TRANSLATING CURSES.

Avva has an enlightening discussion (in Russian) of the difficulties involved in translating English bad language into Russian; his basic complaint is that when it’s done at all (Russian official culture is much more prudish than American) it’s done too literally. His suggestion is that fuck (as an expletive) and fucking (in its common use as a general modifier: “that fucking [cat/movie/refrigerator/whatever]“) should be replaced by the equally common blyad’ (literally ‘whore’), inserted in the nearest available slot in the sentence. He feels, and I agree, that the lack of grammatical and semantic equivalence is more than made up for by comparable power and ubiquity.


A commenter suggested the adjective form blyadskii to replace fucking, prompting Avva to produce this finely honed lexicographical analysis:

It can work, but not very often. “Fucking [whatever]” often conveys merely a feeling of irritation and dissatisfaction, not necessarily strongly focused on an object. “Blyadskii [whatever],” it seems to me, lays more stress on the blyadskii (inherently bad) nature of the given object. Blyadskii is a more single-purpose and sharply negative word. This is probably connected with the fact that fucking can have a neutral or even a positive sense (“Gotta love this fucking town, man!”). Blyad’/blya too can be used in relation to neutral or even positive objects/people, simply as reinforcement, to show the heat of one’s emotion, or even as a “parasite word” [at the moment, can't think how to properly translate slovo-parazit; the sense is something like 'filler']. This is not the case with blyadskii.

Russian translators take note.

Comments

  1. tabuirovanya leksik! I do love Russian, even if I understand precious little.
    (“Taboo’d vocabulary”? How would you render that? I feel the need to use such a phrase as often as possible.)

  2. I’m sure there’s a cross-cultural study out. My observation is that Catholic profanity seems to be very Catholic, but euphemized “‘Sblood”, “zounds”, “begob”, and things I can’t remember from Rabelais’, Rimbaud’s and Canadian French. Whereas the stuff I grew up with was almost all bodily functions. Whether that’s Protestant or not I don’t know, though Luther did talk about shit a lot.
    The range of uses of “fuck” within the U.S. is enormous, from never at all to very casually, so the problem is pretty intractable.

  3. Subtitles are great places to watch this kind of disconnect. Even the monolingual viewer quickly figures out that whatever Cantonese expletive is translated by “bullshit” must carry milder connotations in its original context.
    But then, as Zizka points out, the translator also has to deal with varying contexts on the receiving end. I’ve been told that USAns underestimate the force of “bloody” and “bleeding”, for example.

  4. lh, you always find the best stuff to make me wish my russian was good enough to read with.
    it’s not official culture, but the dictionary of russian obscenities i have makes me wonder if i even know that many ways to swear, in english.

  5. Swearing in French and translating it into English was always so funny for me and the stuff they swore never seemed to have much punch. Bordelle de Dieu (G-d’s whorehouse????) or pompe a merde (shit pump)? What about A Turkish man’s hands in your sister’t trousers (I bet they mean underwear.) Or go get yourself screwed Greek style!!! Va te faire fouter chez les greques. (Pardon my spelling. All my French is auditory.)

  6. The disconnect between Japanese and English cursing patterns is pretty great, too. Often a sentence can be made really rude in Japanese just by using an extremely impolite verb ending (or form of “you”), and translators, being unwilling to insert entirely new profanity, end up with an English version that doesn’t convey the feeling at all. (“You! _You_ did this, didn’t you?” for something that’s really closer to “Motherfucker! _You_ fuckin’ did this, didn’t you?” in terms of offensiveness.)
    Going the other way, it’s hard to convey the richness of English profanity in Japanese. You can’t just make up new curse words like “monkey-fucker” (I ran into this problem translating Penny Arcade for a teacher) — unless they are familiar with English, people will often think that you are literally accusing your target of having sex with monkeys, not simply throwing off a humorously exaggerated insult.

  7. Spanish swearing makes me laugh. People call each other coño (=twat/cunt) quite freely in public places, or on Euro 2004 TV commentary for example, without causing much or any offense. It’s the same with other words that have very rude English translations.
    Anything blasphemous is another matter entirely. It is normally thought unacceptable for kids to say ¡Ostia! (the Host, as in consecrated wafers and all that) for example, and ‘Cago en Dios’(=I shit on God) is really shocking.

  8. Those curses in Spanish from my experience as a bilingual teacher (oops!! we don’t curse bilingually in my classes) married to a Central American, tend to reflect peninsular Spanish usage. Expressions like “me cago en la hostia” y “me cago en Dios” are absolutely unthinkable to Central Americans and I’d venture to guess, to most South Americans, too. Though Jewish and a not technically a native speaker of Spanish, I can barely type these curses. Pero, puta madre, hijo de la gran puta etc, are straight from the streets of Managua and San Salvador (though coño isn’t).

  9. The Greek ?????? (malaka, masturbator) as a term of endearment is a favorite of mine.

  10. Hum, didn’t take. Let’s try Unicode: that should be μαλάκα.

  11. ‘Malaka’ and the British English ‘wanker’ seem to be exact equivalents. ‘Wanker’, while ostensibly insulting, is usually employed as a jocular term of endearment.

  12. Reminds me of a friend who, as a child in a moment of anger, summoned all the profanity she knew: “Gosh darn poopy heck!”
    I think she now has a broader vocabulary.

  13. dungbeattle says:

    Swear words are used to upset the listener and relieve the Speakers venom. Thus one should trully comprehend the two languages, so one should use the upsetting word of the victim’s language, not a mock image of the abuse. Direct translations usually fail. So the Words should be in current venacular. The French appear to be upset when they are Identified as a Saxon sex object. Unfortunately the Language Dictionary of the seedy side is not available, One has to rough it in the inelegant portions of the foreign tongue. The Docks or Army Barracks usually give cheap[inexpensive] quick lessons in the etiquette of seemier side of linquistics.

  14. Charles says:

    Posted by: Ray Davis at July 8, 2004 04:23 PM: “Subtitles are great places to watch this kind of disconnect. Even the monolingual viewer quickly figures out that whatever Cantonese expletive is translated by “bullshit” must carry milder connotations in its original context.”
    I’m not sure where you get that. A Singaporean friend of mine once told me that speakers of other Chinese languages consider Cantonese, and Hokkien for that matter, to be very dirty languages.
    I can’t seem to find the article in Maledicta–the title was something like On the Obscene Particle X in Cantonese–which discussed the word lən (penis) which is used in Cantonese much as we use fucking, but with much stricter grammatical rules. I’ve only personally heard it once, from someone identified to me as being someone from the countryside:
    Sik lən jouchaan, sik ngaan.
    Literally: Eat penis breakfast, eat lunch.
    English: You’re not fucking eating breakfast, you’re eating lunch.
    Another Cantonese curse is “Tiu nei mama hai” or “Fuck your mother’s cunt.” In Hokkien they intensify that to “Kan ni na bu chao cheebye” or “Fuck your mother’s stinky cunt.” This latter phrase is sprinkled throughout the Singaporean movie “15″ by Royston Tan, and was mostly present in the subtitles. However, in one scene in which a father scolds his teenage son, the father uses this phrase repeatedly, as well as “Kan ni na”–”Fuck your mother”–yet it does not appear in the English subtitles for this scene. I considered it quite shocking for a father to say that to his son, and wonder if it is in such common use that it has lost its meaning. Yet the Singaporean Web site Talking Cock says quite clearly that the phrase is to be considered fighting words.

  15. Michael Farris says:

    IIRC the preferred obscenity in Spanish tends to vary from country to country, con~o is primarily Cuban (and Spanish???), Mexicans prefer forms of the basic root chinga (fuck) (modifications and elaborations run into the thousands I’m told) and Nicaraguans especially use puta (whore).
    I don’t know enough about other varieties (and my memory of any Spanish is pretty spotty anymore).
    I have the impression that British use of fuck is American influence and that bollocks(sp? I first came across this from the Sex Pistols album and had no idea what it meant) was more traditionally British. Could be wrong of course.
    Poland goes for kurwa (whore), ja pierdolę (lit: I fuck) has been gaining in popularity though used rather differently, it usually stands on its own and can’t be inserted into other expressions as in:
    Zamknij się kurwa! (Shut the fuck up!)
    Co ty kurwa chcesz? (What the fuck do want?)
    Also the expressions “fuck you” and “shit” are well known (through American movies) to every Polish speaker and used by many, though some of the older ones may not know what they literally mean. Occasionally they even get spelled in Polish, fakiu and szyt.

  16. Michael Farris says:

    Oh, and the preferred sexual explitive of Deaf people in Poland (in Polish Sign Language) is PEDAŁ (fag), the thumb side of the OK hand touches the from of the opposite shoulder twice.
    KURWA is a very distant second place (signs tend to be more regional but usually involve the “crooked H” handshape of ASL touching either the nose of the palm.

