potiche-posterI went to see Potiche last weekend. I immediately felt for the subtitler, whose troubles started right at the title, because in this particular sense, the word potiche, as far as I know, has no equivalent in English.
A potiche is a decorative vase, originally from China or Japan, but in its familiar sense, it refers to a person, man or woman, whose function is purely decorative, who has no power at all. So how would you say it in English? The poster says “trophy wife”, which isn’t exactly right, as the main characteristic of a trophy wife is to enhance the prestige of a man by her beauty, and most often her youth. Ironically, there is no direct equivalent in French for “trophy wife”: femme trophée is out there, but it is too close to the English to not be a borrowing, and I don’t think it is in common use. As an aside, I think this tension is revealed in the fact that “trophy housewife” is used in the subtitles instead of “trophy wife”. This is probably the subtitler’s attempt to get closer to the truth of the character, who is a neglected homemaker, and on the poster, this expression sits rather uncomfortably, in my opinion, next to a photo of an older woman in a tracksuit.
To come back to my main point, “trophy house/wife” isn’t such a bad solution, as it is a similar concept of a woman with no real power. It does add an idea of prestige, which almost contradicts the concept of a potiche, but it does contain the idea of powerlessness. I particularly enjoyed the translation of the following line, said by the husband as he witnesses his wife win the local elections on the television:

C’est peut-être une potiche, mais c’est pas une cruche.

(potiche = decorative vase = powerless and cruche = jug = idiot)

She might be a trophy, but she’s not on the shelf.

Not bad, I think you’ll agree.

By |2016-10-18T15:48:45+00:00June 20th, 2011|Idioms|17 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Paul June 20, 2011 at 9:30 am

    We subscribed to Canal+ years ago, simply to avoid watching films with subtitles. We just found we were spending too long discussing what was happening in the bottom inch of the screen and not enough time paying attention to the actual story…

  2. Philippa Hammond June 20, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Interesting – I haven’t seen the film yet, only the trailers, but was intrigued by the decision to leave the title in French with a fairly rough English equivalent in parentheses below. Funnily enough, I also found it jarred slightly with the chosen image of Catherine Deneuve (she’s still very beautiful, but as you say, the tracksuit outfit is not the glamourous look of a trophy wife – perhaps that’s the point).
    I imagined ‘potiche’ must have created quite a headache for the subtitler. Perhaps the excerpt you mention ended (which I agree is a very nice solution) up being the decider. Fascinating to be able to guess the subtitler’s decision process in this way!

  3. Erin June 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I haven’t seen the movie, but isn’t “figurehead” also a suitable translation of that word? She’s not a figurehead in the governmental sense of the word, but she is a figurehead of the family – holds the position of wife, but with no real power.

  4. céline June 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    That’s a good idea Erin, but she’s not even a figurehead at the beginning of the film. She has nothing to do with her husband’s factory, and she commands no respect at all in her family.

  5. Katherine June 20, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    No, trophy wife isn’t quite right then. I actually don’t like that translation in the line you quoted – if she’s a trophy but not on the shelf, doesn’t that make her a lesser trophy? Or at least it might imply she’s not a has-been, but how does it convey not an idiot? (not trying to criticize the subtitler here, just analyzing!)
    I’m positive there’s a word for this in English but it’s not come to me yet. The image of a doll/toy keeps popping into my head but I can’t think of the phrase yet!

  6. céline June 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

    The expression “to be on the shelf” means that something or someone is put aside, forgotten, neglected. So in this case, the translation is good, as the husband is saying that she’s very much active and in the public eye.

  7. jean-paul June 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

    OZON: It’s not exactly trophy wife. It’s very difficult to translate this word in every country. ‘Potiche’ has two meanings, first a kind of vase you put on furniture which is not very useful, it’s decorative. The second is to speak of a woman in the shadow of a man, like Barbara Bush could be a potiche.
    From: http://www.bostonherald.com/blogs/entertainment/hollywood_mine/?p=547
    Indeed, “potiche’ is most derogatory. ”C’est sa potiche” is definitely not flattering and could describe a sort of dumb bimbo. No loving husband would ever describe his wife as “my potiche”. On the other hand, a man will be rather proud of saying: “She’s my trophy wife.” As for the wife, she would be unlikely to enjoy being referred to in that way, the general definition being (from wiktionary) : A wife, usually young and attractive, regarded as a status symbol for the husband, usually older and affluent. Unlike “trophy wife”, no age gap between the partners is implied in the word “potiche”.
    In both cases, the woman would probably put “potiche” and “trophy wife” on a par with “arm candy”. She could get her own back by calling her “old man” (her husband) her “meal ticket” or “sugar daddy”. “Silver fox” would be far more flattering (“Would-be silver fox” if bald !) . “Male cougar” would be something else! A very sexist terminology altogether. Going back to Catherine Deneuve in the film – at age 68, she’s anything BUT a trophy wife -, she turns out to be a “Not so dumb bimbo” after all. I would suggest that a better title might have been “Not so dumb” (although it might give the game away).

  8. céline June 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

    An excellent analysis, but don’t forget that “potiche” can be applied equally to men:
    « C’est à son emploi qu’il [Vercors] renonce, à son emploi de «potiche», comme il dit et comme il a tort de dire, car c’est donner trop de joie à ses adversaires. Non, il n’a pas été une potiche, mais une conscience. Il est resté humain… »(Mauriac, Nouv. Bloc-Notes, 1961, p.10)).
    As a title, I would suggest “On the shelf” or “For decoration purposes only” (a bit long).

  9. IssaGalvan June 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Upon arriving to France for the summer one of the first things I noticed was an advertisement for the movie “A Very bad Trip”, which in the United States is “The Hangover”. But i agree with you, some titles or things just don’t have proper translations and it’s hard to just do the direct translation because most of the time it doesn’t make sense. I noticed the same thing for other movies such as “Sex Friends” which was “No Strings Attached” in America. I’ve met many french friends since i’ve been abroad and at times they ask me to translate several phrases or slang, and I just can’t. I have to give a full length description other than just translating the words!

  10. Katherine June 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Yes I agree w you Celine re the meaning of “on the shelf” but I think it doesn’t work w the trophy metaphor, because trophies that are not on the shelf sound like inferior trophies, which is almost the opposite of the meaning of ” not on the shelf ” when referencing a person. But, i guess in cOntext, it works reasonably well. I quite like arm candy as mentioned above; such a person would definitely be bimbo-like/non-functional, but also very attractive.

  11. Mark Heany July 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    She might be a trophy, but she’s not on the shelf.
    Love this quote. I recently wrote an article on dubbing (“Dubbing: No funny business” http://ezinearticles.com/?Dubbing:-No-Funny-Business&id=6266042 on ezinearticles, which you might enjoy to read, and maybe you wish to leave a comment.

  12. Carolyn July 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I agree with Celine and IssaGalvan, “arm candy” was the first phrase that popped to my mind when I read this post… To fit it into the line you quote, “She may be arm candy, but she’s not all sweet.” Or the ilk. Very interesting to think about!

  13. Arianne Farah August 14, 2011 at 10:55 am

    The first thing I thought of was “space filler” as an analogy to “seat filler” – it would have a similar meaning & be pejorative enough – trophy wife & arm candy do bring to mind a woman valued for her looks which “potiche” doesn’t mean.

  14. Oleg Kuzin August 27, 2011 at 2:25 am

    My Lexibase software gave me:
    Potiche (large oriental vase) = prête-nom= figurehead.
    Il ne veut pas être un juge potiche – he doesn’t want to b a mere figurehead judge.
    Elle ne veut pas jouer les potiches – she doesn’t want to just sit there look pretty.
    How about “neglected homemaker” – like you said? I wonder if the play will ever make it across the Atlantic?

  15. Katherine October 13, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Hi Celine,
    I just came across a newspaper interview with the subtitler for Potiche. They explained the subtitler’s decision regarding translating the title. I thought you and others might be interested:
    “Ozon [the director] and O’Neill [the subtitler] had quite a debate about the title of “Potiche.” In French, potiche literally means a decorative vase, but idiomatically it refers to a woman who is there for window dressing, possibly a bimbo, someone in a powerful position because of her good looks. Latin countries have an equivalent, but in English, the closest term is “trophy wife.” But that has the connotation of a younger woman married to an older man in a second marriage, which is not the case with Deneuve’s character. Ultimately, they decided to keep “Potiche” as the title in both French and English versions, with “Trophy Wife” in parentheses.”
    I think it’s a bit weak to say the English term isn’t really right, so we’ll just put it in brackets underneath. But they probably had a short amount of time (the article says O’Neill completed draft subtitles for the film in 10 days), and with titles you can’t exactly go into long explanations. But I might have gone with a title that described her in a few words instead of trying to find an equivalent for potiche.

  16. céline October 13, 2011 at 9:14 am

    @Oleg: I think “Neglected homemaker” adds a level of meaning that is not there in “potiche” or in the film. The main point is her complete lack of power. But it’s a good effort!
    @Katherine: Thanks a lot Katherine, that’s great. The problem is, “potiche” does NOT refer to a woman or a bimbo or someone in a powerful position. It can refer equally to a man and a woman, the most important attribute of a potiche being its utter lack of power/use, like a vase whose only purpose is to fill a void on a shelf or a table.
    As this concept doesn’t exist in English, I think it was a mistake to try and use one which is “close”. “Trophy wife” does contradict “potiche” in so many ways that is a very bad choice, which confuses the meaning of the film.
    I think I would have gone for something like “The director’s wife”, as describing a person through their relationship to someone else is a way of negating their individuality and their value. It seems all the more apt here, as in the film, “the director’s wife” stops being “just a wife” to become “the director”.
    Having said that, it’s taken me close to 4 months to reach this conclusion, which I’m finally happy with, and I very much doubt the poor subtitler had as much time to solve the potiche riddle…

  17. Katherine October 14, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Yes, I like “the director’s wife”, or Peter’s wife (or whatever his name was) – that’s quite effective. I take your point about the length of decision making time though!
    While reading your comment, I thought of ‘ornamental’, which is used to describe that type of vase, and sometimes figuratively, though I haven’t heard it used about people – that would be extremely harsh to a person! I also thought of ‘token’ which is sometimes used for minorities, e.g. she is hired by the company so they can say they have a woman on staff (the token woman), but you would have to imply that she doesn’t have any power, that’s stretching the meaning a bit. I’m sure there’s a word for this!
    It’s this type of thing that makes me very nervous about taking on subtitling work! But it also makes me much more forgiving about subtitles I see now than before I got into translation! 🙂

Comments are closed.