Never mind the b*******

Posted on Posted in What's up?

Who cannot remember those dear boys, The Sex Pistols? Their music, behaviour, attitude and personal hygiene were to become the knitted blanket which falls comfortably over the settee to hide the worn patches over the arms.

And how should translators deal with swear words? That’s the thorny issue I’m wrestling with right now. It’s a real ****** because many swear words don’t translate terribly well: either there’s no real translation; or there are too many translations; or there’s a real translation but it’s not applicable because the swear word isn’t used in that way.

When we translate, we try to bear in mind the “blind taste test”. (do you remember the blind taste test cola adverts?). If we were to give the source and target texts to someone, would they be able to select the translation? We always try to produce a translation that looks as though it’s the original: written as if it were the source.

If you need to translate a single expletive, it’s not too bad usually. **** or **** or **** or ****** **** can be translated without difficulty. But what about when swear words as used as adjectives as in “What ****** idiot did that?” or an adverb “You’ve got to be ******* joking?” or a noun “You’re a right *******”?

Because when we use a particular word, it means something particular. Change the swear word and you change the strength of meaning slightly. How can this depth of feeling – so easily created in profanity – be captured in translation? It’s not ****** easy, I can tell you.

And there seems to be no rule either. A **** one day does not translate the same way the same time tomorrow. Like I said, it’s all down to the context and how the word is said (or perceived to be said). A slight change (more than slight sometimes) and the meaning can be very different.

And what about religious expletives? What impact will taking the Lord’s name in vain have in a non-Christian country? And you can’t just replace one God with another – which one would you choose, for example, if you had to pick from the Hindu deities where (link: thanks to Wikipedia) you can choose from 330 thousand?

I know there’s been a **** load of work done in this area already by minds far more able than mine to deal with the issues. But when you’ve got a translation in front of you and there’s **** and **** and **** all over the place, it’s a ****** **** ******!