  17. malaka… as a term of endearment
    You’d better know both the culture and your interlocutor pretty well before you try that. It’s true it’s used promiscuously (it was extremely common on the streets of Astoria, where I used to live: Re maláka!), but it’s also true that it’s fightin’ words, so as a foreigner I wouldn’t dream of trying to use it myself.
    the preferred obscenity in Spanish tends to vary from country to country
    Very true, and in Argentina, where I learned my Spanish, the two basic words are different from everywhere else: ‘fuck’ is coger (which means ‘take’ elsewhere) and ‘cunt’ is concha (‘shell’ or a nickname for Concepción elsewhere). This occasions many amusing contretemps! (Needless to say, girls from elsewhere named Concepción have a particularly hard time.)

  18. Cantonese: I reckon I’m going by a bell curve theory of expletives, where it’s impossible for an entire *language* to be “really dirty” except from the context of a speaker of a different language or dialect. If what appear to be Cantonese equivalents for “bullshit” and “fuck your mother’s cunt” are used by upstanding heroes or in a formal business context, then my assumption is that they aren’t *really* equivalents, since an English or American movie wouldn’t use them that way.
    Even “dialect” may be insisting on too much. Expletives work as social markers, asserting or reinforcing communal identity, and community standards can differ even from room to room. The vocabulary I used with my teenage friends ranged considerably wider than the vocabulary I used with teachers.

  19. Michael Farris says:

    IIRC coger has both meanings in most Spanish speaking countries, maybe in Argentina it only has the obscene meaning? What do they use for non-obscene coger?
    Digging back in the spider-hole of my memory, obscenities in Spanish (in general terms) aren’t the most offensive in terms of insults. Desgraciado (disgraced) and sinvergu:enza (shameless) were much more potent in that regard. And in German (and I think Dutch) animal terms are much more insulting than sexual explitives. Also interesting are non-obscenities that take on expletive power, like madre in Mexican.

  20. Geoff Nunberg had a piece on NPR recently discussing the HBO show ‘Deadwood” where he claimed that that show’s frequent use of the words “fucking” and “cocksucking” as interjections and adjectival modifiers were anachronistic, and that in the 19th century these words were only used to depict the literal acts. Any one know if this is true? It is clear to me from memoirs about WWI that the modern usage of ‘fucking’ as an intensifier was well established in British English by 1917. Is the Great War responsible for our modern usage?

  21. Michael: agarrar.
    vanya: There’s a MeFi thread discussing that very question in which Mo Nickels, lexicographer and LH commenter, provided the best available answers. And I’m pretty sure both world wars did a lot to spread obscenity and make it more acceptable to more people.

  22. Tatyana says:

    PF, if you’re reading this – look in the book I gave you @ entry on the city of Santiago-di-Compostela(sp?) and “concha”, quite amusing.

  23. Can you share the amusement with those of us who don’t happen to have access to the book you gave PF?
    *feeling deprived*

  24. Tatyana says:

    Alas, in Russian only: Petr Vail, *Genij mesta” (Genius of the Place), collection of essays on connection between the place and the [mostly] literary genius who [in author's personal vision] represent it. With endlessly (good-endlessly) unfolding associations into fine and applied arts, culinary histories and local customs.
    I wanted to link a bookstore that sells it, but they seems to have limited number of their shelf assortment online.

  25. Ah yes, that book — he showed it to me — very nice! PF, when you come down off Cloud #9 and drop by the thread, will you summarize the “concha” bit?

  26. xiaolongnu says:

    From my experience, the best place to learn international swear words is in the foreign students’ dorm of any PRC university. For reasons which are probably obvious, that’s the first thing that the undergraduates teach each other.

  27. In Huckleberry Finn someone says something like “Anyone who’d do that would suck eggs”. I have a very strong impression that that was like the “fug” in Mailer’s early novels. Twain/Clemens was a pretty raunchy guy with diverse experience who had to clean up his act after he got famous and married. (Mo Nickels on the site cited by Hat puts it at 1860, mentioning that that kind of word doesn’t get in the OED until it’s written down.
    I suspect that the illegible-to-me word in Charles’ post was some version of “gan”, which I heard from Singaporese as meaning something like “fuck” except that it also just means something like “do”. As in contemporary English.

  28. NB: I consider myself essentially monolingual, with some widely scattered vocabulary, rather than being bi- or multilingual.
    Anyway, I found some old (American) sheet music for “Allá en al rancho grande,” an old mariachi tune that became, in its Americanized version, a minor hit for Bing Crosby in the 1930s. The music included Spanish lyrics, and when I set about looking at them closely, LaRousse Spanish-English in hand, I found that many of the words and phrases had multiple meanings in Spanish, and at least one of them was “dirty.” So,
    Te los commienza la lana,
    Y los acaba de cuero

    Could mean (of trousers): “Start with wool and finish with leather,” or in another context, roughly, “Get the cash up front, and then get naked.” As I made my way through the verses, they got ruder and ruder–the song’s narrator is a pimp whoring out his girl to local ranchers.
    Long story short, I checked these lyrics against modern mariachi lyrics for “Allá en el rancho grande,” and apart from the first verse (quoted above), none of them are listed. I suspect that someone had some fun at the expense of the music publisher. (Or perhaps the rude lyrics are traditional, and contemporary mariachi sing a bowdlerized version.)

