One of the more fluid elements of every living language is slang. Slang is defined by encyclopedia.com as “unconventional, hard-hitting, metaphorical language that is colloquial, sometimes vulgar, and always innovative.” A slang word can emerge from one segment of society and spread through the whole culture, for a year or a thousand years. Phrases from the military, music scene, prison culture and just about every other realm have contributed slang to all major languages.
Slang is different from jargon, specialized terminology, or dialect. Generally created in the realm of spoken language, slang is used liberally in printed texts, such as literature and advertising. It’s incredibly common. And this is where the translator’s slang challenge arises. Slang is meaningful, and often expresses not only emotion, but also something about the relationship of the speaker to the subject. Therefore it can’t be ignored – it has to be translated somehow.
There are several approaches translators take to slang. Because it is such a lively and distinctive part of any source language, the translator will try to maintain its tone and meaning as closely as possible as they carry it over to the target language translation. The following methods of translating a slang phrase are used for different types of texts:
1. Cultural equivalence – replacement of the source language slang with a target language word or phrase that expresses the same basic meaning as well as the same emotional value.
2. Literal translation – use of the exact same words in the target language to express the source language slang, which leaves out any influence from the translator.
3. Stylistic compensation – altering the target language text during translation in a way that allows the translator to express the source slang meaning and subtleties in a form that isn’t quite the same.
4. Stylistic softening – reducing the harshness of the source slang word(s) by choosing target language word(s) with less intensity but similar meaning.
5. Omission – leaving the source slang out of the text entirely when it doesn’t add essential value.
The fact is, even vulgar or negative slang can be necessary to the tone of a text or the development of a character’s voice. An academic paper examining a Lithuanian translation of the classic American novel, Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, discusses slang translation in depth.* A major issue is the potential loss of “dynamic equivalence,” or text vitality, when slang translations are not well executed by the translator. The paper’s author points out that both the main character and his world would not be accurately portrayed without astute slang translation:
The Catcher in the Rye … contains numerous examples of slang words and phrases that cannot be either neglected or ignored, because slang serves as a means of characterizing the protagonist and revealing the peculiarities of his environment.
Clearly the translator of a text containing slang has to have native-level understanding of the source language, the target language, and the subtleties of the texts to be translated. Slang adds color and currency to texts, and if you are studying a language, you will want to learn slang for those very reasons: to be expressive and sound up-to-date in your understanding of the target language. But be careful! Slang is tricky and impactful. Before you respond in German to a German friend’s latest theory about life with a fun phrase like, “I believe my pig is whistling” make sure you know exactly what you’re saying!**
J. V. McShulskis
** It means, “That’s ridiculous!” (Because of course pigs don’t whistle.)
Note: For an interesting selection of slang dictionaries for languages from around the world: