Avoiding offensive phrases in translation

Did you know that Satan is an offensive word in Finnish? Or that calling someone a cancer sufferer is insulting in Dutch?

It’s important to be aware of words and phrases that could be offensive in your translations – but that can be easier said than done. Let’s take a look at how to avoid offensive phrases, including helpful strategies for respectful translation and when you should (or shouldn’t) translate swear words.


The different ways that words and phrases are offensive

Offensive language isn’t just about being rude. It’s a calculated use of language to provoke a certain emotional reaction – and that reaction is typically negative. 

Swear words cause a negative response in the brain. From disgust to hatred, let’s take a look at some different ways phrases can be offensive.

Religion

Religion is a key type of offensive language. This is because religious expletives like “Jesus” or “Hell” provoke fear of a powerful or unknown higher being.

Disfavoured groups

You may also see offensive language used towards different social groups, such as racist slurs. This language is intended to provoke hatred and intolerance.

bad words translation

Human sexual activity

Many offensive words and phrases centre around sexual activity, such as slang for body parts or the “f” word. This is because these words provoke a subconscious negative response to sexual depravity – and many of us will choose polite euphemisms instead.

Illness

Illness is a scary concept; it brings to mind pain and loss. This is why phrases like “a plague on both your houses” can be used to provoke a negative neurological reaction.

Foul language

Foul language includes words associated with excretion, such as the “s” word. These words provoke a sense of disgust – and they’re considered inappropriate in professional contexts


The reasons why profanities are used

Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker has proposed 5 reasons why people swear: abusive, cathartic, empathetic, descriptive and idiomatic. Let’s take a closer look, using the “f” word as an example.

Abuse

Example: “F**k you”

Profanities express aggression towards someone or something. This form of swearing provokes a negative neurological response, adding power to abusive insults.

Catharsis

Example: “F**k!”

Think back to the last time you stubbed your toe. Did you mutter a swear word to yourself? That’s because cursing can be cathartic.

A study of bilingual people showed that participants felt a greater catharsis when swearing in their first language. Curse words are a satisfying way to release our emotions.

Empathy

Example: “That’s f**king ridiculous”

We often use profanities to show our loved ones that we empathise with their situation – good or bad.

Dysphemistic

Example: “Let’s f**k”

The opposite of a euphemism, a dysphemism makes something sound worse. As curse words originate from profanity, using them as their literal definitions evokes strong negative emotions.

Idiomatic

Example: “That’s f***ked up”

Idiomatic swearing can be used to get attention or present a dominant, macho image of yourself. It can also demonstrate that you’re having an informal conversation, helping someone feel at ease.


Differences in profanities and offensive phrases across different languages and cultures

We all know that words like “Jesus” and the “s” word can provoke an emotional reaction in English. However, cursing in other languages can be quite different.

So, how do people in other parts of the world express catharsis, empathy or even abuse?

Dutch

Calling someone a “Kankerlijer” is an abusive profanity in Dutch. This translates into English as “cancer sufferer”. Although cancer is a terrible illness across the world, calling someone a cancer sufferer isn’t considered an offensive insult in England, compared to the Netherlands.

Illness-related swear words are also common in Poland, with the exclamation of “cholera!” as catharsis.

Finnish

Swearing in different languages can provoke different reactions. In English, we often use profanities about someone’s mother as an insult.

However, in Finland, bringing up someone’s mother doesn’t insult the person you’re speaking to – rather, their mother.

Words like “saatana” (Satan) and “helvetti” (Hell) are more offensive terms in Finland – and they’re common profanities in Sweden, too.

French

Although “con” (idiot) is a common insult in French – similar to English – it’s culturally considered more offensive than its English translation.

The Quebecer version of the language also uses the term “criss” (a diminutive of Christ) to provoke a strong negative reaction. Unlike England’s “Christ”, using “criss” in Quebec is equivalent to using the “f” word in English.

swearing in different language

Strategies for avoiding offensive phrases when translating

Translating swear words and sensitive phrases is one of the many challenges facing modern linguists. Here are some of the best practices, tools and strategies for swear word and offensive language translation.

1. Context is key

If you need to translate bad words, try thinking about the type of text you’re translating – and its tone of voice. Is it formal? Is it friendly?

As cursing is different in different languages, you need to make sure the context of your source text matches the context of your target text.

Consider your audience. For example, when translating from an expressive language like Spanish – in which swear words may be used liberally – you need to think about whether your content will be offensive to your target audience.

2. Avoid literal translation

Translating swear words literally can lead to confusion and inaccuracy. For example, a literal translation of the Dutch “Kankerlijer” to “cancer sufferer” wouldn’t make sense as an insult to an English audience.

3. Rephrase

Most dictionaries can be used for curse word translation. However, sometimes a substitution just won’t fit. Instead, you may need to rephrase.

In a 2020 study, linguists identified that adaptation can be used to translate cultural references or phrases when a direct translation doesn’t make sense.


Next steps: translating sensitive content

Translating sensitive content can be a tricky process. You need to understand your text’s intent and explore different solutions to avoid offending your audience.

Although “swear word translator” is not a title that any of our team currently hold, our expert team of professional translators can help you navigate problematic language nuances. We work with native speakers to inform the context of your translation, helping you create accurate, authentic content.

Get in touch for a chat about your next project!


Kitty LEaF blog 2021

About the Author

Kitty

Kitty Trewhitt is a translation project manager at LEaF Translations. She oversees each phase of the translation project and keeps in contact with both the client and linguists throughout the process. Besides managing our projects, Kitty also translates and proofreads texts from French and Italian into English, as well as creating LEaF’s monthly newsletter and managing the company social media accounts.