The English language is rich with colourful expletives. Being used constantly, they represent the very staple of human emotion, and have been applied variously in the classic and modern English literary canon: from James Joyce’s Ulysses to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Yet unlike the vast majority of words, curses can rarely be translated literally and often don’t have an exact equivalent in other languages.
Take, for example, our favourite culprit – the f-word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a verb signifying ‘sexual intercourse with (someone)’.
This is believed to be the original definition of the word since its first recorded use in the early 16th century. However, over the last 300 years its meaning has been expanded to fit different grammatical contexts.
Although not officially recognised by English scholars, The F word can now be used as a verb, noun, adjective, interjection or adverb – or, in other words, literally anywhere in a sentence.
Although its verbal definition – a vulgar phrase for intercourse – does have counterparts, its use as a noun requires an alternative translation. For example: in Russian, the former use of the word would translate to ‘trakhat’; but to use it in the context of ‘F off’ requires an entirely different phrase.
Likewise, Spanish insults translated word-for-word sound entirely unorthodox to an English-speaker’s ear.
‘Come mierda’ is a frequent term used to refer to someone stupid or one who exhibits foolish behaviour, yet its literal meaning translates to ‘poop-eater’. Then there’s ‘pendejo’, a common insult in the Spanish-speaking world, whose close approximate in English would be moron: literally translates to ‘pubic hair’.
Although it’s possible to see where the nature of the insult comes from – one signifies a derogatory task, the other a private body part (which are often adapted into offensive terms) – their English comparisons are not parallel.
Which brings us to the next and most crucial part of translating expletives: impact.
Robert Lane Greene described watching a Danish comedy show with his wife and coming across a scene in which one of the characters told his female counterpart he could see up her skirt. The comedic element here relied on the use of a childish word that referred to the female reproductive organ.
In English, we only have one commonly-used translation for the former, beginning with the word p. But as this is quite a vulgar term it does not transfer the message accurately, and the significance is lost. This is because some slang words are deemed quite mild in one language but are very offensive and vulgar in another.
Culture and history have a lot to do with it. In Danish, the term ‘For Satan!’ holds a lot of substance, being one of harshest phrases in the language, whilst in English, the devil doesn’t appear in any of our verbal obscenities for lack of packing a punch.
Therefore, a translator’s job is not always to interpret the words verbatim, but to transfer the meaning behind them – or, their impact.
What we’re also seeing is the continuous aforementioned struggle between slang and scholarly, out of which a myriad of new definitions arise. In other words, with every passing decade we seem to find new ways to tell queue skippers to remove themselves.