It was a debate that many journalists likely never expected to face: How to properly quote the president of the United States saying the words “s***hole countries”.
Deciding what to do with his remarks – and whether to censor them in news reports – was tough enough for the press in the US. It was, after all, a vulgar phrase not usually fit for a newspaper or television.
But imagine trying to make sense of it in a different language. Every culture has its profanities, to be sure, but they do not always translate well.
That dilemma played out in newsrooms around the world on Thursday after The Washington Post reported that Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “s***hole countries” while discussing immigrant protections with lawmakers.
The main daily newspapers in El Salvador, one of the countries maligned by the president, went with the translation “agujeros de mierda,” which essentially means “holes of s***.”
“Why do we have all these people from countries (who are a) hole of s*** coming here?” read Trump’s translated remarks, from the Spanish news agency EFE.
“It’s a bit literal,” one Spanish-speaking reader tweeted.
Alex Segura, Washington correspondent for EFE, tweeted about the debate with his editors over how to translate “the pearl of the day from Trump”. Other options they considered for the phrase? “S***ty countries,” “unclean countries,” and “pigsties”, he said.
Another journalist, in Mexico, tweeted that he had debated at length with a least five editors over how to translate Trump’s comment into Spanish. “#LaEraTrump,” he said.
Indeed, the Trump era has created a headache for translators and interpreters again and again. On the one hand, the President’s simple vocabulary makes his words easy to follow. But when they’re combined into sentences and paragraphs, they are a jumble, jumping from topic to topic.
When a video was released capturing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women, news outlets across the world struggled with how to translate “Grab them by the p****.”
In China, where there’s no obvious word for p****, some news outlets published more sanitised versions using references to “private places” or “nether parts”. Others opted for simply including the censored English word, “use p**** to grab them”.
These cleaned-up versions fail to give foreign news consumers the full picture, which can prove problematic. Understanding the President’s remarks is, after all, essential to readers worldwide – his words could lead to life-altering policies and decisions for people all over.
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The two words from which “s***hole” 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,” said House, who is a professor at the University of Hamburg.
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 does one use it in a sentence to describe certain countries?
Even then, House said, “that doesn’t really mean that this gets through”.
Editors from various news organisations need to approve the wording for publication. In many cultures, discussing excrement and using profanity – even when quoting the most powerful man in the world – may be a serious taboo. Depending on the political or moral leanings of a news organisation, editors may choose to clean up the expletive.
“Translation is never neutral, so ideology comes in, and probably pressure from above,” House said.
Some foreign news outlets took an easier approach – to disregard the “hole”.
Most French media went with the phrase “pays de merde,” which essentially means “s***ty countries.”
This meaning was quite clear, said Bérengère Viennot, a professional French translator who has often been tasked to translate Trump’s remarks. But previous words from Trump have left more room for ambiguity, such as the time he told France’s first lady Brigitte Macron “you’re in such good shape”.
“Things have evolved: one year ago, maybe journalists would have developed or justified their choice of French swearwords for translating the American president; now it seems taken for granted that he uses a vocabulary that does not fit with the function” of the presidency, Viennot wrote in an email to The Post. “Vulgar is the new normal.”
In Finnish, one translation of the phrase was “persläpimaat”, which literally means “a***hole countries”.
In Swahili, Trump’s phrase would likely be translated into “Bongo land”, a term used to describe poor or uncivilized places, Jan Blommaert, a Belgian linguistic anthropologist, told The Post. It’s a phrase considered disparaging by many. The phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” was actually banned for its members by Ukip in 2013 after a member of European Parliament used it to describe countries receiving government aid.
Some of the oddest translations of Trump’s latest crudity showed up in Asian news outlets.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency went with niao bu sheng dan de guo jia, meaning “countries where birds don’t lay eggs”, as Quartz pointed out. Japan’s Sankei used “Benjo no yō ni kitanai kuni”, meaning “countries that are dirty like toilets”.
As Anna Fifield, Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, noted, South Korean media had to spell out the word in English.
In Germany, a common translation was “drecksloch”, which conveys a garbage dump.
“We used that a lot back when he called the White House a dump (simpler times!), but it doesn’t work for countries,” one German interpreter argued on Twitter.
Reached by a reporter early on Friday morning, House, the linguist in Hamburg, said she hadn’t read Trump’s original words in English yet – only the translation in a German daily.
“Is it dirthole?” she asked.
Close, but not quite.
The Washington Post