Volume 10, No. 3 
July 2006

María Jesús Fernández Fernández


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Screen Translation. A Case Study: The Translation of Swearing in the Dubbing of the Film South Park into Spanish
by María Jesús Fernández Fernández

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Arts & Entertainment


Screen Translation. A Case Study:

The Translation of Swearing in the Dubbing of the Film South Park into Spanish

by María Jesús Fernández Fernández

This paper was presented in February 2004 at the Conference on In So Many Words: Language Transfer on the Screen,organized by the University of Surrey in London.


This paper focuses on the role of swearing in film translation and, particularly, in the dubbing of American films into Peninsular Spanish. Here, we look at the way in which swearing is being handled in dubbing nowadays, as well as the reasons behind the language contact situation and interferences that take place between the two languages—English and Spanish—during the translation process. Finally, we present and discuss some examples of the translation of this special type of language in a contrastive analysis of the American animated film South Park and its Spanish dubbed version.


he United States is undoubtedly the first largest exporter of audiovisual products in the world. Nowadays, audiovisual products from the United States dominate, not exclusively but mostly, the Spanish film industry, and therefore the translation of these products into Spanish becomes necessary. The consequent contact situation between English and Spanish during the translation process often results in language interference and borrowings, predominantly from the upper language (English) to the less powerful language (Spanish). Traditionally, these borrowings affect the phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical and/or semantic structures of the target language. However, some of this interference affects not only the linguistic structure, but also the socio-cultural and communicative structure of the target language. This usually happens when certain speech acts, colloquial expressions, etc., are translated literally. Swearing is an example of this phenomenon.


1. Swearing

Many people are shocked by swearing. Swear words are considered to be offensive, rude, insulting, inappropriate or even "bad language." The reason behind this is that these words refer to things that are not to be talked about in public (usually unmentionable bodily functions and sex); they are taboo. It is often argued that swear words impoverish our language and our vocabulary, and we should avoid them. However, there are some other words that are also racist or sexist, but forbidding them would not necessarily end racist thinking.

Nevertheless, the intention of this paper is not to decide whether we are supposed to say these words or not. What matters is that we do use them. They play an important role in language. The difference is that some people use them more than others, but we all have them in our vocabularies. Swearing is part of the language and it should also be studied and analyzed. People often feel they need to use swear words in order to release tension, to express strong emotions and attitudes, such as anger, surprise, frustration, annoyance etc. There are certain situations in which no other words would be more appropriate.

Swearing has always existed and it cannot be ignored; swear words will always be with us.


2. Swearing in English and in Spanish

'The structure of a language is a powerful tool for understanding a culture' (Sagarin, 1968: 18). Then swearing, as part of the language, can be also a form of the culture. Swearing is, if not a universal feature of human communication, at least common to most societies and civilizations. There is also great variation in what constitutes swearing in different cultures, or at least in the way it is expressed.

In this paper we will look at the different ways of swearing of Peninsular Spanish and American English. English and Spanish vary considerably in their use of swearing language.

However, Spanish and English swearing share some features such as the theme or topic. In most languages, swearing is mainly related to personal and bodily functions, sex or religion. For example, words for faeces are typical swear words in many European languages: shit (English), Scheisse (German), szar (Hungarian), skit (Swedish), merde (French), mierda (Spanish) or merda (Italian and Portuguese).

In the case of Spanish and English, blasphemous words are also common to both languages:

(En) Goddamit!
(Sp) ¡Me cago en Dios! (or the abbreviation ¡cagüendios! literally 'I shit on God')

Yet in Spanish, the number of blasphemous terms is more extensive, often preceded by me cago en... (literally 'I shit on...'), probably the most popular of all Spanish expressions. There are for instance blasphemies related to the Virgin Mary and the consecrated host that do not exist in English (¡Me cago en Dios y en la puta Virgen! [literally 'I shit on God and the fucking Virgin'] , ¡Me cago en la madre que parió al demonio! ['I shit on the mother who gave birth to the Devil'], ¡Me cago en Dios y en todos los santos! ['I shit on God and all the saints'], ¡Hostia puta! ['Fucking host!'], etc.).

Further similarities can be found in the way Spanish and English combine swear words in sentences, that is, in syntactic structures.

Both have expletives: (En) shit! fuck! fuck it!; (Sp) ¡joder! ¡mierda! ¡cojones!. They can be tied to a sentence after (En) You can't do that, for fuck's sake! (Sp) ¡Otra vez he suspendido, joder! or before, separated by commas (En) Shit! I knew this could happen! (Sp) ¡Coño, ¿qué haces tú aquí?.

Also both have swear words as the main nominal or verbal constituents of the sentence:

(En) That bastard [noun] fucked [verb] everything up again!
(Sp) Eres un capullo [noun], eso son ganas de joder [verb]

And both languages have swear words as adjectives and intensifiers:

(En) Gimme the fucking report right now!
(Sp) ¡Apaga la puta radio!

