Linguistic Hospitality in Jean Charles

Sofia Oliveira Dias

Jean Charles (orig. Jean Charles), dir. Henrique Goldman, 2009.


In the processes of settlement of cities, provinces or countries, there has always been the movement of human beings from one region to another. This migratory dynamics traces a path, a journey between two temporally and spatially defined points – “before / after”, “here (origin) / there (arrival)” (Dikeç, 2002: 230). The other, the foreigner, the migrant is defined in the process. The country of arrival, the “after” and the “there” will stipulate a certain type of reception depending on factors linked to the duration of the stay. In fact, a certain dialectic could easily be established between length of stay and the hospitality of the reception. Thus, if the foreigner wishes to enjoy a short stay, as is the case with tourism, his or her reception will be friendly. However, if the stay is intended to be long, as is required in any immigration context, the arrival of the foreigner will be perceived as a threat.

Jean Charles begins with the arrival of a young Brazilian woman in London on a tourist visa. Although the young woman tries to convince British immigration officials that her visit is a tourist one, they suspect that she has no intention of returning to Brazil. Her stay, therefore, is going to be perceived as a threat, especially because Brazil does not belong to the European Union. Obviously, the exchange between host and guest is the first encounter between hosts and guests, between Portuguese—as a guest language— and English—as a host language. In this context, the film shows how hospitality and hostility run parallel, as the director documents the Brazilian presence in England, specifically in London, focusing on Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent Brazilian shot dead by British police in 2005, right at the height of territorial threats in the British capital.


Jean Charles is a British-Brazilian co-production, directed in 2009 by Henrique Goldman and based on real events. The script is by Goldman himself and Marcelo Starobinas, with photography by Guillermo Escalon and music by Nitin Sawhney. The film, which won a prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, tells the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian citizen who migrates to England in search of a better life and another opportunity, but is killed by British police when he is mistaken for a terrorist. Before this terrible ending, Jean Charles (Selton Mello) is an electrician from Minas Gerais who lives in London, where he keeps an extensive network of friends and acquaintances. He manages to have his cousin Vivian (Vanessa Giácomo) live with him in the English capital, along with Alex (Luís Miranda) and Patrícia (Patrícia Armani). Thus, through Jean Charles’ life in the new European space, Goldman allows us a glimpse into the life of the local Brazilian community, where its inhabitants struggle for social, labor and linguistic integration.

Language and hospitality

The film shows the day-to-day life of Brazilian immigrants in London, both through the lives of newcomers— through Vivian’s story—and through those who have been living in the great metropolis for a long time. They live in contact with a new space, a new culture and a new language. In such specific situations of contact and communication between the host and the guest, language assumes a fundamental role for the integration of the latter in the space of the former. In fact, according to Paul Ricoeur, linguistic hospitality is the act “through which the pleasure of inhabiting the language of the other is compensated by the pleasure of receiving in one’s own home the word of the foreigner” (Ricoeur, 2005: 28). Ricoeur develops this concept by applying it to the practice of translation, where it is the translator’s role “to take the reader to the author, to take the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and betraying two masters, […] to practice what I call linguistic hospitality” (Ricoeur, 2005: 50).

Jean Charles allows us to analyze the presence of and the coexistence between two languages, English (host language) and Portuguese (guest language), making it possible for the spectator to experience first-hand the linguistic reality the immigrant is immersed in. Thus, in the film, hosts and guests are marked by the mastery of the language(s) they speak. From the moment the migrant arrives in the host nation, a linguistic process gradually unfolds through which the host language (English) assumes the mastery over the language of the other (Portuguese), transforming it into a “precarious guest language” (Manzanas Calvo and Benito Sanchez, 2016: 135). The presence of both languages is asymmetrical, as the host will be fluent in the language of power. Portuguese is used in the private realm, which can cover both work and social environments. In this sense, Portuguese appears at home, in conversations between cousins, or in Jean’s workplace, since the company and the group of workers are Brazilian. However, these two contexts – home and work – are constantly interrupted by the presence of English: in the first case, through television programs; in the second, through labor negotiations in the presence of immigrants of other nationalities, as in the case of the Indian entrepreneur. The mastery of the language is thus presented as the key to a more hospitable work environment. In fact, mastering the host language will be tantamount to achieving a certain level of power in the host country.

