Linguistic Conundrum: Should You Translate Swearwords?

Posted by Lee Densmer
on Fri, Mar 29, 2013 @ 10:38 AM

Linguistic ConundrumSwearwords are creative, expressive and certainly a colorful part of any language. They help the completeness, precision and clarity of communication. They can actually add value, because they often help a reader understand the speaker’s attitude and strength of feeling. Most of us would agree that sometimes that nothing but a swear word will do.

Casual written dialogue – blogs, customer reviews, posts in a forum, translations of court transcriptions, fiction, new articles, or movie scripts - may contain swear words (not the worst ones, I hope, which should be caught and deleted by moderators). Swearwords especially are a tough one for translators, because finding an equivalent term is difficult, and also because of the controversy of these words. 

Translators often have to make a professional call about whether they want to translate a phrase literally or use an equivalent phrase in the target language. A skilled linguist has the skills to handle it, yet, it can be as challenging as translating marketing translation; complete bilingualism and closeness to the target culture is required. 

So how would a linguist approach it? The below, in my order of worst idea to best idea, are my suggestions.

1. Don’t Even Go There

Just skip it; pretend it’s not there.  Make sure that your work is clean and non-offensive! To do this you can delete the word completely (turn ‘bitchy woman’ into ‘woman’). But also, by doing this, you aren’t being faithful to the source language and the intent of the text. 

There are situations where you have to play the avoidance game: when translating for locales where there is censorship of ideas and expression. An in-country linguist will know when this applies.

2. Translate it Literally

There are so many stories about how a literal translation falls flat or makes no sense (at best), or introduces something really odd or even offensive, making this approach the worst one. For example, an experienced linguist would agree that the translation of “dick” can be problematic because dick has several meanings:

  1. A detective (old usage)
  2. The male anatomy
  3. To handle something inexpertly, such as ‘he started dicking around the with the controls'
  4. A total jerk. 

A literal translation might be the equivalent of ‘detective in the target language’, and that literal equivalent will be weird and inappropriate in the target language. Plus, you'll have wholly missed the point if the context indicates the male anatomy, or the concept of inept fiddling with something. Clearly, the translator has to take more time with this translation.

3. Consider two options that vie for third place

a. Find its match

Probably there is a parallel concept in the target language. This is the best way to go. An in-country linguist will likely already know this term, and if they don’t their teenager will. This is the very best option, in my opinion.

b. Rephrase (or ‘transcreate’ it)

I would recommend this when there is no matching term. A linguist can adapt the word and its context to preserve the general idea.  It won’t exactly maintain fidelity to the source – but it may be effective.

Guidelines

When working hard to satisfy a client and in order to do the best possible job, there are two best practices:

  1. Point out the term to ensure the client wants it translated. They might not even be aware of its existence if it is in a blog post or conversation string.
  2. Include this term and its translation in the glossary, along with its client-approved translation.

What are your thoughts on this aspect of translation? As a translator, what would you do? As a client, what would you want?

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