As for the fixed expressions, there are also similarities, for example set and ready-made formulas as: (En) Go to hell!; (Sp) ¡Vete a la mierda! [literally 'Go to shit!'], ¡Vete a hacer puñetas! ¡Vete a tomar por culo!

And frames such as: (En) What the fuck is that? Where the hell are you going?; (Sp) ¿Qué cojones es eso? [literally 'What the bollocks is that?'], ¿Cuándo coño vas a terminar?.

Some forms of swearing appear to be universal, while others are more specific to a culture. The problem appears when English swearing language intrudes upon the Spanish patterns of swearing and English swear words, formulas and fixed expressions are considered in their literal meaning and are translated literally into Spanish. In a way, it may not be wrong to translate ¡Mierda! for Shit!, ¿Qué demonios estás haciendo aquí? for What the hell are you doing here? or ¡Bastardo! for Bastard!. Yet such translations sound 'too English'. It is not a matter of grammar or syntax; rather, there are differences in the style of swearing between Spanish and English. The phrase ¿qué demonios estás haciendo aquí? is grammatically correct but not frequently used. There is a great distinction between being grammatically correct and being socially correct.

Let's take the example given by Andersson and Trudgill in their book Bad Language (1990, p. 62):

Vem i helvete har varit här? (Swedish) = 'Who in hell has been here?'

Co za cholera tu byla? (Polish) = 'Who for cholera was here?'

Ki a fene volt itt? (Hungarian) = 'Who the sickness was here?'

¿Quién coño ha estado aquí? (Spanish) = 'Who the cunt has been here?'

These are an example of literal translations of swearing formulas from Swedish, Polish, Hungarian and Spanish into English. They might not be ungrammatical, but it is not what English people would say to express their anger/frustration/surprise in a specific situation. We could say that they are not socially, culturally or communicatively correct.

This is what often happens when English swearing habits are translated literally into Spanish, especially in the dubbing of films. In the past, particularly, American films dubbed into Spanish were full of such classic expressions as ¡maldita sea, le han matado! ('Damn it! They killed him!'). The dialogues often sounded 'toned down' or artificial, and hardly reflected the reality of Spanish colloquial language, often resulting in a consequent lack of authenticity in the film in the target language. Not only do we hear these instances of corruption in the films, but increasingly people are beginning to use them in their everyday life and conversation. Some of them have entered active use, especially among young people. Expressions such as Estás condenadamente loco ('You're so damn crazy'), Dame el jodido informe ('Gimme the fucking report') or ¿Dónde demonios/ diablos has estado? ('Where the hell have you been?').

In Spanish, condenadamente and jodido are never used in that position in a sentence. There are many valid possibilities for that sentence, like dame el puto/ puñetero informe (before the noun) or dame el informe de los cojones/ de mierda/ de las narices (after the noun), which are more appropriate in Spanish, but hardly used in films. For you're so damn crazy, there is even the possibility of creating a whole new sentence, different in syntax but equivalent in meaning and intention, such as estás como una puta cabra, commonly used in Spanish. Bastard is another example, often translated as ¡bastardo!. However, ¡hijo de puta! or ¡cabrón! would be more appropriate.


3. The Reasons for the Interference

In Spain, American films are usually dubbed. The process of translation results inevitably in language contact and interference. It is probably in the translation of spontaneous spoken language and colloquial expressions that most borrowings occur. In particular, this paper looks at the way the translation of taboo language, swear words and offensive expressions have been and are currently being handled in the dubbing of films.

Relaxed censorship codes in American films leave no strict control over what is said, and violence or sex are no longer banned. American films are certainly offensive and shocking for many people nowadays. However, in order to retain a film's original artistic integrity (I shall not comment on artistic quality), swear words should be translated as and when they are spoken by the actors, however offensive; above all, the 'sense' of the swearing and the appropriate level of intensity should be communicated to the target audience.

Very often in the past, while watching American films dubbed into Spanish, one could not help being shocked by, frown upon or even laugh at expressions such as ¡Cierra tu jodida boca! for 'Shut the fuck up!' or ¡Le has matado, bastardo! for 'You killed him, you bastard!' which were actually in Spanish but which at the same time did not sound Spanish. However, after listening to the same expressions on TV and in films for many years, Spaniards have increasingly ended up using them on the street.

