Vulgar words: translate or omit?
Thread poster: Anton Taras
Anton Taras  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:05
English to Russian
+ ...
Jun 2, 2005

Sometimes an interpreter has to deal with vulgar words. Once my friend colleague and I were working in pair at a banquet. Most of the people present there (except two of us were already tipsy when the host used a very coarse word in his speech. My friend (it was his turn to interpret) just omitted the word but the host new Russian a bit and noticed it. He insisted that the word has to be translated precisely. “Go on, you are interpreter, it’s your job,” – he said.

What should a pro do when a costumer is getting vulgar? (Of course, in case of Summit talks etc. the answer is obvious

Direct link Reply with quote

Natalia Elo  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:05
Member (2004)
English to Russian
+ ...
Depends Jun 3, 2005

Hi Anton,

Interesting topic, thank you.

I think it depends on the situation. In my experience, for example, during negotiations I tried unconsiously to clean people's mouth. I knew that the counterparts will have to work together for a long period of time, me between them, so I did omitted some words.

On the other hand non-verbal communication is sometimes stronger than the words. So, once, when one of the clients was swearing, and I was hesitating for a second (because you can't hesitate any longer) the other part said "Come on, what did he say? I know that he is not praising me". Then I just said that he is swearing.

Then again, once in court, the accused Russian obviously didn't realise where he is and was extremely rude to the judge. In this case I kept the register as low as it was. Why should I make this guy looking better than he is?

I think there is no any rule or is there? I'm very interested to read other ProZians' opinions.


Direct link Reply with quote
Local time: 23:05
Spanish to Danish
+ ...
Depends..., but Jun 3, 2005

Hi Anton,
I think it depends on the situation, but also the working language. I have interpreted in Spanish a lot, and even on higher levels(and without being "tipsy") spaniards tend to swear quite a bit(nothing to do with their education), its a way of "getting the message through", and I´ve always tried to be true to the speaker, without being rude to the target, but then again, if the speaker is rude, you need to let the target know.
I believe that Natalia is right in saying that you do not need to make anyone look better than they really are.

Direct link Reply with quote
Local time: 14:05
English to French
+ ...
The 10% rule Jun 3, 2005

One of my interpretation profs believed in the 10% rule.

If the speaker is offensive, convey the meaning with slightly less offensive words.
Conversely, if he's boring, add a little pep to it.

But always in moderation, no more than 10% either way.

[Edited at 2005-06-03 10:47]

Direct link Reply with quote

Andrea Macarie  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:05
Spanish to Romanian
+ ...
Good question Jun 3, 2005

Hi everyone,

I'm not an experienced interpreter (yet), but my interpreting teachers always said that I should tell the public that the speaker was coursing, or that he is using "politically incorrect" words which I refuse to translate (it is my right to omit such words).

Direct link Reply with quote

Christina Courtright  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:05
Spanish to English
+ ...
the court environment Jun 3, 2005

In U.S. court interpreting, we are required to match the source language, register for register. That means that we might switch suddenly from the most formal, frozen legalese to swearing, in the course of one minute. This is because our role is to ensure that the non-English-speaker participates equally in the proceedings. He/she has neither more advantage nor less advantage than an equivalent English-speaker, in terms of how he/she is perceived by the judge and/or jury. When we are tested for certification, the test always throws in a few swear-words to see how we do. It's quite a challenge but I think it's fair in legal terms.

Other contexts may be different. I am not a conference or escort interpreter, but personally I think that if the person said it, we should interpret it - who are we to compensate for somebody's vulgarity? The listeners have the right to hear the person's unexpurgated comments. UNLESS, beforehand, your client has told you to clean it up.

I am anxious to hear how it is done, for example, in the UN, in business talks, etc.

Direct link Reply with quote

Kevin Kelly  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:05
Member (2005)
Russian to English
+ ...
Depends on the specific situation... Jun 3, 2005

Many years ago as a beginning interpreter I found myself interpreting a private conversation between a distinguished American statesman and educator (who shall remain nameless) and an equally distinguished Soviet doctor. The American suddenly used the word f*** in a very emphatic way. I was a bit shocked and hastily translated the phrase using a much softer variant in Russian. He immediately stopped, looked me in the eye and said: "Tell him EXACTLY what I said. That's what I said and that's what I meant."

