Below is a short list of “proverbs” (real or invented) and plays on words found in Le Père Noël… The intended effect is usually comedy, and the subtitler has opted for various strategies, which, however, often tend to neutralize the original. A few strategies of compensation can be identified here and there: Black clouds always have a silver lining (a confusion between Every cloud has its silver lining and Black sheep?) In Chaque pot a son couvercle, and with avec brio (with gusto) the translator opted for an (almost) literal translation that respects the intended effect as in the first case, the transformation from a dead metaphor to its literal meaning is what conveys the absurdity and the humour of the phrase, and as the play on words can be preserved in the second one.

        Other lexical creations have been normalized when literal translation was really impossible. The rhyme of Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir, for example, has disappeared and only the meaning of the sentence (lateness means deception) remains, dropping the comic function of the sentence. In other cases, the loss is more problematic because most of the lexical creations serve as markers of social class. Most of these examples come from the characters of Therese, the stuck-up Catholic bourgeois woman, and from Zezette, her “evil double.”


1/ Proverbs (real or invented):

Homme en retard, liaison dans le tiroir. With them, lateness means deception.
Vous êtes dans une mauvaise passe, mais le bout du tunnel n’est peut-être pas si loin. Black clouds always have a silver lining.
Jeu de mains, jeu de vilains. You hooligan…
Chaque pot a son couvercle. Every jar has its lid.
Il y a un temps pour prendre ses aises, et un temps pour prendre sur soi. Now you have to face up to your responsibilities.



2/ “Creations”:

Ben oui on vous demande de répondre par oui ou par non, alors ça dépend, ça dépasse. You have to answer “yes” or “no”. “Depends” is too long.
Éboueux ça vous va ? Eh dites donc, pourquoi pas ramasser les poubelles tant que vous y êtes ? Garbage collector ? You’re crazy or what ? He hates collections.
Vous avez qu’à mettre burelier. How about « officiant » ?
Celui qui travaille dans les bureaux. Officiant! Working in offices!
Ah oui, vous voulez dire buraliste ? You mean clerk ?
Mais non, buraliste, ça bosse dans un tabac Come on, clerks work in churches!
Franchement, vous m’avez décrit cette soirée avec brio. Avec qui ? Non, avec personne, avec brio, c’est une expression qu’on emploie. Frankly, you depicted the scene with gusto. With whom? Nobody… Gusto! A figure of speech
Je ne vous jette pas la pierre, Pierre, mais j’étais à deux doigts de m’agacer. I’m not blaming you, Pierre, but I almost got upset.
Je n’aime pas dire du mal des gens, mais effectivement, elle est gentille. I hate to speak ill of people. Such a nice person indeed!
C’est fin, c’est très fin, ça se mange sans fin. Exquisite… No need to be hungry.
Que Pierre n’ait pas une horloge dans le ventre, je vous l’accorde. Mais de là à lui prêter une liaison… I must admit that Pierre is not very… punctual. But to suspect him of deception…
C’est une petite très courageuse qui a toujours fait face à l’adversité avec beaucoup de dignité. She’s fighting adversity with great dignity.
La douleur m’a fait dire des choses extrêmement grossières que je ne pensais pas, cela va sans dire. I said such awful things… I didn’t mean them, of course.
Je vais les remiser par devers moi. I’ll store them away.
Nous avons la gentillesse de vous recueillir et vous téléphonez dans les « Dôm Tôm » ! Calling long-distance is the way you thank us ?
Félix est un garçon charmant, certainement bourré de qualités. I’m sure Felix can be nice.
Figurez vous que Thérèse n’est pas moche, elle n’a pas un physique facile. Hey, Therese is no donkey! She isn’t exactly a classic beauty…




Finally, compensation is used for some occurrences that otherwise would have been lost in translation: recurring sexual allusions replace these untranslatable phrases.

Compensations :

Mon beau-frère est terriblement à cheval. My brother-in-law is so terribly stiff.
Plus fort… [scène de la baignoire] Harder
Oui je suis là. [scène de la baignoire] Right here.
– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné
 Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher [idem]
– We should take it off the hook
– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…


[scène de la baignoire]

Right here.

– Il faudrait décrocher le combiné.

 Oh oui, il faudrait décrocher. [idem]

– We should take it off the hook.

– Oh yes, take it off… If people call…


Conclusion and Proposals:

        This brief analysis highlights the problem of equivalence from French into English, and from French into American English in particular. On a macro-structural level, the analysis raises questions of cultural adaptation, while on a micro-structural level, the remake, and mostly its subtitling for the British market, bring up some problems of linguistic equivalence. As far as the subtitling into English is concerned (which is not a native English subtitle), what we clearly have is an independent “made in France” translation for a narrow British / European market of French film enthusiasts, and the subtitles probably have not been proofread for TV viewing, as they would not have passed the barrier of institutional censorship. The author of the subtitles attempted to preserve the irreverent character of the text (through the heavy use of slang, in particular) but what prevails is still a strategy of normalization, as many of the funny or problematic occurrences don’t really have English equivalents. The film remake has tried to make a popular French film accessible for a US audience, but it has obviously missed its target by turning it into the equivalent of a family movie, privileging a plot without much interest at the expense of the form in the source text. In light of the idea that the success of the original film was reinforced by a “pleasure principle” on the part of regular French viewers, it seems to me that the best equivalence that can be found for this type of cultural product is to be found in sitcom, in which plot is secondary and success is based on the repetition of various situations with the same characters.