This phenomenon is not due to a lack of similar or equivalent expressions in the target language (Spanish is not exactly the most 'politically correct' language: on the contrary, Spanish is arguably the most 'relaxed' European language). There are other reasons behind these strange translations.

a) One of the main reasons is the increasing influence of America in Spain, alongside the rest of the world. Films made in Hollywood and other American television shows are an effective way to spread American culture: we drink Coca-Cola, we eat fast food, we read American best sellers, and we listen to American pop songs. And, not only do we imitate America's way of life, but we are also transferring America's way of speaking to the Spanish language. In the world of translation, this phenomenon is revealed in a method known as "foreignization,"¹ characterized by allowing cultural and linguistic differences to stay intact in the translation. However, on the one hand, translated films should not maintain the linguistic discourse of the original language strictly, as in the case of cierra tu jodida boca. Spanish speakers would be shocked by strange-sounding phrases and foreign grammatical structures. But, on the other hand, its is not necessary to change the original image into one too familiar to the Spanish audience, like the norm in some American series dubbed into Spanish a few years ago, like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. These series contained many dialogues that sounded too Spanish [a case of over-"domestication"]). Nevertheless, these two approaches should be used selectively according to each specific situation. In the case of swearing, it would be too much to translate for example Get the fuck out of here! as ¡Vete a freir espárragos! or even ¡Vete a tomar por culo! because they would sound too Spanish. However on the other hand the translation Lárgate de una jodida vez, ¿quieres?, a phrase frequently used in films, sounds odd and artificial because it is not what a Spaniard would say. However there are similar phrases in Spanish, like ¡Vete a la mierda! that preserves the meaning and the tone of the original form and is respectful of the correct idiomatic usage of the TL, but does not contain strong cultural allusions.

b) Our borrowing phenomenon can also be due to the so-called "neutral Spanish" accent used in dubbed films. Neutral Spanish excludes local terms, regionalisms and country-specific pronunciations, words or expressions, so that all Spanish-speakers can understand what is said. Some of the changes include modifying intonation, avoiding the use of local accents and especially eliminating slang of specific countries and idiomatic expressions, mostly when concerned with colloquial expressions and swearing. The translation of swear words into neutral Spanish is not very close to the real meaning because they are 'watered-down' and generalised by not being associated with a particular Spanish-speaking country or sub-group of the Spanish population. They are standardized and lack character. Sometimes, even if a foreign film is dubbed into neutral Spanish for the South American market and a different translation of the same film is made for Spain, the dialect or accent chosen in Peninsular Spanish is also a standardized one. This possibly happens because many translators and film editors are still concerned that using 'real' swear words might make the films sound too offensive. The dialogues consequently sound rather artificial and we still find expressions such as jodidamente, demonios, maldita sea, etc. Essentially, the use of neutral Spanish mainly serves an economic purpose. By choosing neutral Spanish, film-makers commercialize the same film throughout all the Spanish-speaking market in a significant technique for reducing costs in the marketing and distribution of the film, by eliminating the need to produce additional versions of the same film for each Spanish-speaking area in both Spain and the Americas. In the same way, in dubbing films into Peninsular Spanish, the existence of regional variations can present a particular problem. The solution to such problems is again the use of a standardized Spanish; a language that often appears artificial and which is widely disliked by the majority of Spanish-speaking countries.

c) Another reason for the euphemistic nature in the translation of swearing in films is the nature of the 'ready-made' language used on screen. In most cases, although films normally imitate real life, their content is fictional: they are pre-conceived and scripted. Language in films is supposed to portray everyday conversation, but the words, phrases, and the manner of speaking of the actors and actresses have already been decided. Their dialogue is, from the beginning, a written text made to make it sound natural and spontaneous, and slang, colloquial expressions or swearing are good examples of this "constructed" natural realism. Sometimes when the characters get angry, they do not sound naturally angry if the expression of that anger is inappropriate or unconvincing (¡Maldita sea, me han robado el coche! ['Damn it! Someone stole my car!']). Thus, if language in film is to give the public the impression of a real situation, real language must be used—including real swear words.

d) Strange-sounding translations of swearing are related to the inherent limitations of translating script in films and, in particular, dubbing. In dubbing, the translation needs to match, as closely as possible, the lip movements of the person seen on the screen. Lip synchronization is probably the strongest constraint on accurate translation. Given the enormous differences between even closely related languages such as English and Spanish, it is difficult to find TL words that match the SL lip movements. Sometimes that is why the translator does not opt for the best translation but for the one that fits with the character's lips: often, if the translator does opt for the most accurate translation, the script editor modifies his/her translation anyway in order to match it with the lip movements of the person seen on the screen.

e) Compounding all these factors are the mass media, and especially cinema and television. These have a strong effect on our language because they reach so many people so effectively, with an enormous influence of the way they live and, of course, they way they speak. People, often subconsciously, attempt to imitate the way their favorite actors/actresses speak. Television encourages us to use language in certain ways, and if television personalities persist in using esto es jodidamente bueno, we will most likely end up using it on the street.

All these reasons explain the understandable—but under-estimable—translations that we often come across in American films dubbed into Spanish. Now, many of these contaminated translations do not sound strange anymore, as we have become used to accepting unusual collocations and exotic expressions and even use them in our everyday lives.


