Volume 16, No. 1 
January 2012

  Dr. Claire Ellender


Front Page

  Translation Journal

Arts & Entertainment

Preserving Linguistic Alterity when Subtitling The Terminal into French

by Claire Ellender, Ph.D.


The present article focuses on the 2004 film, The Terminal, and its Eastern European protagonist, Viktor Navorski. The article identifies the ways in which this character’s linguistic otherness is communicated in the SL film, the corresponding challenges which arise when subtitling the film into French and the strategies employed in order to overcome these challenges. Its objective is thus to establish the extent to which ViktorNavorski’s linguistic alterity is preserved in the French subtitled version of The Terminal.

Key words: Subtitling; The Terminal; Linguistic Alterity; Translation Challenges


nspired by a true story, Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal, centers on Viktor Navorski, a man of Eastern European origin who is temporarily stranded in New York’s JFK airport. Lost, confused and able to speak little English, Viktor is portrayed as unmistakably foreign in the film’s original English-language version. The present article begins by providing a brief outline of the film. Working with four major categories—poor mastery of English, positive and negative consequences of this poor mastery, attempts to improve English and entertaining errors —,this article proceeds to examine the ways in which Viktor’s linguistic otherness is communicated in the SL film. Within each of these four categories, it identifies the challenges, or ‘trials’, which arise when subtitling the film into French and considers which translation strategies are employed in order to overcome these challenges. Thus, it sets out to establish the extent to which Viktor Navorski’s linguistic alterity is preserved in Béatrice Thomas-Wachsberger’s French subtitled version of Spielberg’s film.

The film

The article set out to establish the extent to which Viktor Navorski’s linguistic alterity is preserved in the French subtitled version ofSpielberg’s film.
In this comedy-drama, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at New York’s JFK airport; he is on a quest to obtain an autograph from the saxophonist, Benny Golson, in order to complete a collection of autographs belonging to his late father. While Viktor is travelling to the United States, a revolution breaks out in his country, the fictitious Krakozhia. Due to this civil war, Krakozhia is no longer recognized as a nation; Viktoris denied entry into the US since he is no longer a citizen of any country. As he can neither stay in the US nor be deported, Viktor is trapped in JF Kand makes his home in one of the airport’s terminals. Befriending staff, doing small jobs to pay for food and falling in love with air hostess Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Viktor bides his time until the war in Krakozhia ends. After numerous bureaucratic struggles and much assistance from his new friends, Viktor manages a very brief trip into New York City where he collects the all-important autograph before returning to his homeland.

Manifestations of linguistic alterity, translation challenges posed and strategies employed

As previously mentioned, throughout much of The Terminal, Viktor Navorski appears lost and confused and speaks little English. Given that subtitles are evidently set against the original visual context of a film,*2 these non-verbal manifestations of Viktor’s foreignness are automatically preserved in the subtitled version of The Terminal. Viktor’s foreignness, that is, his Eastern European origin, is, however, also highly apparent in his use of language. It is these manifestations of his otherness which give rise to translation challenges. These challenges, and the ways in which they are handled by the film’s subtitler, form the focus of the present article. The article will proceed by grouping these manifestations of linguistic otherness into four principal categories: poor mastery of English; positive and negative consequences of this poor mastery; attempts to improve English; entertaining errors. Within each category, it will identify key examples of linguistic alterity, the difficulties, or ‘trials’, which these present for the subtitler and how they have been handled. Once this evidence has been gathered, the article will seek to determine the extent to which Viktor Navorski’s linguistic alterity is preserved in the French subtitled version of The Terminal.

1) Poor mastery of English

i) Accent

When Viktor speaks, his pronounced European accent can be detected immediately. Interestingly, no attempt is made to transpose this accent phonetically from the SL onto the TL subtitles.*3 Arguably, this decision results in an inevitable degree of loss in the TT. It is nevertheless understandable, given the quantity of Viktor’s speech in the ST—it would have been onerous, and indeed unnecessary, to transpose this accent onto all of his utterances —, and given that the French audience can clearly hear this accent in the film’s original soundtrack.

ii) Grammar: Simplifications and inaccuracies

Viktor’s poor mastery of English is also apparent in his use of grammar; however, this in itself does not ever prevent his being understood. Occasionally his syntax is simplified: ‘I need visa’. The translation of this is straightforward and is re-rendered with a simplified TL equivalent: ‘Besoin visa’. Much more common than this is Viktor’s incorrect use of SL tenses. These are often recaptured in the TL by simply replacing the correct verb form with the TL infinitive. In the following examples, SL and corresponding TL inaccuracies are illustrated in bold.