        Finally, I wish to insist on the non-egalitarian character of the cultural and linguistic transfer of film and comedies between Europe / France and the United States. The role of English as a hegemonic language has certainly helped to shape a particular type of reception for Hollywood products, generally well-received in our country. On the other hand, as shown in part by import and export figures for French and English language works across continents, it seems very difficult to faithfully adapt a text coming from a culture and language with a less central position (and let us note that British films are even less successful than French ones in the United States, regardless of the language issue). These conclusions can also be read with the tools of translation studies. The original text is unreachable in translation, and maybe even more in this particular type of adaptation, due in part to the institutional and cultural context. However, maybe we should rejoice at the thought that there is such a thing as resistance to uniformisation, and be on the lookout for more faithful equivalents to seemingly “unique” works.

Works Cited

Primary sources

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Jean-Marie Poiré. Trinacra Films, Films A2 & Les Films du Splendid, 1982. 87 minutes. DVD with English subtitles: Studio Canal, 2003.

Le Père Noël est une ordure. Directed by Philippe Galland. (Filmed play, recorded for television at the Théâtre du Splendid), 1979. 90 minutes. Film.

Collectif. Le Père Noël est une ordure. Arles: Actes Sud, 1998. Print.

Mixed Nuts. Directed by Nora Ephron. Sony Pictures, 1994. 97 minutes. Film.

Secondary Sources

Antoine, Fabrice. “Argots, langue familière et accents en traduction.” Cahiers Elextra 31. Lille: Université Charles-de-Gaulle, 2004. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 15-25. Print.

Bensimon, Paul. Palimpsestes 11 – Traduire la culture. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998. 9-14. Print.

CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.” Web. 15/05/19.

Durham, Carolyn. Double Takes: Culture and Gender in French Films and Their American Remakes. Hanover: UP of New England, 1998. Print.

Fernandez, Maria Jesus. “The Translation of Swearing in the Dubbing of the Film South Park into Spanish.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Dias Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 210-25. Print.

Gottlieb, Henrik. “‘You got the Picture?’ On the Polysemiotics of Subtitling Wordplay.” Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation. Dirk Delabastita. Namur: St Jerome Publishing & Presses Universitaires de Namur, 1997. 207-32. Print.

Lefevere, Andre. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London/New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Look, Rudy. “Koman traduir l’inovassion ortografik: étude de ka.” Palimpsestes 25. Inscrire l’altérité: Emprunts et néologismes en traduction. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012. 39-65. Print.

Mazdon, Lucy. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. London: BFI, 2000. Print.

Miller, Toby. Global Hollywood. London: BFI, 2001.

Mounin, Georges. Les Belles Infidèles. 1953. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1994. Deuxième édition. Print.

Pelletier, Geoffroy. “Les chiffres de la traduction.” SGDL (Société des Gens de Lettres). Web. 05/06/19. Pettit, Zoe. “Connecting Cultures: Cultural Transfer in Subtitling and Dubbing.” New Trends in Audiovisual Translation. Ed. Jorge Díaz Cintas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009. 44-57. Print

[i] CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée). “Fréquentation des salles de cinéma : 200,5 millions d’entrées en 2018.”

[ii] The question of the hegemony of English is thoroughly explored in Spivak.

[iii] The French DVD, released by Studio Canal in 2005, does contain English subtitles for international diffusion in zone 2 countries (i.e. European countries), but its distribution in the UK has remained marginal.

[iv] For example, the protagonists of the French translations of The Famous Five (Le Club des Cinq) all have French names and live in Brittany.

[v] From a commercial point of view, Lucy Mazdon notes that Hollywood’s strategy is often to buy the rights to a foreign film and to make sure that the original is not released before the remake in order to short-circuit the original film’s international release.

[vi] I had access to two different subtitles: the official subtitles by Paul Memmi for Studio Canal (2005, i.e. over 20 years after the film’s original release), and an unnamed fansub.

[vii] “[…] rather than rather than complicating the successful translation of wordplay, the non-verbal elements creating the basis of much wordplay in television may indeed act as part of the solution. Thus, translating wordplay in an environment as semiotically complex as a satirical television programme is probably no more difficult that translating wordplay in the ‘words only’ environment of (say) a satirical novel. Although successful subtitling of some of the wordplay found on TV demands media-specific awareness, in the final analysis the overall quality of the outcome depends on the talent of the subtitler” (Gottlieb 207).