4. The South Park Phenomenon

In the following section I aim to examine some examples of translations of swearing in a contrastive analysis of the American film South Park: bigger, longer and uncut and its Spanish dubbed version.

South Park: bigger, longer and uncut was made in 1999 from the controversial animated television series South Park, well known for its offensive language and its simplistic animation.

Both the film and the television series are satirical, using extreme exaggeration of American society and its attitudes towards racism, homosexuality, violence, sex etc., thus creating the South Park phenomenon and becoming one of the most significant media cults of the decade. Despite the fact of being a cartoon film, South Park is clearly not for children, but it is rather aimed at an adult audience, mainly on account of its liberal use of offensive language. South Park has an incredible amount of swearing² in it, but the humor lies in using the naive, child-like simplicity of the animation to offset adult themes in the storylines, which are in turn propelled by a manic and unrelenting catalogue of obscenities. The film basically relies upon swearing being funny.

The plot of the film can be summarized as follows: Kenny, Kyle, Stan, and Cartman go to the cinema to watch a film starring two Canadians (Terrance and Phillip), who basically fart and swear at each other. Soon, all the kids in town have seen the film and start imitating Terrance and Phillip in their swearing. Their parents, led by Kyle's mother, decide to rid the world of Terrance and Phillip. They are arrested and Canada bombs the Baldwins' residence. As a reaction the USA decides to execute Terrance and Phillip and declares war on Canada. The kids then decide to stand up to their parents and save Terrance and Phillip. Meanwhile, in Hell, a misunderstood and abused Satan is plotting to take over the Earth with new his gay lover, the recently deceased Saddam Hussein.

The essence of South Park lies in political incorrectness taken to the highest level. However irritating some may find the reliance upon swearing in the film's comic repertoire, it is nevertheless necessary to translate this effectively in order to retain the integrity of the film abroad. If the translation is too literal or ineffectual due to lack of real effort on the part of the translator, particularly if it aims to tone down or mask the original text, then the text sounds artificially distanced from real Spanish colloquial or even vulgar dialogue and the comic essence is lost.

Section 5 below provides some examples of how swearing has been translated in this film.


5. Analysis of the Translation of Swearing in South Park

"In the entire vocabulary of procribed words, from slang to profanity, from the mildly unclean to the utterly obscene, including terms relating to concealed parts of the body, to excretion and excrement as well as to sexuality, one word reigns supreme, unchallenged in its preeminence. It sits upon a throne, an absolute monarch, unafraid of any princely offspring still unborn, and by its subjects it is hated, feared, revered and loved, known by all and recognized by none" (Sagarin, 1968: 136)

The word fuck (together with its lexical categories fucker, fucking, motherfucker, etc.) is, without a doubt, the most used taboo word in American films, "used in curses and exclamations, indicating strong dislike, contempt, or rejection" (Ayto, J. and Simpson, J., 1993: 75-76). I shall consider it and others in detail here in the context of the South Park film.


5.1. Fuck

5.1.1. To Fuck

Let's start with the verb: to fuck. Eric Partridge, in A dictionary of slang and unconventional English (1970: 305) defines fuck as "to have sexual relation"; in Spanish joder and, more frequently, follar. In our corpus, there are many examples with this meaning, all of them translated literally. However, this verb is quite playful and there are other options that the translator could have used³.

(1) Saddam: Yeah! Yeah! Man, I'm getting' so hot! Let's fuck!
Sadam: Sí, sí me estoy poniendo a cien, vamos a follar.

Yet fuck has other meanings, such as in the exclamations fuck you or go fuck yourself, which "are not meant for literal interpretation," but are considered "a hostile order, a rejection, a command to go off and be unhappy and to do something unpleasant and unrewarding to yourself" (Sagarin, 1968: 143). In film translation these expressions have often been translated as ¡que te/se/le jodan!. However in South Park the translator combines the latter and another expressions hardly used in film translation but commonly heard among Spaniards: ¡que te den por culo! or ¡que te follen!.

(2) American Ambassador: Fuck Canada!
Embajador americano: ¡Que se joda Canadá!
Canadian Ambassador: Hey, fuck you, buddy!
Embajador canadiense: ¡Jódete tú, cabrón!

(3) Cartman: What? Fuck you, guys! I wanna get out of here!
Cartman: ¿Qué? ¡Que os den por culo, yo quiero largarme!


5.1.2. Fucked

As for the adjective fucked (meaning "mixed up" or "finished," normally when a situation has been handled bad or ineptly), unlike the norm in Spain in the recent past, it is not translated as jodido in any example and the solutions given are good idiomatic translations that sound true Spanish:

(4)Saddam: You're all really fucked now!
Sadam: Ahora sí que la habéis cagado.

