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On the Translation of the Taboos

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Translating the cultural terms can be a difficult task. Facing cultural differences in translation, Nida (1964, p. 130) believes in equal importance to both linguistic and cultural differences between the SL and the TL and concludes that "differences between cultures may cause more severe complications for the translator than do differences in language structure". Taboos are the cultural terms, translation of which is definitely difficult and controversial to some translators. This difficulty may be because of the differences between different cultures, religions, and beliefs. There are different ways to translate a taboo from one language into another one. This paper suggests some ways to translate the taboos. Some issues that must be under consideration in this way will be discussed too. The researcher applies some examples in the languages of English and Persian to make the statements more clear. The paper can be helpful to the translators especially the amateur ones having some choices on the front to translate the taboo terms in different texts. It can help the students whose major is translation studies too. It gives them some ideas and ways to consider in their translations.

Key Words: translation, taboo, culture, euphemism.

1.  Introduction

Almost all translation theorists have defined translation as rendering the exact message from source language (L1) into an acceptable form in the second or target language (L2) (Larson, 1984). As Miremadi (2003) stated, to Tytler, a good translation is not only one that observes loyalty, but also one that is conducted in such a way that the public acceptability is achieved. Toury (1978, cited in James, 2005) defined translation as “a kind of activity which inevitably involves at least two languages and two cultural traditions”. Davoodi (2007) in her study discusses some important elements that must be under consideration in translation; word equivalent, grammatical points, cultural issues, style, register, genre, and etc.  But in this study, the focus is just on the cultural issues in translation.

Culture is “the combination of the customs, arts, social institutions, etc. of a particular group or nation” (Oxford dictionary, 2000). In other words, “culture is a complex collection of experiences which conditions daily life; it includes history, social structure, religion, traditional customs and everyday usage” (Thriveni). Newmark (1988, P. 94) also defined culture as "the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as its means of expression". As James (2005) stated in her article,The cultural implications for translation may take several forms ranging from lexical content and syntax to ideologies and ways of life in a given culture”. In every country, some factors like; geographical conditions, people’s thoughts, manners, and religious beliefs will form their culture. And due to these factors, people in different countries may have different cultures. The differences between two or more cultures may cause one nation believes in some things, events, and habits which are strongly strange or forbidden to another nation.

So the laws and costumes that are acceptable in one culture can be prohibited or nonsense in another cultures. For example; in the state of Washington, it is illegal to pretend your parents are rich (Richards, etal., 2000). In some Islamic countries like Iran, people believe that you mustn’t enter the restroom by your right foot. These laws are strange and nonsense in some countries, but they are acceptable to people in Washington, or Iran.    

2.      Taboo Words

What is taboo? “Taboo is a cultural or religious custom that forbids people to do, touch, use or talk about a certain thing” (Oxford dictionary, 2000). “Taboo words are the words that are often considered offensive, shocking or rude, e.g. because they refer to sex, [death], the body or race” (Oxford dictionary, 2000). Taboo can be considered as a prohibited behavior believed insulting to some people or to the society as a whole. There is no language without taboo words (dirty words) in the world. Some expressions that are considered as taboo and may elicit embarrassment or offence to people in one language may be used naturally by people in other languages. For example; in some languages like English and Persian, instead of using the clothing that is in direct contact with some body parts people use some other words like underwear (لباس زیر). In Chontal, devil is a taboo word, so people call it older brother, because they believe if they use his name, the devil will come towards them. Or in Finnish, it is taboo to say he is in prison (فلاني در زندان است/ در حبس است), instead; people say he is sitting in his hotel (فلانی رفثه آب خنک بخوره) (Larson, 1984, p. 116). We see the expressions which are called taboo in Chantol or Finnish, may be used without any problem in some other languages, and this is only because of the difference in their cultures and religious beliefs.

3.  Taboos in Translation

Facing taboo terms in L1, the translator may feel unable to render the exact meaning to the second language. Sometimes s/he will get confused and feel down in this way. To translate a text from one language into another one, understanding the cultures, especially the target culture is necessary. But it is not as easy as some people think. It needs a lot of sever studies and investigations on the cultures of both source and target languages. To translate a taboo, the translator must be familiar with the cultures of both L1 and L2 to know if the expression considered as taboo in L1, is taboo in L2 too.