I later understood that the American had vast experience interacting with Russians through interpreters, and by intuition and experience knew that the listener would not be shocked. It was a good lesson for me.

I general strive to convey every nuance of what the speaker says. To my mind, any other approach shifts responsibility for controlling the discourse from the speakers to the interpreter, where it does NOT belong. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, inebriated speakers who make personally offensive comments are edited as required, for they have ceded the right to expect full and faithful interpretation. On the other hand, patently sexist or racist comments made by people who should know better are faithfully rendered. Such people should be made to deal with the consequences of their statements.

As pointed out by others, interpretation in a legal or courtroom setting requires absolute and full fidelity to the source speech in terms of content, style, register, etc., to the interpreter's best ability.

K. Kelly

Direct link Reply with quote
José Luis Villanueva-Senchuk  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:05
English to Spanish
+ ...
I like to go for 100% translation. (long but funny) Jun 3, 2005


I interpret everything. I do use the 10% rule cited above. Nevertheless, if the sphere of action gives room for full translation, I go for it. I understand one must adjust at times, but I like/prefer to go for full transfer.

Scenarios from real life:

1. A psychiatric symposium (world participants) in Argentina a month ago: the speaker says «[..] yeah... what do you do when the guys in the “ 'hood wanna 'moke some weed. You cannot tell those clients "f..k off."” We see this in the clinic all the time, we, as caregivers must provide...»
I did apply the 10% rule and everyone was happy. I used street slang for the audience to get the meaning but “coloured” the f..k off a bit. I conveyed the meaning.

2. Same venue/event: “there is nothing to do in the state I come from: you eat cheese all day or you get f.. (he ate the word but left the f sound floating) wasted” I had to say "te gusta el queso o te pones en reverendo pedo (Argentina slang), I had no option.

3. An olive oil world meeting in Catalonia: presiding table with Spanish ministers, local government officials, VIP guests from Germany (they were starting a bio-fuel plant in Catalunya). A country man, short-built-sundried skin (a piece of work and a TRUE worker) with a beret included, looks at the panel and starts: “Claro, vosotros porque soy teutones cuadrados, joder. Si os meten la mano en el bolsillo, sí ese h de p que está al lado vuestro, el de Hacienda, y os toca las pelas y los co..nes, a ver si vais a estar felices... Me cago en la p.. madre que os parió..." The French and the English said the whole thing (Right, you Teutons say it because you are squared headed. F..k!! they stick their hand into your pocket, yes – the guy next to you from the IRS, he fiddles with the "dough” (money) and your balls…I'd like to see if you are happy. Damn! F...k your mamma!), with proper tone (we are the voice of the speaker)... the German interpreter froze for a second. The German crew turned around towards the booths. The German interpreter said "the asker has said rude comments." The other DE interpreter saw the faces of the Deutsche groups and went full throttle. They came to the booth afterwards and thanked him, and told her she should have said it all.

4. Last and not least. I was in the SpanishEnglish booth working for Tony Robbins at his mega event in Kona, Hawaii. One the guest speakers, Dr. John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.) To make it short: he is on stage and grabs a banana and looks at the audience: “Ladies, we have been speaking about pleasure and ….. and .... Now is the turn to give the guys something back. I will tell you about what we like. You have a banana in your care package, let us practice on how to give a good blow job..." He went on for over 30 minutes, used colorful language, mimics, signs, movements, etc. There was NO way but to convey the meaning by using the same level of words and register. What was I going to say: "the speaker will now demonstrate one of the facets of oral sex ..." C'mon....

Andrea Macarie wrote:

Hi everyone,

I'm not an experienced interpreter (yet), but my interpreting teachers always said that I should tell the public that the speaker was coursing, or that he is using "politically incorrect" words which I refuse to translate (it is my right to omit such words).

Andrea, I disagree. If it catches you by surprise, you give the microphone to your partner. If you know the event is prone to colorful words, think about accepting the job or not beforehand, if you cannot handle it. Your right and obligation is to convey the message and nuances from the original language into the target language (in any setting.) Omitting a course word may change the message. If, for respect to the audience or the receiver (religion, local idiosyncrasies) one must adjust, do so, but one MUST also convey the same source message.