Spaces and linguistic hospitality

The film begins with Vivian’s questioning by the airport’s immigration officals upon arrival in London on a flight from Brazil. The questioning takes place in the presence of two officials, a man and a woman, whose physical features indicate that their origins are not British. The woman is Brazilian and assumes the role of translator. Her presence is necessary since Vivian does not speak English. Although she travels with a tourist visa, Vivian can only hear unwelcoming and threatening comments, especially from the Brazilian translator: “How do you expect me to believe that you want to go back to Brazil?”; “A gente não é idiota, como você acha que a gente vai acreditar que você vai voltar para o Brasil? Você tá me achando com cara de otária?”, “Fala verdade. Logo você vai acabando sendo presa e vai ficar três meses presa aqui” y “Estou ficando sem paciência com você”/People are not stupid. How do you think people are going to believe that you are going back to Brasil? Do you take me for a fool? Speak the truth, You’ll end up in jail and you’ll be in jail for three months” and “I’m running out of patience with you”. Vivian answers her compatriot’s threatening words, defending herself to the best of her abilities: “Eu não quero viver aqui”, “Eu não ‘tou mentindo. Porque eu quero… Eu não consigo viver longe da minha casa”. “I don’t want to live here,” “I am not lying. Because I want … I cannot live far away from home”

The incident ends when her cousin Jean, who accompanies her on the trip but holds a permanent visa, appears in the room. Jean, who has a good command of English, answers the officers’ questions, shows them his passport and confirms that he has been working as an electrician in London for three years. To justify his cousin’s visit, he tells the authorities a plausible story that is, in fact, a lie: he claims to be married to a British citizen who had a baby three months ago and who, due to complications in childbirth, needs his family’s help for a few weeks. Jean asks for the official’s understanding and assures them that he would never lie to the authorities of the country where he likes to live so much: “I love this country, sir. I would never lie to authorities like yourself. That’s why I beg you, please.” As a result, the male official, in an act of trust, stamps Vivian’s passport.

In London, the promised land for many, the foreigner lives in the midst of a cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. Throughout the film, the spectator gets to see not only the centre of a cosmopolitan city, but also the diversity of its suburbs. The centre is presented as a monumental space, austere and architecturally conceived through perfect perpendicular lines. The suburbs, however, are shown as multiethnic and multicultural spaces, where different groups are always on the move. As far as the presence of the verbal message is concerned, in the suburbs both Portuguese and English are heard, depending on whether the interactions occur among speakers of the Brazilian community or between them and other immigrants. In contrast, the images of the center, almost always televised, are accompanied by the presence of English.

In the first part of the film we see how Vivian is introduced to the Brazilian community on the streets of the suburbs, a territory where Jean maintains an extensive network of contacts. Even at this early stage, Vivian quickly notices that there are many Brazilian immigrants; Jean confirms this and adds that they only live to work, and many times in very difficult situations—sometimes eight people share one room. Sometimes they do not learn English even though they may have been in London for years. The conversation reveals the importance of speaking the host’s language, for it is the gateway to better living and working conditions. In this sense, the foreigner will have to undergo a process of linguistic acculturation in order to be recognized by the host, otherwise he will be limited to mere survival. Thus, in Vivian’s case, she is faced with the challenge to speak English once she starts working at a restaurant owned by Italians where she will interact with immigrants of different nationalities. In such a context, the presence of Portuguese is reduced to two moments: the first occurs between the two cousins after Vivian’s introduction to the owners, and the second when Vivian receives a phone call from her mother, worried about the news coming from London.

Vivian can only climb up the social ladder when she accepts the host’s rules: speak English. The message of the host nation is clear, so clear that in one of the film’s scenes you can read it on the façade of building: LEARN ENGLISH building. As Vivian does learn English, her social advancement becomes a reality. She is initially hired as a cleaning lady in a restaurant, then moves on to become a waitress in the same place. Once she has mastered the language of the host, she will become part of a catering team on tourist boats in the heart of the city. Portuguese dominates in the family space. However, this use is constantly interrupted by the presence of English through television. In this case, the language of the host crisscrosses the film through the voice-over of the news about the London attacks. Only with the outcome of Jean’s death will news begin to be heard in other languages.

Tensions between Translation and Non-Translation

The original version of the film maintains the use of both languages in the contexts where they are actually used, while the English version opts for English subtitles. The fact that the director does not use dubbing seems to reproduce an effect similar to that discussed by Manzanas Calvo (2016) regarding to the use of non-translation in another context. Such a decision reveals the uncomfortable linguistic confinement of the characters in a multilingual space dominated by the host language. Thus, and despite the fact that, apparently, throughout the film the immigrant accepts the process of “linguistic acculturation” and its consequences without resistance, those who do not speak English are subjected to a more precarious life, while those who master it enjoy better working conditions. However, the outcome of the film, with Alex’s intervention, reveals the pain felt by immigrants in the host country in relation to the absence of linguistic hospitality.

