“Countries that are dirty like toilets,” and Other Ways Trump’s Expletive was Translated Abroad
Washington Post (01/12/18) Schmidt, Samantha
The task of deciding what to do with expletives uttered by world leaders—and whether to censor such remarks in news reports—is challenging enough for the U.S. press, but imagine trying to convey these phrases so they make sense in a different language. That head-scratching dilemma played out in newsrooms around the world after it was reported that President Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries” while discussing immigrant protections with lawmakers.
Every culture has its profanities, to be sure, but they do not always translate well. The main daily newspapers in El Salvador, one of the countries mentioned by Trump, went with the translation agujeros de mierda, which essentially means “holes of shit.” Alex Segura, Washington correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE, tweeted about the debate with his editors concerning how to translate Trump’s words. Segura says the options considered included “shitty countries,” “unclean countries,” and “pigsties.”
The two words from which “shithole” are formed are not that difficult to translate individually, according to linguist Juliane House, the former president of the International Association for Translation and Intercultural Studies. Most languages have some equivalent for the first part of the combination—or at least some profane variation of a word for excrement. “It’s a bodily function,” says House, who is also a professor at the University of Hamburg. The word “hole,” by itself, is also easy enough. But what happens when you put those two words together? Is it an adjective or a noun, and how do you use it in a sentence to describe certain countries?
Editors from various news organizations need to approve the wording for articles prior to publication. In many cultures, discussing excrement and using profanity—even when quoting a world leader—may be a serious taboo. Depending on the political or moral leanings of a news organization, editors may choose to clean up the expletive. “Translation is never neutral, so ideology comes in, and probably pressure from above,” House says.
Some foreign news outlets took an easier approach when quoting Trump—disregarding the word “hole.” Most French media went with the phrase pays de merde, which essentially means “shitty countries.” This meaning is quite clear, says Bérengère Viennot, a professional French translator who has often been tasked with translating Trump’s remarks. In Finnish, one translation of the phrase was persläpimaat, which literally means “asshole countries.”
“This kind of language often makes for some entertaining discussions in the newsroom,” says Judith Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. “Even though the world around us is changing, we are sticking to our standards at the Sun Journal. This means we look at a quote and ask if it’s really necessary to tell the story.”
Steve Greenlee, managing editor of the Portland Press Herald, says the press has to adapt to changes in language usage. “We’re seeing an increasing amount of crassness in political discourse, which means we have to deal with it more often.”