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The translation of swear words





While working, translators often have to decide if they want to translate a specific phrase literally or use an equivalent phrase in the target language, especially when dealing with two types of phrases: idioms (set phrases) and swearwords.


Swearwords, along with slang, are some of the most colorful and vibrant parts of any language. While their use is generally discouraged in academic, business or legal writing, they remain a vital part of casual and colloquial dialogue — you’ll find them peppered throughout books, movie scripts and conversations, all things that can be (and often are) translated.


Swear words and idioms fundamentally serve the same purpose, functioning as vehicles of self-expression, so it makes sense that the translation of both groups can be approached in a similar manner. Due to their context-reliant nature and varied usage, though, these words and phrases are often the most difficult parts of a translation job.


Similar to idioms, there are three main ways to translate a swearword:


Find the word’s equivalent in the target language

This is the most effective method but can’t always be used, because swearwords are often culturally derived and don’t always have perfect translations.


Rephrase the term

This essentially means avoiding the word in question by reworking the surrounding words — not always good way to stay true to the original text.


Literally translate the term

This is the worst way to go and should be avoided at all costs. As an example, this would mean literally translating “bitch” into the equivalent for “female dog” in the target language. Not so accurate, and certainly not faithful to the original text.


When possible, according to many translators, it’s best to opt for the first method, as it ensures that your translation will be faithful to the source text.


However, there are a few other things that can get in the way, which is what makes translating swearwords so difficult. Translators must deal with censorship, and are sometimes must choose between translating the text as it is worded or adjusting it to reflect the speech patterns of the target language.


Translators generally agree that it is wrong to omit specific words based solely on ethical or moral grounds: The text itself is not targeted towards them (so they shouldn’t be offended by the language) and it is within their best interest to provide a faithful translation.


However, when the use of swearwords affects a translation’s flow, or when something written in Spanish or English — two languages in which swearwords are often used to express one’s emotions — is being translated into Japanese, a tongue that does not use the words as strongly, it sometimes makes sense to omit the swearwords in order to preserve the impact and purpose of the original text.


This works both ways, of course. A Japanese-Spanish translator once told us that he sometimes finds himself having to add swear words that aren’t in the original text in the interest of conveying the same tone in Spanish as his Japanese source text communicates.


So what conclusions can we draw here? Translating swear words can be difficult, but not impossible, especially if you’ve got a good grip of both your source and target languages.


And when you find yourself having to work with them, it’s best to maintain them in your completed translation, either by representing them through an equivalent or a rephrase. Remember that as offensive as the occasional swearword may be, you’re just the messenger, and they’re not targeted at you.


Amy Seaman works for myGengo, a translation company based in Tokyo, Japan that translates over 15 different language pairs.

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