I do this’ (I’ll do that): ‘Je faire’ (Je ferai cela);

I wait’ (I’ll wait): ‘J’attendre’ (J’attendrai).

Further, Viktor often struggles with basic question forms. These are recaptured relatively closely in French with comparably inaccurate question andverb forms, and confused word order:

What you want know?’ (‘What do you want to know?’)

Quoi tu veux savoir?’ (‘Qu’est-ce que tu veux savoir?)

What you like?’ (What do you like?)

Quoi vous aimer?’ (Qu’est-ce que vous aimez?)

You have ever been married?’: (‘Have you ever been married?’)

T’as été déjà marié?’: (‘Tu as déjà été marié?’).

iii) Use of mother tongue

When Viktor is distressed, upset and unable to express himself, he resorts to using his mother tongue, the fictitious language of his fictitious native land. At times, use of this language lasts for minutes. This is clearly incomprehensible to the SL audience, reinforces Viktor’s sense of exoticism and consequently somewhat alienates the SL audience. It is therefore totally acceptable to leave this untouched in the French version, which ensures that the TL audience experiences an equivalent ‘effect’ (Nida 1964). In the same vein, when Viktor speaks English, lacks individual items of vocabulary and uses a word from his mother tongue, this word is directly transposed onto the subtitle and italicized. This strategy once again emphasizes his alterity:

‘It need… gorchiska… Mustard!’: ‘Il besoin… gorchiska… Moutarde!’

In sum, Viktor’s linguistic alterity is communicated powerfully through his poor mastery of English. This is apparent in his accent, simplified and inaccurate use of grammar and recourse to his mother tongue. Clearly, if this sense of otherness is to be fully retained in the TL subtitles, these linguistic features must be preserved. If Viktor’s European accent is not transposed onto the French subtitles, this is compensated for by the presence of the original soundtrack. Viktor’s grammatical simplifications and inaccuracies are recaptured relatively closely with comparable distortions of the TL. Use of his mother tongue is left untouched when this mirrors its function in the original film, or transposed directly onto corresponding subtitles, when this reinforces his exoticism. Thus, by employing these relatively close translation strategies, Thomas-Wachsberger succeeds at preserving Viktor’s poor mastery of English, and evident linguistic alterity, in her French subtitles.

2) Poor mastery of English: Positive and negative consequences

i) Negative consequences

Viktor’s limited English clearly makes communication very difficult for him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the film’s early scenes. Viktor is called in to see airport officials, but understands nothing of what he is asked. He reads from a sheet of paper on which he has a prepared script with instructions for the taxi driver. Each time he is asked a question, he reads the next line from the script. As the latter is prepared and is composed of correct English, the corresponding French subtitles are equally accurate. The following conversation is translated concisely and accurately in the TL, the original humor being entirely preserved for the TL audience (Nida 1964).




1) Officer

What exactly are you doing in the United States, Mr. Navorski?

Pourquoi êtes-vous venu aux Etats-Unis?

2) Viktor

Yellow taxi cab, please.

Taxi jaune, s’il vous plaît.

3) Viktor

Take me to Ramada Inn.

Conduisez-moi à l’hôtel Ramada Inn.

4) Viktor

161, Lexington Avenue.

Lexington Avenue.

5) Officer

You’re saying at the Ramada Inn?

Vous restez au Ramada Inn?

6) Viktor

Keep the change.

Gardez la monnaie.

7) Officer

Do you know anyone in New York?

Vous avez des amis à New York?

8) Viktor



9) Officer



10) Viktor



11) Officer



12) Viktor

Yes, 161 Lexington Avenue.

Lexington Avenue.

ii) Positive consequences

Despite his frequent frustration, in one particular scene Viktor exaggerates his lack of understanding and uses this to the advantage of another foreign traveler. The latter is a Russian man who is attempting to transport medicines for his father via New York illegally, that is, with no license to do so. Called on to act as an interpreter for the man, Viktor explains that: ‘He bring medicines for his father’: ‘Il apporte desmédicaments pour son père’. When the tablets are confiscated, Viktor thinks quickly. He claims that he has made a mistake and that the medicines are actually intended for a goat; medication for animals requires no license. The following conversation between Viktor and the Head of Customs and Border Protection, Frank Dixon, is translated relatively closely. Simplified sentences (lines 3 & 8) and grammatical inaccuracies(lines 7 & 10) are successfully preserved in the TL.