5.1.3. Fucker

The original meaning of some taboo words is often toned down probably due to their frequency of use, and they end up having an affectionate meaning. This is what happens to fucker, hardly in use today. However some of its derivatives are actually frequently used, such as pigfucker, buttfucker and especially motherfucker. Sagarin (1968: 139-140) said about this term that

"[...] when preceded by the word mother, a combination with fucker is made that is unique in its ability to incite aggressive anger even among people who have developed a defensive armor against the insults derived from obscenity. Perhaps mankind's overwhelming fear of incest is challenged when the word mother-fucker is heard; or perhaps the image of the mother as pure and inviolate is damaged when the tabooed sounds are spoken. Although an example of a term that is both sexually descriptive and figuratively insulting, mother-fucker seems to touch off such a sensitive area, even in the speaker and insulter, that it has not passed into the general language of taboos that are violated at the rate of several per minute."


In English, motherfucker and its derivatives can never be interpreted literally. Therefore in Spanish, the literal translation would be even more unthinkable. Carbonell (1977: 296), in his dictionary Diccionario castellano e inglés de argot y lenguaje informal (Barcelona: Ediciones del Serbal, 1997), offers quite a few possible translations, such as cabrón, cabronazo, mamón, soplapollas, hijoputa, etc. In the following examples the translator aims to be respectful of the actual use of colloquial Spanish and the aesthetics of the language, always trying to maintain the tone in the original. Especially in the last example, based on a different wordplay in the target language that conveys the same kind of contextual meaning:

(5) Cartman: Stop! Mother-fucker! Ah! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Cartman: ¡Ay! Me cago en la puta. ¡Ayy! Coño ¡Ayy! Joder ¡Ayy! Cojones ¡Ayy!

(6) Phillip: Why'd you call me a pig-fucker?

Phillip: Terrance, ¿cómo puedes llamarme soplapollas?

Terrance: Well, let's see. First of all, you fuck pigs.

Phillip: Espera, veamos, para empezar ¡porque me la chupas!

Another important derivative of fucker in the film is uncle fucker, frequently used in the song interpreted by Terrance and Phillip. The translation of songs aims at conveying the tone of the original text but using the equivalent words, phrases and expressions in the target language. But also, it is important to take into account factors as the rhythm, the sonority and the song's rhymes. This is why fucker is not translated in the same way throughout the song. The translator's skills and creativity play an important role in this type of translations:

(7) Terrance: Shut your fucking face, uncle fucka! You're a cock sucking, ass-licking uncle fucka! You're an uncle fucka, yes it's true, Nobody fucks uncles quite like you!
Terrance: Eres un cabrón, un hijo puta, un mamón y un pedorreta, un hijo puta. Tú eres un capullo y un cabrón, te jodes por ser tan mamón.


5.1.4. To Fuck

Like shit, the word fuck by itself followed by an exclamation point (fuck!) is used as an expletive. In Spanish, it is very often translated as ¡joder! but there are other equivalents that can be used so the text doesn't sound too redundant.

(8) Cartman: Stop! Mother fucker! Ah! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Cartman: Me cago en la puta. ¡Ay! Coño ¡Ay! Joder ¡Ay! Cojones ¡Ay!

(9) Stan: Fuck, dude, I wanna be just like Terrance and Phillip!

Stan: Joder, yo de mayor quiero ser como Terrance y Phillip.

In the following example, the translator opts for translating fuck not as an expletive, but as a verb in the target language (transposition).

(10) Cartman: Oh, fuck!

Cartman: Mierda, la cagamos.

The expletive fuck! can be followed by other elements such as this or that. This time the translator prefers other similar exclamations rather than the odd ¡que se joda!:

(11) Cartman: Fuck that! Ah!

Cartman: ¡Una polla! ¡Ay!

(12) Kyle: Fuck this, dude. I'm getting out of here, before I get in really big trouble.

Kyle: ¡A tomar por culo! yo me largo de aquí antes de que me castiguen a cadena perpetua.


5.1.5. What the fuck...?

Everyone has heard phrases such as What the hell/fuck/heck are you doing here? or Where the heck/the hell/fuck are you going? where the hell/ the fuck/ the heck are inserted in the sentence splitting it into two parts and giving more emphasis to the phrase. In former dubbed versions of American films, these kinds of expression have always been translated as ¿qué demonios está pasando? ('What the hell is going on here?') or ¿dónde rayos has puesto el libro? ('Where the hell did you put the book?'). However, these quite odd expressions did not have the same emphasis of the original, basically because they are not normally used in the Spanish colloquial conversation. In South Park we can still find similar translations or even omissions of the taboo words:

(13) Stan's Mother: What the heck is a rim job?

Madre de Stan: ¿Qué demonios es un volcán invertido?

(14) Principal Victoria: What the heck is Terrance and Phillip?

Director Victoria: ¿Se puede saber quiénes son Terrance y Phillip?