In this case, there are three possibilities; a) the taboo term in L1 is not taboo in L2, so the translator will translate it directly. b) The taboo term in L1 is taboo in L2 too. c) The term which is not taboo in L1 is considered as taboo in L2. Facing these situations, in part (a), the translator has no problem and can translate the word easily, but in parts (b) and (c), there are some choices to render if not exact but similar and acceptable meaning and feeling of the word into the second language.

3-1. Censorship: censoring the taboo is the first and the simplest choice in translation of such these terms. In this case, the translator ignores the term easily and censors it as an extra term. But it is not a proper and acceptable way, because in some occasions, the taboo term is a key term in the source text and the omission of it will distort the meaning of the text.

3-2. Substitution: the other way to translate a taboo term is by substituting the term with another term in L2. But it often certainly distorts the meaning. Suppose that in one story or film, a woman is a dancer (رقاصه) and works in a bar. The translator translates a dancer which is a taboo word in a target language (e.g. some Islamic countries like Iran), into a teacher or a nurse (معلم يا پرستار). In this case, what feeling will the recipients get? They may think to themselves about the reason that a teacher or a nurse must work in a bar instead of school or hospital? So the situations will be confusing to the recipients. In another example, translating a story, the translator faces the word wine drinking of which is prohibited in some countries like Islamic ones. In this story a man drinks alcohol a lot and gets legless every time. In this occasion, if the translator translates the word wine into water, fruit juice, or milk, won’t it be nonsense and ridiculous to the readers to see a man drinks water and gets legless? In both two mentioned examples, how is it possible to render the same message and the same feeling to the readers or the viewers? Won’t it confuse them? Can such this translation be called faithful? In most cases, such this translation will be absurd to the readers especially the educated ones.

Of course, in some situations, this method can be relatively workable too. Shit (كثافت) is a taboo word in English and Persian, but in most American films; e.g. The Matrix (1999), the translator translates this word into (لعنتي) in Persian. Although (كثافت) and (لعنتي) are not synonym in Persian, the translator could convey relatively but not absolutely the same feeling to the viewers, and they understand that in this part, one man uses bad language with the other man.  

3-3. Taboo for taboo: On the other hand, although the translator knows the expressions are not acceptable to target people and society, s/he prefers to translate them into taboo. For example; in “A Farewell the Arms”, translated into Persian by Marashi (1970/1349), (s)he translates the taboo words into taboo. Applying this method is an easy way, but it is often embarrassing to the readers and audience. 

3-4. Applying euphemism: “Euphemism derives from Greek words “eu” well + “phem” speaking, and it means “right silence” in ancient Greek” (Shoebottom, 2005, ¶ 1). In other words, euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression to replace one that offends or suggests something unpleasant. “The need of euphemism is both social and emotional as it allows discussion of ‘touchy’ or taboo subjects without upsetting other people” (Linfoot-ham, 2005, p.228).  In fact the function of euphemism is to protect the readers or audience from possible offence (Linfoot-ham, 2005). Senior citizen is a euphemism for old person (Euphemism Quiz). The words husky or full-figured [هيكلي/ پر] are euphemisms for the words overweight or fat [چاق/ چاقالو/ خيگي]. In fact, euphemism is the best choice for the writer or translator not to express offensive or unpleasant terms. The following are some euphemisms in Persian: “ملك الموت for عزراييل, گرد for هرويين, دستشويي for توالت” (Mollanazar, 2000, p. 62).

“Animal Farm by Orwell (1943- 44), and “My Uncle Napoleon (دائي جان ناپلئون) by Pezeshkzad (1972/1351) are two books full of euphemistic expressions. The word repatriation is euphemism for torture and execution in “Animal Farm”, and in “My Uncle Napoleon”, such expressions as; going to San Francisco or going to Los Angles used by uncle Assadollah, are euphemisms for having sexual relationship.

So applying “euphemism” is another choice which can be the most workable one to translate the taboo. For example; he is at rest, he passed away or he goes to heaven (فلاني درگذشت/ به رحمت خدا رفت/ به بهشت رفت/ به آرامش ابدي پيوست) are some euphemisms for he died (فلاني مرد). Thus to translate the taboo, the translator can use a euphemism for it and render the exact message of the L1 but in an acceptable form in L2.

Sometimes, the author uses euphemism for some taboo words. What the translator should do in this situation? Again as before, to render the proper meaning and feeling, the translator should be familiar with the cultures and the euphemistic nature of the expressions in both source and target languages. Not knowing the mentioned issues, s/he may misunderstand the euphemistic expressions and translate them literally. For example; “the Jews avoided mention of the name of God by using the word heaven (Larson, 1984). Being unfamiliar with the Jewish culture and euphemistic expressions, the translator may translate it literally and it will be nonsense to the L2 readers.