1) Viktor



2) Dixon



3) Viktor

Goat. Medicine is for goat.

Bouc. Médicament pour bouc.

4) Dixon



5) Viktor

Yes, yes. Medicine is for goat.

Oui, pour bouc.

6) Viktor

He not understand.

Rien pigé.

7) Viktor

I not understand.

Je pas compris.

8) Viktor

The Krakozhia, the name for father

Cracozie, père souvent appelé

9) Viktor

Sound like goat.

‘Vieux bouc’

10) Viktor

I make mistake.

Je fais erreur.

Thus, although Viktor is often frustrated by his poor mastery of English which can have negative consequences for him, he does, at times, consciously exploit this. It was possible to re-render the two above scenes, which powerfully communicate his linguistic alterity, by adopting some close translation strategies. Again, the subtitler makes comparably simplified and inaccurate uses of the TL and, in doing so, fully maintains the impression of misunderstanding which Viktor creates, on this occasion quite intentionally, in the SL.

3) Attempts to improve English

i) Using newly acquired language

During the months which he spends at JFK, Viktor makes determined efforts to improve his command of English. He does so by purchasing travel books in the bookshop, speaking with airport staff and watching the news channel on the television screens located around the terminal building. At intervals throughout the film, he re-uses individual items of vocabulary (‘Tuesday’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘food’) in appropriate contexts. At times, the resulting effect is amusing. In the following, Viktor first learns the expression ‘fifty-fifty’ from the headlines of a news report on the separation of Siamese twins: ‘Chances of survival, fifty-fifty.’: ‘Chances de survie, fifty-fifty.’ He later uses the expression when discussing his chances of being allowed entry into the US with Border Protection officer, Dolores.




1) Viktor

You have two stamps – one red, one green.

Vous avez deux tampons – un rouge, un vert.

2) Dolores


Et alors?

3) Viktor

So I have chance go New York, fifty- fifty.

Mes chances de New York: fifty-fifty.

In both of these contexts, the expression is transferred directly from SL to TL; it is an English ‘emprunt’ (Vinay & Darbelnet 1958)which is used in contemporary French. The humorous effect (Nida 1964) of the original dialogue, which arises when Viktor attempts to compensate for his linguistic alterity, is fully preserved in the TL.

4) When errors are entertaining

Despite these efforts to improve his English, Viktor often mislearns new expressions and vocabulary, misunderstands culturally bound terms and pronounces certain words inaccurately. These manifestations of his linguistic alterity require that particular translation strategies be employed if both the mistake and the humor of the original utterances are to be accurately preserved in the TL.

i) Mislearned expressions and vocabulary

On a previous occasion, air hostess Amelia Warren invited Viktor to dinner in an Italian restaurant; she asked him if he would like ‘a bite toeat’ and spoke highly of the local restaurant’s cannelloni. This date did not, however, materialize. In the following extract, Viktor later rehearses asking Amelia out himself and puts into practice the language which he has learned. He confuses both the word order of the expression (before later correcting himself) and the name of the Italian dish.




1) Viktor

Amelia, would you like to get eat to bite?

Amelia, voudrais-tu aller morceau manger?

2) Viktor

Bite to eat? Cantaloni?

Manger morceau? Cantaloni?

3) Viktor

Bite to eat? Bite to eat?

Manger morceau?

Thomas-Wachsberger reproduces the humorous effect of these SL lines by reversing the word order of the equivalent TL expression (‘morceaumanger’ instead of ‘manger un morceau’) and transposing directly the erroneous ‘cantaloni’, rather than using the correct‘cannelloni’.

When he finally asks Amelia to dinner, Viktor makes his original mistake. He quickly realizes this and uses the simpler word ‘food’(translated as ‘repas’ or ‘meal’) which he has also recently learned in the airport.




1) Viktor

Amelia, would you like… eat to bite?

Tu aimerais… morceau manger?

2) Viktor

Food ! Tonight?