  29. Charles says:

    I apologize to Zizka and anyone else who had trouble reading the “lən” in my post. It is l-schwa-n using the Unicode character for a schwa. Of course, it shows up fine in Mozilla on my Mac, but I have no control over how it shows up on someone else’s computer. At the same time, the Unicode Greek that PF posted shows up as gibberish for me. *sigh*
    As for lən, Maledicta gave two other Cantonese slang terms for penis that could be used in the construction I presented, but, since I couldn’t find the article, I can’t say what they are.

  30. As a point of reference on the use of “fuck” in historical English, Patrick O’Brian has his characters use it occasionally in his Napoleonic-era Aubrey/Maturin books. Interestingly, they also use the expletive “b____” (sic) a lot. I’m sure I don’t know what’s happening there. I’ve seen “b____” in Jane Austen or the Brontes, but whether O’Brian’s playing games with the reader, or “b____” was considered worse than “fuck” (or perhaps just better known), I’ve no idea.

  31. Steve — I noticed something similar when I started reading my Spanish copy of Jurassic Park a few days ago. “Hell” and “the hell” are usually translated as “demonios” (“demons”), and “to hell with Hammond” becomes “a la mierda con Hammond”: literally, “to shit with Hammond”! That seems backwards in the US, where Newsweek could print “go to hell,” but not “go to shit”!

  32. Charles, for whatever it’s worth, your lən (I’d spell it lən) shows up fine in Mozilla on Linux.

  33. This is the funniest swear I have ever heard. “Buwa ka ng ina mo” Its fillipino for you’re the smegma of your mother.

  34. In Australia we have a four wheel drive vehicle made by Mitsubishi (very popular it is too) called the Mitsubishi Pajero (meaning masturbator, wanker in spanish), and a popular term for a person who drives a four wheel drive is a four wheel drive wanker. Co-incidence, I think not!

  35. Dennys says:

    That Mitsubish Pajero is also very popular in Brazil, but when they tried marketing that car in Argentina & Chile, they had to back up and change its name as it wasn’t very popular!!!!

  36. Georges says:

    I attended French school in Quebec when growing up, and in high school we read a French (from France) translation of “Catcher in the Rye” with curses translated as “merde” “pute” and the like, which to we French Canadians was ludicrous, effeminate and completely lost the intended meaning/mood of the book. There is a French Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay whose play are written in French Canadian vernacular, and often leave French readers very confused. In French Canada most curses are related to the Church: caulisse = chalice; ostie = host; ciboire = wine cup — and then they get strung together “ostie’d caulisse de ciboire” Some other weird ones are “maudit verrat” (literally “damn uncastrated male pig” , and “peau’d chienne” (female dog’s skin).

  37. Hello people, I’m argentinian (we speak our own customized spanish here… it differs a lot in the accent and the words used from other latin american countries…), and the ‘fuck’ translation depends on the use… eg: fuck as damn it, would be mierda, shit, carajo!.
    Let’s go to that fucking place, would be puto, mierda, porquería, etc. Vayamos a ese lugar de mierda.
    But the action to fuck is cojer or garchar (newer and more dirtier). I’m fucking her, La estoy cojiendo. Butt-fucking: culear (from culo, butt), for example.
    Translating curses from english is quite easy for us, maybe because of our western minds, bloods, cultures, temperaments are more similar than other cultures… spanish and english have same latin roots (among others in the English case…)
    By the way, Aaron, “demonios” is not as stronger as “mierda”. Literally demonios would be more exact, but “mierda” is the best translation for that word. (once again, it depends on the context)
    Go to hell!, a mexican translation would be “Vete al demonio!”, “vete al carajo!”, but “Andate a la mierda!” is closer as it gets stronger to our culture.
    Greetz,
    dan
    http://linyera.blogspot.com/
    English and Spanish Writings of mine…

  38. Nice to hear from you, Dan! I used to live in Argentina, and it always makes me nostalgic when I overhear porteños talking. I was there 40 years ago, so I’m not familiar with garchar, but it always makes me laugh to hear other Spanish-speakers using coger as a normal verb for ‘take’!

  39. nb I have been looking for the lyrics to the song to see if could come up with the meaning because from my experience there is this double entendre and I enjoy the mirth when the bands sing these lyrics in public. if you could send me what you have I will send you what I come up with.

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