In fact, only in two contexts does the host recognize the language of the guest: upon entering the country, and after the death of the protagonist, since in both cases the guest has the right to a translator. Upon arrival, Vivian was questioned by two officials, both in English and Portuguese, and received a message that was not exactly welcoming. For his part, at the end of the film, and in the aftermath of Jean Charles’ shooting, the host, in the presence of two British police officers, one of whom knows a few words in Spanish, tries to tell Jean Charles’ cousins that Jean has died and that his body is in the morgue. Three languages come into play: Portuguese, spoken by the cousins; English, spoken either by the British officials or in a rudimentary way by the cousins; and Spanish, also in an rudimentary way, by the British official who tries to translate the message into two main phrases: “Your cousin… envolvido en terrorismo ” and “At the morgue, lugar de muertos“. After leaving the police station and before a group of journalists, Alex, in Portuguese, asks for justice and proclaims his cousin’s innocence. Spanish is also heard again in a voice-over on the news broadcast at the airport, where news in English can also be heard.

Only in the context of the official condolences to the family does the foreigner again have the right to an official Portuguese translator. In the presence of authorities, this time the message is one of hospitality, affection, apology and civic responsibility. The translator conveys the consul’s message and gives the floor to a police officer who hands over a check to help to cover expenses. Alex, Jean’s cousin, takes the floor and thanks the English people for their solidarity, as well as the consul’s trip to the protagonist’s homeland. In his words, Alex shows the desolation and the neglect that the immigrant communities suffer in London. In this agonizing context, he promises, with his finger raised, that he will return to London and that he will not stop until he manages to see the guilty parties in prison. At this very moment, he turns to the interpreter, who was translating Alex’s words for the consul and the rest of the delegation, and asks him not to continue with the translation: “A gente vai aceitar a generosidade de vocês, mas a gente vai voltar para lá para perseguir, tá, não vou sossegar enquanto não botar esses filhos da mãe na cadeia. Não precisa traduzir, não. Não precisa traduzir para ele, não. Deixa entender. Nós vamos para lá e não tem tradução para a gente, tem que entender tudo” “We will accept your generosity, but people return back to you, and will not rest until those bastards are behind bars. No need to translate, no. You don’t need to translate for him, no. Let him understand by himself. We go over there and there is no translation for us. Let him understand”.

Upon listening to these words, one can sense the British officials’ nervousness, since for a moment they are deprived of access to information. The translator tries to continue, but Alex stops him again and invites them to leave: “Não tem translation, não. Você é de onde? Onde estudou português? Você está querendo traduzir? Então, tá, façam favor de passar bem, queria convidar os senhores para ir embora, já estamos conversados” (“There is no translation, no. Where are you from? Where did you study Portuguese? Do you want to translate? Do you want to continue translating? Very well, please have a good time. I would like to invite these gentlemen to leave. We are done”). These sentences in Portuguese are fundamental to understanding Alex’s denunciation, on behalf of everyone, of the lack of linguistic hospitality immigrants receive in the host country. In this way and for a moment, Alex manages to make his host, now a guest in Brazil, experience the linguistic reality to which immigrants are subjected in the host country. Assuming Ricoeur’s (2005) reflections on linguistic hospitality, Alex consciously interrupts the process of bringing his word to his host and deliberately refuses to let his host (now guest) inhabit his language through the use of translation. He pretends that his British guest understands the message in Portuguese, the language of his country. Indirectly, Alex demands that the host takes into account the language of the guest to facilitate communication. There is a desire to feel at home, a desire to experience the happiness that Ricoeur perceived in the act of linguistic hospitality, that approach of the foreigner to the host and vice versa.

Speaking the language of the host country was a latent concern for Alex. In the end, he insists on it again when, three years later, the three cousins say goodbye to Vivian. In response to Jean’s wish, Vivian leaves her life in Brazil and sets off to travel the world, at which point Alex asks her what she will do if she arrives in Hungary, for example, and does not speak Hungarian: how will she communicate? Vivian answers that she now knows English and that she will always be able to find Brazilians everywhere. Vivian hugs her cousins and says goodbye. She is aware of her process of acculturation in London. Now, she no longer fears the unknown and is ready to introduce herself to her next host.



– Dikeç, M., “Pera, Peras, Poros: Longings for Spaces of Hospitality”. Theory, Culture & Society, 19:1-2 (2002), 227-247.

– Manzanas Calvo, A., “From Locus Classicus to Locus Lumpen: Junot Díaz’s Aurora”. Journal of Modern Literature, 39:2 (2016), 39-52.

– Manzanas Calvo, A. y Benito Sánchez, J., Hospitality in American Literature and Culture. Spaces, Bodies, Borders. New York, Routledge, 2016.

– Ricoeur, P., Sobre la traducción. Trad. P. Wilson. Buenos Aires, Paidós, 2005.