Repas ! Ce soir?

ii) Misunderstanding of culturally bound terms

At times, Viktor’s lack of familiarity with certain culturally bound words can lead to misunderstanding and amusement. In the following extract, he is about to play cards with some of the airport staff with whom he has made friends. As these workers all have little money, they play for unclaimed items of lost property. In this instance, the item in question is a pair of knickers which formerly belonged to the world-famous American singer and actress, Cher. This gap in Viktor’s knowledge of Western culture results in his hearing ‘Cher’ as the English verb‘share’. In order to recapture this misunderstanding and subsequent humor in the TL, Thomas-Wachsberger chooses a TL word which is also phonetically identical to ‘Cher’ and is in current usage, but which is unrelated to this famous personality. She opts for the French‘cher’ (expensive) so as to preserve the play on words, and follows this with ‘on la partage?’ (‘will we sharethem?’), thereby fully retaining the meaning of the SL utterance.




1) Guard

And they belong to?

On connaît la proprio?

2) Gupta



3) Guard

As in… Cher?

Comme dans… Cher?

4) Enrique

These are Cher’s panties

C’est bien la culotte de Cher

5) Viktor

So, we share the panties?

Si c’est cher, on la partage?

6) Guard

Not if I win!

Pas si je gagne!

iii) Mispronunciation

Last, Viktor’s mispronunciation of SL words also causes misunderstanding and, consequently, amusement. When he agrees to find out as much as he can about Dolores in order to help Spanish catering car driver, Enrique, seduce this woman, Viktor learns that Dolores’ last relationship failed because her boyfriend had cheated on her. In the following exchange with Enrique, Viktor struggles to pronounce ‘cheat’ correctly; both Enrique and the SL audience instead hear ‘shit’. As was the case in the previous example, in order to preserve this humorous misunderstanding in the TL, the subtitler must create an alternative play on words by choosing two phonetically similar, and semantically identical, TL words. Thomas-Wachsberger achieves this extremely well by recapturing the confused ‘shit / cheat’ with ‘caca’(‘crap’) / ‘cocu’ (‘cuckolded’) (line 12). Interestingly, Viktor also provides a translation of this term in his mother tongue. Again, this is directly transposed onto the TL subtitles and italicized, thus reinforcing Viktor’s exoticism (line 10).




1) Viktor

Eat shit


2) Enrique



3) Viktor

Eat shit


4) Enrique

Eat shit?


5) Viktor

Eat shit! Eat shit!

Caca! Caca!

6) Enrique

Try to repeat exactly

Répète exactement ses mots

7) Viktor

He shit

Il a fait caca

8) Viktor

She catch him

Elle l’attraper et…

9) Enrique

Oh, he cheats!

Il l’a faite cocue ?

10) Viktor

What we call kruskach

Chez nous, se dire kruskach

11) Enrique

He cheats

Il cocufie

12) Enrique

We say cheat, not shit

On dit cocu, pas caca

13) Viktor

Enrique, no shit

Toi, pas caca

14) Enrique

I won’t cheat

Pas cocu

15) Enrique

Not shit

Pas caca

16) Enrique

I promise I won’t cheat

C’est promis

17) Viktor

Nice girl, she no shit

Fille bien. Pas caca avec elle

To recapitulate, in spite of efforts to improve his English, Viktor makes a number of mistakes when putting into practice new vocabulary and expressions. Combined with some gaps in his cultural knowledge and mispronunciation of certain words, these mistakes are frequently amusing. In order to reproduce these errors and the entertainment which they cause, Thomas-Wachsberger employs a range of translation strategies – confusing word order in the TL, directly transposing SL errors and rewriting wordplays in the TL. By adopting this varied approach, she succeeds at preservingViktor’s entertaining errors in her translation and ensures that this character’s linguistic alterity is conveyed as forcefully in the Tl subtitles as it is in the film’s original script.


Concentrating on Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and its Eastern European protagonist, Viktor Navorski, this article has explored the challenges which arise when subtitling this comedy-drama into French. From the outset, Viktor is portrayed as distinctly foreign in this film. Due tithe audiovisual context against which the subtitles are set, visual manifestations of Viktor’s otherness are clearly preserved in thefilm’s TL version (Luyken 1991) and pose no translation difficulties. This said, Viktor’s Eastern European origin is, above all, highly apparent in his use of language, and such manifestations of his otherness give rise to a number of translation challenges, or ‘trials’. These challenges, and the ways in which they were handled by the film’s subtitler, Béatrice Thomas-Wachsberger, formed the focus of the present article.