For the rest of the examples, the intruder element is coño (literaly 'cunt'), very commonly used in Spanish. However, other similar words could have been used so the text would not sound too redundant, such as hostias or cojones:

(15) Kyle: We don't know where the hell we are!

Kyle: Que no sabemos ni dónde coño estamos.

5.1.6. Fucking

Fucking is probably the most frequently used swear word in the English language. It is used as an intensifier and it can modify almost every word: nouns, adjectives or verbs. However, despite its frequent use, fucking is often translated morphologically and the result is often awkward: you're fucking crazy → estás jodidamente loco; gimme the fucking report → dame el jodido informe. In Spanish, jodido can be used as an adjective meaning sick or mixed up (estoy jodido),but never as an intensifier.

The authors Valenzuela & Rojo (2000: 207) argue that in the correct translation of this taboo word the translator should bear in mind "the influence of syntactic (the syntactic category of the head it modifies), semantic (the semantic features of the head it modifies) and pragmatic (the communicative purpose in its use) factors in its translation into Spanish". However "these factors are frequently ignored, resulting in artificial translations which reflect the Spanish equivalent most commonly provided by dictionaries".

Fortunately these factors have actually been considered it the translation of fucking in South Park. When
fucking modifies a noun

In the cases where fucking modifies a noun, there are two possible ways of translating the term, according to Valenzuela & Rojo (2000). The first consists on translating fucking as an adjective placed before the noun, usually puto:

(16) General: ... After that, we will march into the heart of Canada, and we will ... Oh, what's wrong with this thing? It's fuckin' Windows '98!

General: Y después marcharemos hacia el corazón de Canadá donde...¿Qué le pasa a este trasto? Puto Windows'98.

The second option is to translate a prepositional phrase right after the noun, usually de mierda. The result is an idiomatic translation into Spanish, equivalent to the meaning and intention behind the original:

(17) Cartman: Hey, don't call me fat, you fucking Jew!

Cartman: Coño, a mi no me llames gordo, judío de mierda.

Sometimes the translator does not follow any of the patterns shown by Valenzuela & Rojo (2000) and prefers a free translation again close to the original intentions of the speaker:

(18) "The Mole": Here I come, god. Here I come, you fucking rat!

"El Topo": Aquí me tienes, Dios. Aquí me tienes, cabronazo. When
fucking modifies an adjective

It is in this case where we find more odd or unnatural translations (you're so fucking crazy → estás jodidamente loco), as there is not an exact equivalent in Spanish of fucking with adverbial meaning before an adjective. Valenzuela & Rojo (2000) propose to omit the adverbial fucking and to add a different swear word, used as an expletive placed right at the beginning or after the sentence separated by commas:

(19) Kyle: Dude, that movie was fucking sweet!

Kyle: Hostias, tío, qué pasada de película.

(20) Cartman:
Dude, this is fucking weak.

Cartman: Joder, esto no mola nada. When
fucking modifies a verb

In this case the solution is the same that the one for the adjectives, another swear word used as an expletive is placed before or after the phrase separated by commas:

(21) Cartman: Everybody's already fucking seen it!

Cartman: ¡Si ya la hemos visto todos, coño!

However, it is in these examples where fucking is omitted and there is no offensive meaning or any other swear word used:

(22) Kenny: Why don't you just fuckin' leave him?

Kenny: ¿Y por qué no le dejas?

In the following example, using the procedure of transposition, fucking is assigned to the noun perros, and not to the verb hate as in the original. However the sentence maintains the offensive tone of the English.

(23) "The Mole": You must shut off the alarms! I fucking hate guard dogs!

"El Topo": Tienes que desconerctar las alarmas, odio a los putos perros guardianes.

Still, Valenzuela & Rojo (2000) advise the translator not to consider only the morphological aspects, but also the context, as all the clues given by the authors may not work in all cases. In fact fucking "can have affectionate, warm and positive feelings" Sagarin (1968: 141) when modifying an adjective for instance. Fucking modifies every word nowadays but expresses almost nothing: sometimes it is just a term of endearment, whereas the Spanish translations given above (de mierda, puto, coño, de cojones, etc.), do not simply emphasize, but they are most of the time rude and offensive. That is why in some cases it is not translated:

(24) Cartman: You bet your fucking ass it was!

Cartman: Ya te digo, esto si que mola.


5.2. Damn

The expletives damn! damn it! and goddamit! are still nowadays translated into Spanish as ¡maldición! or ¡maldita sea!:

(25) Surgeon: Dammit! I'm not gonna lose this kid...Close him up, we've done all we can. The rest, is up to God...

Cirujano: Maldita sea, no pienso perder a este chico. Sutura. Hemos hecho cuanto hemos podido, el resto queda en manos de Dios.