According to Larson (1984), euphemistic expressions can be translated directly or by an acceptable euphemism in the target language. The Greek euphemism “he is sleeping with his fathers” may be translated into a euphemistic expression “he went to his village” in Twi, or it may be translated directly into “he died” in some other languages.

4.      Some suggestions on the Translation of the Taboo

According to Jakobson (1959), there are three kinds of translation: intra-lingual (the translation of form into another form within one language); inter-lingual (the translation of one form into another form between two languages); and inter-semiotic (the translation of one form or symbol into another symbol) (Miremadi, 2003, p.125). Translation of taboo terms also may be put beyond one of these three mentioned types of translation.

 To do inter-semiotic translation of the taboo symbols, the translator should be very careful. Some symbols which have good and friendly meaning in one language may have completely opposite meaning in the other language. While showing a thumb (انگشت شست) in some countries (e.g. America) is a symbol of peace and friendliness, in some other countries like Iran, this symbol is taboo and has the opposite meaning; (i.e. related to sex). For doing an accurate intra-lingual and inter-lingual translation of the taboo terms, the following factors should be considered: situation, subject matter, and the readers’ age, social class, religion, etc.

4-1. Situation: The terms considered taboo in one language may be translated into euphemistic expressions in different situations within the same language. When you go to shopping, you may see the name of different parts of [bird’s or animals’] body such as; breast (سينه، دم سينه), and ham (ماهيچه ران), written on the windows of the shops like butcher’s; (e.g. سينه، ران ، سر و پاي مرغ موجود است.). In such this situation, these words are not taboo and will be used naturally. But in another situation, when a man uses such words as breast (سينه، پستان), and thigh (ران) for a woman, these words are taboo and the meaning of them is completely different from the former ones.  

4-2. Subject matter: To render joy and pleasure to the readers and make them laugh in jocular texts, the taboo words may be used naturally. For instance; Halat (1991/1370, p. 290), says in his poem (ميخ طويله) in Persian;

يا كثافت كاري و يا هرزه كاري مي كنم              تا نگوئي خويش را از كار عاري مي كنم      Most times, by translating the taboo into euphemism, the translator may not be successful to convey the joy and feeling of such these texts. For example; in a jocular text, by translating “…and the crazy man kicked the bucket (... و مرد ديوانه سقط شد)” into “…and the crazy man passed away (... و مرد ديوانه درگذشت)”, the translated text will be nonsense to the readers. Although the translator conveys the same meaning, the same feeling and joy is not rendered to the readers, and this translation won’t be perfect. In other situation, in some scientific texts (e.g. medical texts), we can see the repetition of some words like urine ادرار)) that may be taboo or slight euphemism in other texts, but they are not taboo in the scientific texts. For example; a doctor tells his patient that there is a serious tumor in your breast. Maybe breast is a taboo word that people don’t use naturally (e.g. “angel cakes/ apples” are two examples for breast) (Bennett, & Mannis,1986), but in medicine the use of such these words is not taboo. So the translator must follow different attitudes in the texts with different subject matters.

4-3. Religion: The taboo terms and expressions among several religions may be different. In Jew, calling God is taboo, while in Islam, people call their God every day especially in their daily prayers, but they prefer to not write the name of Him completely (ا... for الله). If the translator wouldn’t be aware of these differences, (s)he may even insult the readers and their religions unconsciously. Not knowing the source language religion may cause mistranslation too. In Jew, they write G-d or Gd in order to avoid writing “God” or they use s’blood which refers to God’s blood and zounds which refers to God’s wound. Not being familiar with such these religious terms, the translator may think that some dictation errors happened, so (s)he translates the terms according to his/her knowledge (e.g. sounds instead of zounds), and the meaning of the text will be distorted completely. Interestingly enough, some of the words that called taboo among Jews, are taboo in Islam too, but there is a wide difference between this one and that one. Jews believe that; people can use the name of God, even with the words like blood, wound, etc., but not in His complete name; while Muslims believe that God is like a ghost or light and not like a common man; so the use of the words like blood and wound for God is a kind of blasphemy. So because of these differences, the use of euphemism in religious texts may be more than some other texts. There are some agreements among religions too. For example; If a reverent man dies, in Christian religion, people say; he goes to heaven (... به بهشت/آسمانها رفت) or he passed away (... درگذشت), but they never say “he died” (... مرد).

