In a piece known as “Bad Words,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano tells the story of a little girl who was running raucously through the house and tripped and fell. Instead of crying however, the little girl got mad:
What’s this shit doing here?
Her mother corrected her:
No dear, people don’t say that word.
And from the floor Ximena wondered:
Mom, why do words that people don’t say even exist then?
Bad words, swearing, cursing, taboo language, four-letter words, or in Spanish- las malas palabras, puteadas, obscenidades, groserías, palabrotas o el lenguaje soez- are a part of language and are considered a sociolinguistic custom. These words vary in meaning from one country to another. In one country or area they may be considered vulgar, while they are harmless in another. They generally involve something society deems sacred (religion, family) or something considered taboo or prohibited (sexy, body parts, bodily functions) or are used to insult someone personally. They usually slip out without a conscious decision, when you hammer your thumb or stub your toe on the table in the middle of the night…
Argentinean author Roberto Fontanarrosa said that these words “are not bad because they hurt others or because they are of a lesser quality,” but rather because they mark the person saying them as “foul-mouthed” or crude. As authors, we can avoid using these words when writing or speaking by employing a euphemism (a more politically acceptable or less offensive word or expression substituted for something considered vulgar, in poor taste or offensive. But when we are translating something that has “curse words,” there’s no avoiding it: we have to find the bad word with a similar tone and meaning, even if it’s a word or phrase that we find in poor taste or is against our morals. Searching for the word or phrase that matches the original may not be an easy task, but it does present an interesting challenge professionally.
There are a number of Spanish and English “swear word dictionaries” and glossaries online, some that even tell which countries use them. They aren’t exactly scientific and there may be a meaning that is not quite true for a given country or area, but it’s better than nothing: We’re certainly not going to find them on formal sites. There are also a number of blogs and forums where writers and users have taken an interest in the subject and come up with lists of approximate equivalencies between multiple languages. Although the sources are not very academic and we may not all be linguists, this topic is so linked to social and cultural norms that we can all contribute because we all use them, know what they mean and how they are used, at least in our environment.