They might not be ungrammatical but they simply do not express the total frustration/anger of the speaker. In his dictionary, Carbonell (1997: 226) proposes various possible translations: ¡me cago en la puta! ¡me cago en la hostia! y ¡me cago en la leche!. However, the last two ones may sound too Spanish, but there are other possible translations: Cirujano: ¡Joder/ Mierda! no pienso perder a este chico!

Damn and goddamn, "from the imprecation God damn (me, you, etc.)" (Ayto, J. and Simpson, J., 1993: 85), can also be used (like fucking) as intensifiers, that is, modifying adjectives and nouns. And like fucking, they are often translated literally into Spanish, resulting in silly phrases such as the following example:

(26) Jimbo: Oh, boy! Military action, Ned. Let's kill us some goddamn Australians!

Jimbo: Por fin vamos a entrar en acción, Ned. Vamos a cargarnos a esos malditos australianos.

However there are also examples where the expletive is translated following the Spanish swearing habits:

(27) Cartman: Hey, you're holding up the goddamn lunch line!

Cartman: ¡Oye, estás bloqueando la puta cola!

In the following example, the translator could have been tempted to use the lazy translation ¿Qué es tan jodidamente gracioso?, but finally opted for the phrase that Spanish would really use ¿De qué se rien?/ ¿De qué se están riendo? adding the rude tone by inserting coño in the middle of the sentence, so the tone of the original is captured:

(28) Canadian Ambassador: What's so goddamn funny?

Embajador canadiense: ¿De qué coño se están riendo?


5.3. Bitch

Bitch is a common insult in English as well. "When used in the strictly sexual sense, bitch is less defamatory, and describes only the female, suggesting the combination of sexual desirability and moral undesirability" (Sagarin, 1968: 107). In this case, the translator not only opts for the most frequently used equivalent in Spanish (puta), but also uses other synonyms very commonly used, such as guarra, zorra or even the augmentative putón, especially when bitch is preceded by the an intensifier or an adjective (fucking bitch, the biggest bitch, etc.):

(29) Cartman: No, dude, I'd be scared. Your mom's a fucking bitch!

Cartman: No, tío, yo también me habría acojonado, porque tu madre es una guarra.

As for son of a bitch, in South Park this expression is always translated as its formal equivalent in Spanish:

(30) Cartman: Don't call me fat, you fucking son of a bitch!

Cartman: A mí tampoco me llamas tú gordo, hijo de puta.

However, bitch does not always refer to a woman. "As a word of insult, bitch simply describes a person who, in the eyes of the speaker, is nefarious or has done something contemptible" (Sagarin, 1968: 107). In South Park the Spanish equivalent chosen is cabrón:

(31) Saddam: What are you waiting for, bitch.

Sadam: ¿A qué esperas, cabrón? ¡Destrúyele!


5.4. Shit

The expletive shit! is practically universal, a "word of frustration, of disgust, of dismay or unhappiness" (Sagarin, 1968: 53). Most of the times this word is always translated literally as the formal Spanish equivalence ¡mierda!:

(32) Kyle: Oh, shit!

Kyle: Ay, mierda.

But there are other equivalent expressions that can be used as well, as happens in South Park:

(33) Kenny: Oh shit, dude.

Kenny: Joder, tío.

In the following example, the translator prefers a transposition and changes the expletive for the Spanish verb cagarla (to fail), that maintains the tone of the original:

(34) Kyle: Oh shit, dude! Now our moms are gonna find out we went to the Terrance and Phillip movie again!

Kyle: La cagamos, ahora nuestras madres se van a enterar de que hemos vuelto a ver la peli de Terrance y Phillip.

Shit is a very playful swear word and there are many phrases in which the word is found, as is shown in the examples below. However, in Spanish, they could not be translated literally (¡trozo de mierda británica!), so the translator opts for a free translation trying to convey the thoughts and intent behind the original as close as possible:

(35) Cartman: I heard you the first time, you British piece of shit!

Cartman: Que ya te he entendido, puto extranjero de mierda.

Holy shit! is another commonly used exclamatory phrase. "Contempt for the biological process is expressed in the phrase holy shit, an exclamation of surprise in which the aura of the sacred is imparted to the repulsive. Precisely because it is shit, it cannot be holy: the phrase thus brings together the most incongruent of phenomena" (Sagarin, 1968: 55). Once again, in South Park it is more important to follow the idiomatic preferences of the target language always maintaining the intention and the tone of the original text, even if that means translating more freely and forgetting about the form. However the translator could have also opted for the expressions ¡Hostias! or ¡Hostia puta!, very frequently used in Spanish:

(36) Cartman: Holy shit! Man, this V-chip is getting' all screwy!

Cartman: ¡Hay que joderse! Oye, este chip empieza a hacer cosas raras.


5.5. Bastard

"Literally, of course, the bastard is the illegitimate child, the offspring of illicit sexual relations [...]. In ordinary slang, bastard is entirely unrelated to the status of birth without benefit of a previous marriage ceremony between one's parents. It is simply a dirty name to call someone" (Sagarin, 1968: 108). In Spanish, however, the literal equivalent bastardo means 'illegitimate child' and did not have an offensive meaning, at least not until it began to be used as an insult in American films dubbed into Spanish. Surprisingly, in South Park it is not translated literally in any case:

(37) Saddam: I know I've been a dirty little bastard

Sadam: Ya sé que he sido un cabronazo!

(38) Sheila:
Throw the switch, Mr. Garrison! Goodbye, bastards!

Sheila: Conecte el interruptor, Sr. Garrison. ¡Hasta nunca, cabrones!


5.6. Ass

Ass is not interpreted literally either and hardly used alone, but mostly in phrases or compounds such as to be a pain in the ass; kiss my ass, suck my ass, asshole, ass-kisser o ass-sucker.

In the case of suck my ass, a mutation of kiss my ass, frequently used in American English, the translator opts for a literal translation, chúpame el culo, whereas the equivalent expression in Spanish prefers a different part of the body, as in chúpame la polla, expression that would have worked better:

(39) Pupil: Oh, fuck that, why the fuck should I have to spell forensics. Here you go: S-U-C-K-M-Y-A-S-S, forensics.

Alumno: No me joda, ¿para qué coño quiere que le deletree la palabra "forense"? Yo se lo escribo: "C-H-Ú-P-A-M-E-E-L-C-U-L-O". Ahí lo tiene, "forense".

For the rest of compounds, the solutions given by the translator are valid, as they accurately convey the offensive intention of the speaker. In the first example we find a Spanish equivalent hardly used but probably the favorite among Spaniards:

(40) Cartman: Asshole, I'm talking to you!

Cartman: Oye gilipollas, que te estoy hablando.

(41) "The Mole":
So I called him a cocksucking asshole. Then I get grounded.

"El Topo": Así es que le llamé "hijo de puta, cabrón" y me han castigado.


5.7. Other Swear Words

The number of insults, swear words and curse words is very high in South Park, which clearly shows the differences between American English and Peninsular Spanish habits or style when swearing. However, it is important to consider that South Park is an exaggeration, and that some of the swear words shown in the film are not normally used among the Americans, and neither are they generally used with the same intensity and frequency.

(42) Phillip: I did, Terrance. I learned that you are a boner-biting dickfart buttface.

Phillip: Claro Terrance, he aprendido que eres un capullo y un soplapollas de mierda.

(43) Phillip:
This little scrotum-sucker deceived us!

Phillip: Este maricón de mierda nos ha traicionado.


6. Conclusion

Swearing represents an important cross-cultural difference between English and Spanish. In film translation, swearing has always been a problem, often solved with the strangest-sounding translations in Spanish, such as ¡Cierra tu jodida boca! for Shut the fuck up! or ¡Le has matado, bastardo! for You killed him, you bastard!.

Whether it is due to the problem of lip synchronization, the "lazy" disposition of the translator, or to his fear of changing the way swear words have been translated for years, the truth is that swearing is still one of the less explored fields of screen translation. Lazy translations and unnatural translations are still being done, resulting in artificial, non-spontaneous and almost euphemistic dialogues. It is a fact that Spanish people are incorporating them to our everyday language thanks to the influence of mass media. However, such constructions are unnecessary in cases where a Spanish synonym exists, and South Park is a good example of that.

Every country, culture or civilization has different linguistic preferences and patterns when swearing, and this is something that cannot be translated literally. Swear words contain a pragmatic intention that needs to be taken into account in the process of translation. Taboo language should be considered as part of the culture of a language. The translator must have intercultural pragmatic competence. We should try to find a translation that maintains the original meaning, tone, register, and intention but, at the same time, these translations should be respectful of the idiomatic preferences and the socio-cultural context of the target language in order to achieve the success and impact of the original film with the target audience.



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  1. 'Foreignization' and 'domestication' are translation concepts introduced by Lawrece Venuti.
  2. 399 swear words, 128 obscene or rude gestures and 221 scenes of violence have been counted for the film South Park in the web page http://escena.ya.com/quierocine/.
  3. Carbonell (1997) gives many possible translations for the verb to fuck meaning "to have sexual connection": "FUCK v. 1. (copular) acostarse, apretar, cabalgar, echar un caliche, echar un caliqueño, calzarse, echar un casquete, cepillarse, chingar, mojar el churro, clavarla, echar un coco, empujar, follar, folletear, funcionarse a alguien, hacer el amor, hacer un favor, hacerlo, llevar al huerto, joder, mojar la almeja, montar, echar un palo, a pelo, pasar por la piedra, polvo de gallo, echar un polvete, echar un polvo, echar un polvazo, darse un revolcón, soplársela, tirarse, ventilarse, zumbarse", entre las que destacan "joder" y "follar. Ej. I fucked her [...]."