Cheers to all!


[Edited at 2005-06-03 18:33]

Direct link Reply with quote
Aleksandr Okunev
Local time: 00:05
English to Russian
Translate 100% Jun 5, 2005

Hi, Anton, loud cheers from Bobruisk!
Have always done 100%, have always slept well.
The 10% is a *very* tricky thing for me to handle.
My 3 copecks

Direct link Reply with quote
Maricica W.  Identity Verified

English to Romanian
+ ...
A little bit off-topic: offensive words in subtitling and brand naming Jun 7, 2005

My experience is related to subtitling and brand naming rather than interpreting.

It is customary for Romanian subtitlers to use the 10% rule (actually it could get to 50%, it all depends on the translator...) "F** you" is usually subtitled as "Damn!" I don't quite agree to that - it makes English swearing seem less offensive. I have heared young people swear in English in the presence of others, because they would be embarassed to swear in Romanian. I would go for the 100% rule in subtitling as well - this is why parental advisory rating exists in the first place. IMO,censorship should not be a subtitler's job.

Brand naming is more straightforward. Sometimes brand names resemble offensive words and translators don't tell out of pudeur. That's what makes "the Lighter Side" forum so funny...

Direct link Reply with quote
Local time: 23:05
Bosnian to English
+ ...
Do we change the meaning? Jun 29, 2005

You know guys, I had more of my share of "f" words in meetings and I never even for a second hesitated to interpret it for exactly what it was. The only thing that I worry about when I interpret it is did I catch the exact meaning. There is a slight difference when you say jokingly to someone "fu" and when you scream it from the top of the roofs and I think that that difference and attitude should be noted.

I mean, in those situations I always start laughing inside and ask myself who am I to assume what the speaker really wanted to say by his linguistic freedom to involve other client's mother in our negotiation? I, for one, hate the word "cunt" but if someone else enjoys using it, why not say it on his behalf? It says a lot about him too and that has nothing to do with who I am. If I felt that that kind of language was offending me, well then, quite frankly, maybe I was better off to choose a job that doesn't really deal with people. I mean, if the guy after 3 hours of negotiations lowered his price from 0,09 cents to 0,07 cents and said exesperatingly to my other client "Now you can buttfuck me" who am I to substitute that despair for something else?

Direct link Reply with quote
Nguyen Bac
Local time: 04:05
English to Vietnamese
Should say in some other ways Aug 18, 2006

I myself has not been a very experienced interpreter but I think I should re-tell vulgar words in some other ways. Actually, I find it really hard to say these words in my mother tonge. Instead, I may tell the listener: "He's lost his temper/He's really angry. He's swearing". That's all.

Direct link Reply with quote
Mohammed Abu-Risha
Local time: 00:05
Arabic to English
+ ...
Yes it depends Aug 22, 2006

An interesting discussion. Let me give you two incidents:

1- The speaker said to the audience: "I want to be rude and say....". in fact, the meaning of the word "rude" from context is "I might be criticising,,,or I might be hard". I did not translate it into Arabic as rude simply because when you say that you are rude, in Arabic, you convey a very negative and vague meaning. The Arabic speaking audiennce will feel frustrated because of this word. Therefore, I tended to translate it into Arabic as "critical and hard".

2- The speaker was not happy with some equipment and said "What the hell is going with this mic". Of course, I did not need to translate it simply because it was to the audience obvious from his gestures that he is complaining of the mic. In fact he said a vulgar word, which I will not mention here. Once again neither me nor my colleague translated it.

In sum, I storngly believe that we the interpreters are humans and are facilitators. We must try to convey the real meaning but when we feel that the speaker did not intend what he said, we should act very wisely.

Direct link Reply with quote

To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Vulgar words: translate or omit?

Advanced search

Anycount & Translation Office 3000
Translation Office 3000

Translation Office 3000 is an advanced accounting tool for freelance translators and small agencies. TO3000 easily and seamlessly integrates with the business life of professional freelance translators.

More info »
SDL Trados Studio 2017 Freelance
The leading translation software used by over 250,000 translators.

SDL Trados Studio 2017 helps translators increase translation productivity whilst ensuring quality. Combining translation memory, terminology management and machine translation in one simple and easy-to-use environment.

More info »

  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search