In view of the above, this article established four principal categories in which Viktor’s linguistic alterity manifests itself in the film: poor mastery of English; positive and negative consequences of this poor mastery; attempts to improve English; entertaining errors. Within each of these, it identified the translation challenges which arise when subtitling this film into French and the strategies employed in order to overcome these. Thus, the article set out to establish the extent to which Viktor Navorski’s linguistic alterity is preserved in the French subtitled version ofSpielberg’s film.

In short, it was observed that Thomas-Wachsberger employed a combination of distinct strategies in order to meet these translation challenges. If this article suggested that a failure to transpose Viktor’s accent phonetically from the SL to the TL inevitably results in some loss in the TT, this apparent shortcoming is compensated for in many ways. Considered globally, Thomas-Wachsberger’s translation approach incorporated a number of strategies. These ranged from occasions on which no translation was deemed necessary (passages of mother tongue left untouched; individual lexical items transposed directly onto the TL subtitles and italicized for heightened effect), through close translations (which incorporate simplified and inaccurate uses of TL grammar, comparable to those apparent in the SL), to freer distortions of the TL and creative rewritings of humorous wordplays. If Viktor Navorski’s idiosyncratic use of language does indeed present certain trials for the translator, this article has sought to demonstrate that, by implementing a diverse range of translation strategies, Thomas-Wachsberger has succeeded extremely well at preserving the various manifestations of this character’s linguistic alterity in her French-subtitled version of The Terminal.


*1. The title of the present article is inspired by Antoine Berman’s 1985 ‘La traduction comme épreuve del’étranger’: ‘Translation and the Trials of the Foreign’. In his treatment of poetry and novels, Berman criticizes naturalizing translation strategies which bring the TT as close as possible to the SL culture. As he asserts: ‘[…] the properly ethical aim of the translating act [is] receiving the Foreign as Foreign.’(1985/2000) in L. Venuti (ed.) (2000: 286).

*2. Luyken captures this idea in the following: ‘In films […], the message is expressed by the whole audiovisual opus i.e. image, acting, sound and language […]. In subtitling, the whole original work, apart from the language element, will remain intact […]. (1991: 153-54)

*3. Phonetic transposition of accents can be witnessed in the translation of some experimental literature. The French author Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style (1947) recounts one short story in ninety-nine different ways, some of which with a foreign accent. Barbara Wright’sskilful translation into English of Exercices de Style is just as playful as Queneau’s original work. ‘Por lay Zanglay’(1947/2000: 129) is, for instance, re-rendered as ‘For ze Frrench’ (1958/1979: 169). Similarly, in Claude Sarraute’s ‘Dans letaxi’ (1985: 11-12), a French taxi driver resorts to imitating a Guadeloupian (Créole) accent in his mockery of European attitudes. When translating this short story, I took inspiration from the work of the Jamaican poet, Benjamin Zephaniah (1992), in order to recapture this accent in my English translation (Ellender 2006).


Berman, A. (1985/2000) ‘Translation and the trials of the foreign’, trans. by L. Venuti, in L. Venuti (ed.) 2000: 284-97

Ellender, C. (2006) ‘Preserving Polyphonies: Responding to the Writings of Claude Sarraute’ Unpublished PhD thesis. Lancaster University.

Luyken, G-M. (1991) Overcoming Language Barriers in Television: Dubbing and Subtitling for the European Audience (Manchester: European Institute for the Media)

Nida, E. (1964) Towards a Science of Translating (Leiden: E.J. Brill)

Queneau, R. (1964) Exercices de Style Collection Folio (Paris: Gallimard)

_________ (1958/1979) Exercises in Style, trans. and preface by Barbara Wright (London: John Calder)

Sarraute, C. (1985) ‘Dans le taxi’ in C. Sarraute 1985: 11-12

Vinay, J.P & J. Darbelnet (1958) Comparative Stylistics of French and English: A Methodology for Translation, ed. and trans. by Juan C. Sager & M-J Hamel, 1995 (Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamin’s)

Zephaniah, B. (1992/1995) City Psalms (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe)