- About project
- Results and Awards
- Affiliate Programs
- International services
Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev, Ukraine
Championship participant: the National Research Analytics Championship - "Ukraine";
the Open European-Asian Research Analytics Championship;
The article offers an overview of the role of taboo language in the English-speaking world and post-Soviet countries, and describes the current trends of its development. Besides this, the article presents the analysis of the translation of taboo language from English into Russian and Ukrainian on the basis of two fiction books and one film.
Key words: taboo language, obscenity, profanity, political correctness, verbicide
We live in an age where bad language can become worrying not because it is getting worse, but, paradoxically, because it is no longer bad enough.
In the recent decades both Western and post-Soviet sociolinguistic spaces have observed the process of “detabooisation” of traditional taboo language. However, while in the English-speaking world the expansion of obscenity into culture started back in the beginning of the 20th century, in Ukraine the torrent of “dirty” language gushed to art and media only during Perestroyka, after the abolition of Soviet censorship. Since Russian and Ukrainian speakers are not used to the appearance of obscenities in such context, hardcore language in translation in most cases provokes much stronger reaction in them than the author intended to achieve with their English four-letter counterparts. This contradicts the dynamic equivalence theory formulated by Eugene Nida, which reads that the reaction of the target text recipients has to be similar to that of the source text recipients. Considering the volume of the English language cinema and literary products imported to Ukraine, large amount of which contains coarse language, the problem of obscenity translation is very important for Ukrainian linguistics.
Due to the censorship in the Russian Empire and then in the USSR during the 20th century numerous researches in Russian taboo language were conducted and published primarily in Europe. These works include Grossrussische erotische Volksdichtung by Е. Spinkler (1911) and Uber die personlichen Schimpfworter in Russischen by W. Christiani (published in Zeitschrift fur slavische Philologie journal in 1913). Russian scholars had not addressed this issue until Perestroyka but their findings were also published in the West. The most prominent of these are works by the Russian “obscenology” pioneer B. Uspensky (1983 and 1987) and the dictionary compiled by V. Bykov that contains a considerable amount of “obscenisms” (1992 and 1994). As for the Ukrainian “obscenology”, a significant contribution to this field of research was made by Lesya Stavytska and her work The Ukrainian Language without Taboos (2008).
Ronald Wardhaugh defines a linguistic taboo as the total or partial ban on uttering certain words or phrases, as well as discussing certain topics. Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics argues that the link between a sign and a denotation is arbitrary, therefore there are no objective reasons why a given word is taboo and others are not. Although researchers agree that taboos in some form or another are a cultural universal, they remain unchanged neither from synchronous, nor from diachronous point of view.Thus, the receiver’s reaction on the violation of a taboo highly depends on context. Linguistic taboos exist in three contexts: 1) historical (they change with time); 2) cultural (different cultures have different taboos); 3) situational (the same utterance may be acceptable or not in different environments).
Let us look into the modification of a taboo depending on each type of context.
As far as the historical context is concerned, it is worth mentioning that during the age of Shakespeare blasphemous ejaculations such as by God’s wounds! or by God’s blood! were under a powerful taboo, which led to the appearance of euphemistic shortenings zounds! and sblood!. At the same time, a word cunt, which is absolutely unacceptable in a decent company now, was used as a medical term in the English translation of a French treaty on surgery that dates back to the 15th century.
To illustrate the dependence of taboo on a particular culture, let us cite the following example. In 1988 in Los-Angeles a Tai entertainer killed a Laotian man who was present at his show. The reason was that during the performance the Laotian put his feet on a chair in such a way that the entertainer could see the soles of his shoes, and the demonstration of one’s soles to another person is considered as a deadly offense in Southeast Asia. Since for an outsider certain taboos may seem pointless and even weird, one can conclude that sharing the same taboos is one of the characteristic features of social unity.
The significance of the situational context of taboos is quiet obvious: a student can say that the film was rather shitty to his or her friend, but most likely will choose another word in a conversation with a teacher.
Speakers use obscene language in order to add emotional force to the utterance, to relieve the stress, to express solidarity with the interlocutor or to humiliate them. Germane to the current study are the functions suggested by V. Zhelvis, which pertain first of all to the artistic usage of obscenities. Among these are the cathartic function, realization of “the elitism of cultural position through its denial”, creation of the author’s image as “an unprejudiced person”, narrative function (to attract attention of the audience) and apotropaic function (to confuse the audience). Yet another reason is the author’s pursuit of realism and desire to reflect the excessive use of obscenities in the “real life”.
The key concept in the taboo language analysis is verbicide, that is the semantic process when once emotionally loaded words lose their expressivity because of the frequent usage. Old taboos are deprived of their former power, while new ones emerge. However, a translator has to bear in mind that the English and Russian/Ukrainian languages were developing in totally different historical environments throughout the 20th century; consequently, the process of the “detabooisation” of obscenities is on different stages in the Western and ex-Soviet sociolinguistic spaces.
Coarse language began to filter into Western literature and cinema starting from the 1920s with the most famous examples being Ulysses by James Joyce and the screen version of Gone with the Wind directed by Victor Fleming, which made a stir with the word damn uttered by Clark Gable's hero. But the turning point of the relationship of obscenity and art in the English-speaking world came in the 1960s. The landmark event in this regard was the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by David Lawrence, notorious for its explicit depictions of sex as well as ample usage of taboo language, including fuck and cunt. The trial took place a year after the adoption of a law that enabled publishers to avoid charges concerning the moral unacceptability of a book if they could prove its literary merit. On November 2 the court returned the verdict of not guilty, which led to the considerable liberalization in the domain of publishing in the Western society.
The (ex-)Soviet countries had seen no dramatic changes in the realm of censorship until the collapse of the USSR. Thus, the trial that can be compared to the Lady Chatterley’s case by its scandalousness and scale took place only and in 1999, and was connected with the publication of the novel Goluboye salo (Blue Lard) by Vladimir Sorokin. Regardless of artistic virtues of the books in question and political causes that stand behind the trials, one can state that the problem ofprofanity in literature became a subject for wide public discussion in the English-speaking environment some 40 years earlier than in the Russian/Ukrainian-speaking environment, which has undoubtedly influenced the place occupied by obscene language in the speakers’ minds.
Another important phenomenon that shook the Western sociolinguistic space in the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement, which caused the shift of taboo from traditional sexual and excretory topics to that of racial and ethnic slurs. Characteristically, in 1965 the most “dirty” English words (namely fuck and cunt) were recorded in both Penguin English Dictionary and Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English compiled by Eric Partridge. Just five years later Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition omitted ethnic insults described by the dictionary’s editor-in-chief David Guralnik as “true obscenities”. What is more, a survey conducted in Britain in 2000 revealed that English speakers rate terms of ethnic opprobrium (such as nigger and paki) as the most rude category of words, followed by slurs referring to sexual orientation (poof) and disability (spastic). Only after those came the traditional four-letter words. However, neither Ukraine nor Russia has experienced such a great influence of the political correctness doctrine.
It is worth mentioning that taboo language has considerable impact on recipients even on the physiological level: their skin conductance reduces, pulse grows more rapid and breath becomes shallow. The peculiarities of Tourette syndrome, which forces people to unvoluntarily utter long tirades of curses and obscenities, sometimes despite the complete or partial loss of speech, has led scientists to believe that taboo language is acquired and stored in the human brain not in the same way as other lexical layers. Timothy Jay even suggests that there is a Cursing Acquisition Device by analogy with Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device.
What is more, various experiments (in particular those by Pezdek&Prull and Burridge&Allan) show that taboo words tend to imprint in the recipients’ memory better than neutral ones, and the more unusual is the environment where these words are uttered, the more long-standing impression they leave.Given that post-Soviet audience generally does not expect coarse language to be used in public domain(as evidenced by the survey conducted by Russian Public Opinion Research Center), hardcore words in translation may attract too much attention of the readers/viewers, sometimes at the expense of other artistic virtues of the work.
In view of the aforementioned peculiarity, of paramount importance for film translators, whose work is seen by wide public, is the relation between obscenity and the broken windows theory introduced by James Wilson and George Kelling. The theory reads that the violation of a certain norm leads to the violation of other norms. According to Adam Gitter, the same applies to the violation of linguistic taboos, since his experiments suggest that people who are exposed to coarse language tend to be more loyal towards minor criminal offenses.
Considering the differences in the perception of taboo language in the source and target culture bearers, I suggest that the reasonable choice for a translator would be not to strive for literalness but to think twice before using hardcore words in the target text (especially when it comes to film translation). However, going to another extreme and ignoring obscenities altogether is also unlikely to add to the translation’s adequacy, so, one should try to convey the expressivity of the original by other linguistic means. As concerns the Ukrainian language, the challenge is even more serious since due to objective historical reasons the colloquial and substandard vocabulary in Ukrainian are underdeveloped.
In order to see how Ukrainian and Russian translators cope with this task I have analysed Russian and Ukrainian renderings of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (by Yuri Medvedko and Illya Strongovski) and Jerome David Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (by Rita Rite-Kovalyova and Olexiy Logvynenko). I have also looked into the West Video Studio’s translation of the Cannes’ Palme d’Or-winning movie Pulp Fiction, which “boasts” containing 272 f-words.
Two of these translations were made during the Soviet era (The Catcher in the Rye by Rita Rite-Kovalyova, 1965 and Olexiy Logvynenko, 1984), while Yuri Medvedko and Illya Strongovski’s renderings, as well as West Video’s translation saw the light after the collapse of the USSR (in 1999, 2008 and 2002 respectively). Generally we can conclude that the translators of the younger generations feel more at ease with coarse language than their older colleagues. For instance, neither Ms Rite-Kovalyova, nor Mr Logvynenko resort to the literal translation of the obscenity in the phrase:
D. J. Salinger
Somebody'd written “Fuck you” on the wall.
Кто-то написал на стене
Якийсь кретин написав на стіні матюка!
As we can see, both translators rendered the phrase Fuck you in a descriptive way using neutral lexemes похабщинаand матюк. Since by this utterance the hero intends to state a fact rather than to express emotions, this version of translation seems to convey the author’s message. However, O. Logvynenko still tries to compensate the mincing and not only renders the neutral somebody by the invective якийсь кретин, but also adds the exclamatory mark at the end of the sentence.
Another finding is that as far as coarse language is concerned the translations seem far less repetitive than the originals. Of particular interest is the version of I. Strongovski that looks as if it were a result of profound ethnografical research in the domain of Ukrainian obscenities. Inter alia, Mr Strongovski offers a wide range of authentic Ukrainian correspondences for ejaculations God damn you (it)!andGoddamn!(tonameafew, щоб тебе муха вбрикнула; ну й котися під три чорти; а щоб ти ходив, як води ходять; дідько; біса йому в ребро; срав пес тим сусідам); for an invective word bastard (довбограник, виродок, паскуда); and, most significantly, for taboo words describing male and female genitalia, which usually cause enormous difficulties in translation, cock and cunt (прутень, патик and дзюрка, кунка, пичодайка, гандила respectively).
Film translators tend to be more cautious with vulgar language than literary ones, to the point where they completely ignore the expressivity of the source utterance. Let us look at a few examples from the West Studio’s translation of Pulp Fiction.
That’s all there is to it. I’m fuckin’ goin’.
Все. Я туда еду. И не отговаривай.
We should have fuckin’ shotguns.
На такое дело надо было брать дробовик.
–Come on. Get your shit. We gotta go right now.
–I was so worried.What about our bags ?
– Fuck the bags; if we don’t split right now, we’ll miss the train. … Honey, we gotta hit
the fuckin’ road ! Get on !
–Давай, детка, собирайся, уезжаем прямо сейчас.
– Я так волновалась. А как же вещи?
– К черту вещи, если не рванем сейчас, упустим поезд. … Детка, пожалуйста, мы срочно должны ехать! Садись!
In the first two cases the translator simply omits the intensifier fucking, thus neutralizing the emotionally loaded original. In the third example the obscene expressions get your shit and hit the fucking road are rendered with absolutely neutral собирайся and мы срочно должны ехать, while fuck the bags is translated as к чёрту вещи, which sounds far less rude. Given that the dialogue unfolds between the hero and his girlfriend, one can assume that the reason for such “courtesy” in translation is a common stereotype that swearing in front of women is inadmissible, which is widespreadin post-Soviet countries (however, proved to be groundless).
But sometimes, surprisingly, translation appears to be even harsher than the source text as in the following extract.
"That'sdifferent. You'reaman, I'mawoman."
"Oh, I didn't know that. I thought you bitches were alwaysscreamingforequalrights?"
– Это совсем другое дело – ты мужик, а я женщина!
– Ого! А я и не знал! Какого же *** вы, суки, вопите о равноправии?
– Це інше. Ти чоловік, я жінка.
– О, а я цього й не знав. Гадав, що ви, курви, завжди кричите про рівні права.
Here Mr Medvedko resorts to a hardcore Russian word without any apparent reason. Besides this, he renders neutral words man and screaming with emotionally loaded мужикand вопите, which adds even more energy to the utterance. On the contrary, Mr Strongovski’s version seems to correspond to the original’s level of expressivity.
An extremely efficient strategy in dealing with obscenities is that of lexical and grammatical transformations. For example, in the analyzed translations due to the device of modulation the word shit is rendered with a bunch of different equivalents depending on context: барахло, косяк, ширево, пирсинг and many others. Compensation proves useful when it comes to intensifiers like damned or fucking:
…I learned from the drunk up the hill, whodid the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody…
…и я узнал от одного пропойцы с Голливудских холмов, что на почте в это время готовы взять последнего забулдыгу.
Від пияка, який жив на пагорку, довідався, що гребуть вони ледь не всіх…
In this passage both translators compensate the expressivity conveyed by the intensifier damned by using substandard equivalents for neutral words from the source text: Y. Medvedko renders anybody as забулдыгаwhile I. Strongovski resorts to the colloquial гребутьinstead of the neutral hire.
In general, as concernstaboo language, thetranslators used the following approaches:
1) The correspondence was found in the target language that was expressive enough to convey the communication effect of the original but did not fall into the category of the most offensive Russian/Ukrainian words. What is interesting is that the translators obviously tried to avoid uniformity and rendered the same English words or phrases with a wide range of synonyms in the target languages.
2) The expressivity was rendered by other means with the help of translation transformations. The most frequently used transformations were compensation and modulation.
3) On exceptional occasions the most offensive Russian words were used. In the film this was not the case unless the situation was extremely loaded emotionally, while literary translators of younger generation used taboo language more freely.
4) Obscene words were rendered with neutral lexemes thus ignoring the expressivity of the original and failing to convey its communication effect.
Since in the Russian and Ukrainian languages traditional obscenities remain extremely powerful, unlike in English, where the sphere of linguistic taboo is shifting to racial and ethnic slurs, the first two approaches seem to be the most efficient. The third should be used only on careful consideration, while the fourth approach obviously fails to achieve translation adequacy.
Taboo language remains an important, though often overlooked part not only of everyday life of all strataof society, but also of contemporary belles-lettres and cinema. However, various directions of research in this realm have yet to be explored by linguists, translators, sociologists and psychologists.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
1. Allan, K. Taboos and quirks of human behaviour [Electronic source]. – Online: http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/linguistics/staff/kallan.php
2. Allan, K., Burridge, K. Euphemism and Disphemism. Language Used as Shield and Weapon. – Oxford University Press, 1991.
3. Allan, K., Burridge, K. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. – Cambridge University Press, 2006.
4. Angier, N. Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore. – New York Times, September 20, 2005.
5. Axtell, R. E. Gestures: The do’s and taboos of body language around the world. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1991.
6. Bukowski, Ch.PostOffice. – Black Sparrow Press, 1995.
7. Gitter, A. Shooting the Shit: Profanity, Self-Control, and Aggressive Behaviour. – The Florida State University, 2010.
8. Handayani, S. Language Taboo Expressed in American Comedy Film Deuce Bigalow [Electronic source]. – Online: http://lib.uin-malang.ac.id.
9. Hughes,G. Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. – M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
10. Jay T. Cursing in America: a psycholinguistic study of dirty language in the courts, in the movies, in the schoolyards, and on the streets. - J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1992.
11. Klerk, V. How taboo are taboo words for girls? – Language in Society, 21, 1992.
12. Millwood-Hargrave, A. Delete Expletives? Research undertaken jointly by the Advertising Standards Authority, British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission. December 2000.
13. Nida, E. Towards a Science of Translating. – Brill Academic Publishers, 1964.
14. Pezdek, K., Prull, M. Fallacies in memory for conversations: Reflections on Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the like. - Applied Cognitive Psychology, 7, 1993.
15. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. – Penguine Books, 2010.
16. Wardhaugh, R. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. – Blackwell Pub., 2006.
17. Wilson, J., Kelling, G. Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. - Antlantic Monthly, 1982.
18. Буковски Ч. Почтовое отделение. Перевод Юрия Медведко. – Новое культурное пространство, 1999.
19. Буковскі Ч. Поштамт. Переклад Іллі Стронґовського. – Київ, «Факт», 2008.
20. Жельвис В.И. Поле брани. - М., 2001.
21. Інформаційне агентство «Інтерфакс» [Electronicsource]. – Online: http://interfax.ru.
22. Мокиенко В. М.. Русская бранная лексика: цензурное и нецензурное. Русистика.- Берлин, 1994, №1/2.
23. Селінджер Д. Д. Ловець у житі. Переклад Олекси Логвиненко. – Харків, «Фоліо», 2010.
24. Соссюр, Ф. Курс общей лингвистики. – КомКнига, 2006.
25. Сэлинджер Д. Д. Над пропастью во ржи. Перевод Риты Райт-Ковалевой. – Эксмо, 2008.