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Translation fail or marketing genius?: The obscene French Barbie movie tagline

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jun 19, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Last week, Warner Brothers France released the latest official poster for the upcoming Barbie movie. Many people were excited to see stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a funny pose. But others noticed something else about the poster: Its tagline, which translates into an obscene expression in French slang.

It seems like a classic translation fail, one of those especially baffling ones, since major film studios have marketing departments who should be able to localize content - especially in such a commonly spoken language. But the more you look into the obscene French Barbie poster translation, the more you wonder if it was a translation fail at all.

What’s wrong with the French Barbie movie poster?

The movie’s original English tagline, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.” provoked reactions of delight from feminists and those nostalgic for their days of playing with Barbie dolls (not to mention those of us who fall into both categories). Warner Brothers’ French marketing team decided to translate it as Elle peut tout faire. Lui, c’est juste Ken. -- literallyShe can do everything. He’s just Ken.”

But for slang savvy Francophones, the phrase has a double meaning. The word “ken” in French is the equivalent of a certain obscenity that starts with “f” in English. So the film poster’s French tagline could also translate to: “She can do everything. He can only/only knows how to f!@k.” This is especially glaring when you consider that c’est (He’s) and sait (knows) sound the same, which emphasizes the possible double meaning.

To be fair, ken is not the most popular or best-known equivalent of “the ‘f’ word” in French. It’s a term in verlan, that is, a type of French slang that involves reversing the syllables of words and sometimes (more or less intuitively) adjusting their new form to suit French grammar and aesthetics. This Reddit thread gives a good, succinct explanation of the word ken’s construction, in particular.

While the concept of verlan, as well as a few breakthrough words, might be known to a large part of the French public, many of its terms remain fairly niche. A young person or someone “in the know” would absolutely be familiar with the verlan term ken, but an elderly person, for instance, probably wouldn’t.

With this in mind, it’s possible that no one on the marketing team at Warner Brothers was aware of the meaning of ken in verlan. This could just be a case of a typical translation fail, caused by a lack of true, intimate knowledge of the local language and culture.

Was the poster’s obscene double meaning intentional?

But when you consider how much money is invested in film advertising campaigns, as well as the fact that these are people working in a field that’s closely tied to trends and popular culture, that idea starts to seem unlikely.

So, could the translators have deliberately made this choice?

In some cultures, an obscene or explicit advertisement is something to avoid at all costs. But when it comes to movie posters and titles, the French don’t shy away from “sexy” talk.

In fact, French film title translations have become sort of notorious for their sometimes inexplicable use of certain words, including “sex” and “sexy” for translations of American films. Notable examples include Sex Academy for Not Another Teen Movie and Sexy Dance for Step Up.

According to Manon Kerjean, this may be due to the fact that many French people have a limited knowledge of English…but “sex” is certainly a word they’d recognize. French film expert Judith Prescott also says that French movie titles tend to tell audiences what they’re going to get. This last theory is a bit arguable, since many French film titles, both those originally in French and those translated into the language, can be obscure or vague.

Of course, another theory is simply “sex sells”.

Meanwhile, the team at the website Lost in Frenchlation posit that title translations like these are often done with movies that may not be expected to - er - perform well at the French box office, so adding in something a little saucy might help.

This isn’t to say that streets and TV’s in France are filled with obscene imagery and naughty language. But there is a more open-minded attitude towards sex, including a sense of humor about it - and therein might lie the key to this potential “translation fail”.

When you look at online reactions by French people to the Barbie film’s obscene tagline, it’s hard to find any kind of complaints. Instead, you get reactions like this one from Twitter user @sweety_eternity: Le jeu de mot est incroyable (This pun is incredible). Many others have said the same.

Even mainstream press outlet Ouest France discreetly refers to the potential play on words in a tone that’s completely unoffended, remarking, Comprendra qui pourra. (Those who know will understand.).

So, what’s really going on with the French Barbie poster translation?

At first, Barbie’s French poster tagline seems like an unfortunate translation fail, likely due to Warner Brothers’ marketing team not being familiar with verlan. But the recent history of translating film titles for the French market, as well as the French general public’s more open attitude to sexy wordplay, tell a different story.

Time will tell if the Barbie movie does well in France. But as far as localization goes, this particular “translation fail” actually seems like a marketing win, and a sign of a deep knowledge and understanding of French language and culture.

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