Translating curse words in other languages is a bit tricky. There are a number of challenges and pressures around this issue and an astute approach is usually best. We’ll explore several scenarios using some examples.
Translating Curse Words in Other Languages: General Principles
First of all, let’s imagine why we would want to translate curse words in other languages. The most obvious reason is to translate content and to create subtitles or even dub this content for other audiences. This poses a challenge and some general principles are quite useful.
How Much or How Little?
The first conundrum is deciding how much or how little we’re going to be translating. The problem here may be twofold. First of all, there’s the issue of rating. If we’re translating a film or television show and creating subtitles or dubbing, perhaps a neutral form of translation will make the content bypass rating restrictions. Moreover, the translation may be good enough that we won’t have to worry about creating another one later because there will be no need to ‘tamper down’ what we’ve already created.
The Principles of Translation Itself
The greatest challenge of translation is maintaining (1) precision and (2) naturalness. This tension has often been expressed as one between fidelity and transparency. Evidently, it’s more pronounced or less so, depending on what is being translated. A legal translation of a contract, for instance, will seek precision above all else even if the translation does not sound very beautiful. On the contrary, a translation of a screenplay for a film, for example, will have to be precise, of course, but tremendous efforts must be made to make it sound great and natural for an audience.
What about translating curse words in other languages? Well, here we find a specific challenge and maybe the exception to the rule. Let’s try to consider this situation more closely along with some examples.
First Alternative: Total Literal Precision
The first alternative is translating curse words in other languages with total literal precision. Such an approach is, as we know, the first intuition that any translator should have when confronted with a text. Let’s see if it works though. Consider the translation of the following extract from ‘The Exorcist’ (1973):
Regan suddenly growls, her eyes roll back and her throat swells abnormally. She stands up on the bed.
Alright then Regan, let’s see…
Regan back hands Dr. Klein and he flies backward.
Keep away! The sow is mine!
Translating this passage literally is the best idea. In Spanish it would end up looking like this:
¡Aléjense! ¡La cerda es mía!
This is quite literally the same exact passage we considered:
Keep away! The sow (adult female swine) is mine!
INT. BUS – NIGHT Begbie sits grimly. The others are relaxed.
Did you bring the cards?
The cards. The last thing I said to you was mind the cards.
Well, I’ve not brought them.
It’s f*****g boring after a while without the cards.
Well, I’ve not brought them.
It’s f*****g boring after a while without the cards.
Bit f*****g late, like.
Well, why didn’t you bring them?
Because I f*****g told you to do that, you doss c**t.
In this case, an attempt at a literal translation from, say, English into Spanish will be very difficult. Some of the curse words here will probably not have an equivalent in Spanish as such. If we want to translate them, we’ll need to translate meaning and not be literally precise.
Second Alternative: Don’t Translate (and maybe Confuse)
Sometimes you’ll see subtitles that don’t translate curse words in other languages. They’ll try to act as if there’s no curse word, translating nothing at all. The reasons for this attitude are varied. Usually, they’ll have to do with the need to keep a certain rating, maintain a specific audience, sell the content more easily in some markets, etc.
Sometimes, this approach is used by a translator and subtitle creator who doesn’t quite know what else to do. The problem with it though, is that it may detract from the story, even confusing the audience. Curse words usually add a certain dimension and emphasis to phrases that may very well be relevant to the overall plot.
At the end of the day not translating curse words in other languages may simply confuse the audience. We should probably keep looking for a better approach. Let’s check out an example. Consider, for instance, this moment in ‘The Departed’ (2006):
BILLY looks at him with an “I’m going to kill you” expression which is not without wit and which Dignam seems to admire.
What’s the matter, sm****ss? You don’t know any f****n’ Shakespeare?
We have a question. You want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop. It’s an honest question. Lot of guys want to appear to be cops. Gun. Badge. Pretend they’re on TV…
Imagine that we don’t provide a translation of the curse words here. We could end up with something like this:
¿Qué te sucede? ¿No conoces a Shakespeare?
This is quite literally, the following:
What’s the matter? You don’t know any Shakespeare?
In this case, the translation is simply too coy and doesn’t transmit neither the literal language nor the intent behind the words. It’s simply not possible to fathom the sort of exchange that the characters are having. Such an exchange will ultimately inform their relationship throughout the film. Not translating these curse words will simply confuse the audience.
Third Alternative: Communicating Intent
Finally, we reach the third alternative. This is probably the best solution in a great number of situations. In this situation, the translator simply attempts to transmit meaning, without using too many curse words.
The advantage of this approach is that the content may travel freely. The problem, however, is that even with this approach we may be too coy about translating curse words in other languages, and thus negatively influence the translation. Consider the following extract, from ‘Superbad’ (2007):
Seth and Evan come out the front doors. TERRY, one of the rough-looking smokers, calls out.
Yo. Seth. Did you hear I’m having the big
Evan, a little scared, keeps his distance.
Terry spits on Seth’s shirt.
And you’re not coming. Tell your f*****g
friend he can’t come either.
Seth wipes the spit off. He looks at Terry and seems as though he’s about to say something, but is interrupted when Terry starts hocking up more spit. Seth runs away as Terry and his friends laugh. He catches up to Evan and they head back to school.
Translating this extract with an eye solely on intent may be enough. In that sense, we could very well translate it into Spanish, for example, simply like this:
Y no estás invitado.
Dile a tu maldito amigo que tampoco puede venir.
This translation literally means, in English:
And you’re not coming. Tell your damn friend he can’t come either.
Is this translation too coy? Perhaps, but it arguably does preserve the intent and meaning of the original.
Which to Choose?
A safe alternative is to choose to communicate intent. Having said that, each content creator must choose what they want, taking certain things into account:
Making Content Fly
One of the biggest challenges we’ll encounter when translating curse words in other languages is making the content fly across markets. A literal translation may make it harder for the content to travel in certain markets and rating systems.
Translator and Client Communication
Ultimately, when translating curse words in other languages, it’s vital that the translator and client talk about the project. The client needs to make a decision with this sort of content: Should a literal translation be made? Should the translator simply aspire for meaning? This is always a good discussion to have beforehand.
A Blueprint to Translate Curse Words in Other Languages
We’ve articulated the issue of translation of curse words in other languages as something like this:
- The first intuition in a translator must be to translate precisely and literally. This also applies to translating curse words in other languages, generally speaking.
- This literal precision, however, must be scrutinized by asking: Does it transmit the original expression? Is the intent of the original writer coming through? If the translation, albeit literal, doesn’t convey the meaning of the original writing, then we must keep going. In the case of curse words, there are additional considerations: the rating of the movie, the needs of the client, the market intended.
- Here, we must ask ourselves, what is the least amount of change we can do to the phrase or dialogue to make it transmit meaning? We must try that.
- If we’re still not close to the meaning intended, then it’s necessary to use a bit more creativity to achieve that meaning and naturalness. The idea is to look for an equivalent expression, even if it’s different from the original. Transmitting meaning is the key.
- Avoiding the translation of curse words, however, is generally a poor decision. Meaning is the least we can try to translate, even if we’re not being literal.
The Bunny Studio Way!
Bunny Studio has a roster of talent who can translate a script or transcribe audiovisual content and then create subtitles or dubbing. They can absolutely tackle any project involving curse words in other languages!