4-4. Readers’ age: Some words and expressions are prohibited to the children but acceptable to the adults. The words like piss and shit may be acceptable in adult conversation while euphemisms like number one (شماره یک) and number two (شماره دو) are preferred for children.  Maybe the author writes for the children but the translator is going to translate it for the adults or vice-versa. So by identifying the readers’ age, the translator will decide to apply direct translation or euphemism.

4-5. Readers’ social class: Some expressions are taboo just in some social classes. For example; bribe (رشوه) and graft (باج) are the taboo words especially in the government and among politicians while they may be used by the workers and laborers as common words. In this case, if this rule is the same in both L1 and L2, the translator translates the taboo into taboo and euphemism into euphemism. But if the rule is not the same, s/he’d better translate them according to the rules of the target language.

5. Conclusion

The role of culture in translation is inevitable. To translate taboo terms, euphemisms, metaphors, idioms, proverbs..., observing the cultures of both source and target languages is necessary. One thing should not be forgotten; to translate all above mentioned issues accurately, the translation should be done in the context. For instance; when a woman says “she is going to powder her nose”, or a man uses some phrases such as; “drain the lizard” and “see a man about a dog”, both of them mean they are off to pee (Metachat, 2007). To translate these expressions into Persian, if the translator is not familiar with the euphemistic nature of the expressions, or if they are applied out of the context, s/he may translate them literally (word by word) into;

(او می خواهد به بینی اش ﭘودر بزند) or (او می خواهد مارمولک را آب کشی کند/ مرد را در مورد سگ ببیند). So the translation of such these expressions will not be done correctly if they are not used in the context.

At last, translating the cultural terms is not such an easy task. It needs sever study and a complete knowledge and accuracy on the culture of both source and target languages. This paper is just a brief introduction on the translation of taboos and euphemisms.

6.      References

Bennett, P. &  Mannis, T. (1986, March). Nicknames and euphemisms for breasts. RP/PB     magazine. Retrieved from the World Wide Web http://www.netjeff.com/humor/item.cgi

Davoodi, Z. (2007). On the test methods and translation criteria used to assess Iranian students’ translations in translation courses. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Bandar-Abbas Islamic Azad University, Bandar-Abbas, Iran.  

Euphemism Quiz. Retrieved from the World Wide Web http://esl.fis.edu/parents/easy/euphem.htm.

James. K. (2005). Cultural implications for translation. Retrieved from the World Wide Web  http://accurapid.com/journal/22delight.htm.

Larson, M. (1984). Meaning-based translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence. New York, & London: University press of America.

Linfoot-ham, K. (2005). The linguistics of euphemism: A diachronic study of euphemism formation. Journal of Language and Linguistics. 4, 2, 228.  

Metachat (2007). Retrieved from the World Wide Web  http://www.metachat.org/index.

Miremadi, A. (2003). Theories of translation and interpretation. Tehran: The Center for Studying and Compiling University Books in Humanities (SAMT).

Mollanazar, H. (2001). Principles and methodology of translation. Tehran: The Center for Studying and Compiling University Books in Humanities (SAMT).

Newmark, P. (1988). A textbook of translation. New York: Prentice Hall. 94.

Nida, E. (1964). "Principles of Correspondence." In Venuti, L. The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Orwell, G. (1943- 44). Animal farm. Longman Fiction.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, (2000).

Richards, J., etal. (2000). New interchange. Cambridge University Press. 3, 92.

Shoebottom, P. (2005, ¶ 1). Euphemisms. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://www.fis.edu/eslweb/index-fp.htm .


Thriveni, C. Cultural elements in translation: The Indian perspective (Some Problems section, ¶ 6). Retrieved September 2, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://accurapid.com/journal and or https://www.translationdirectory.com/ .

Wachowski, A. L. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Film].

منابع فارسي

پزشكزاد، ا. (1351/1972)   دايي جان ناپلئون. انتشارات صفي عليشاه.

حالت، ا. (1370/1991). ديوان خروس لاري: ميخ طويله (چاپ چهارم،  ص. 290). انتشارات كتابخانه سنايي.

مرعشي، ر. (1349/1970).  وداع با اسلحه. تهران: انتشارات پروين.

Published - September 2009

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