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Translating slang terms and colloquialisms: part 1

Translators often come across slang terms and swear words whilst interpreting text. These can be some of the most difficult terms to translate as they are often language-specific.

For example, would a Russian understand the English term ‘enough room to swing a cat’ if it was translated literally into their language? Part of being a good translator is having an excellent grasp over the source language and the target language so as to be flexible if any slang terms are encountered in the translation process.

Swear words and slang terms are a colourful and vibrant part of language and they play an important part in allowing people to fully express themselves in colloquial dialogue. However, as common as they are, they are one of the hardest parts of text for a translator to interpret due to their varied and context-reliant use.

It is widely regarded among translators that the best method for tackling slang or colloquial terms in a text is to try to find a phrase with a similar meaning in the target text so as to keep the context and meaning the same as the source text.

However, it’s not always that easy. For example, take the word ‘cool’. Used in conversation by English speakers in agreement with others, to acknowledge that something is a-okay, to convey awe, etc. Yet it doesn’t translate well into Spanish at all. There are several words that may convey something similar but they’re not used in Spanish dialogue to the extent that English speakers use ‘cool’.

The important thing for a translator to remember when interpreting a body of text is that they are simply acting as a messenger. The role of a translator is to determine the intentions of the writer and the context of the writing.

The use of particular swear words may enhance the style and tone of the writing, and the removal or softening of them may alter the way the target reader consumes the text. Therefore the translator needs to find a way to convey what the writer intended without altering the context and semantics of the writing.

Over the next couple of blog posts we’ll be looking at the different methods used by translators to translate a source text into a target language and the difficulties that each method can pose.

You can read part 2 here!