Appraising the Translation of Dysphemisms. Insights into the Spanish Crime Film Dubbese

By María Jesús Rodríguez-Medina (Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain)


The translation of English dysphemisms into Spanish is one of the main difficulties for literary and audiovisual translators, since offensive language in standard Spanish has not been thoroughly described yet. While some research has been done in this particular field, it remains almost unexplored. This paper is aimed at describing our project to set some guidelines on the translation of dysphemisms in crime films (English-Spanish). An analysis of the use and degree of pragmatic intensity of the fuckin+noun structure in three American films (Pulp Fiction, Casino and Donnie Brasco) and its translation in their dubbed Spanish versions will also be included as a representative sample of the Spanish crime film dubbese.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, dysphemisms, dubbing, dubbese

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1. Introduction      

1.1. The conceptual framework of dysphemisms. Swear words related to sex

In Sabina’s opinion (2013: 95), dysphemisms are “expressions with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum or to the audience, or both” [1]. As a result, they are used to intensify negative associations with taboos (Casas 1986: 84; Crespo 2007: 45). Sabina demonstrates (2013: 98) that the pragmatic situation clarifies the dysphemistic interpretation of words. Hence, some authors like Crespo (2007: 46)  underline the importance of pragmatics in the definition of dysphemism: “any offensive or inappropriate linguistic behaviour in a given pragmatic situation”.

On the other hand, dysphemisms are conditioned and favoured by different sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic and stylistic factors, mainly social class, gender, level of intimacy among speakers, register and style (Casas 1986: 91-92). Furthermore, Crespo (2007: 66) adds the cultural context as a fundamental aspect to understand dysphemisms.

Certainly, sex has been one of the most taboo areas. The relationship between sexual behaviour and the most primitive and innate part of human beings has originated the sexuality taboo, defined by Ullman (1962: 234) as the taboo of decency. According to Sabina (2013: 100), “sexual parts and body fluids are the fields with the largest number of dysphemisms in Spanish and the rest of most languages and cultures”.  In the group of dysphemisms related to sex, swear words are to be highlighted. According to Andersson and Trudgill (1992: 57), “we expect swearing to be related to the areas which are taboo or significant in a particular culture”.

Cultural conventions are, therefore, fundamental. Swear words related to a taboo area in one culture may not be considered as such in another culture where that particular taboo does not exist. Nevertheless, in the case of sex, both the Spanish and the Angloamerican cultures have many dysphemisms, follar and fuck being the most popular ones. Crespo (2007: 160, 167) describes how imprecation feeds mainly on sexual interdiction taboos and includes fuck and fucking in the group of interjectory dysphemisms that act as a cathartic linguistic means to release tension and anger, among other purposes.

1.2. The translation of dysphemisms: the Spanish dubbese of American crime films

The translation of dysphemisms has been poorly studied in translation research. Apart from Robinson’s classic book (1996), works on the translation of offensive language in specific cultures are scarce (Adam 1998; Pujol 2006; Davoodi 2008; Krek 2009).

In Spanish, there are only a few publications available. Mayoral (1986) was a pioneer with his description of modulation strategies. However, his perspective favours domestication of the target text and may not work in audiovisual translation. Rojo and Valenzuela (2000) focus on the Spanish translation of a novel but their short analysis leads to rather vague conclusions. Rodríguez (2005) analyses some films (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, The Big Lebowski), though he leaves many questions unanswered. Fernández (2006) presents a contrastive analysis of the American film South Park and its Spanish dubbed version. This author deals more thoroughly with the translation of swear words, though the scope of her analysis is limited. Fernández’s recent dissertation (2012) on the translation of the word fucking discusses some of its main difficulties. Although it includes a comprehensive analysis, its conclusions are not solid.

Gómez Capuz (2001a; 2001b) has examined many examples of mistranslated offensive expressions in dubbed American films and TV series as part of his contrastive analyses, but his studies are not on translation nor is this subject their main focus. On the other hand, short articles on the translation of dysphemisms and swear words can be found in professional translators’ web sites (Castro 1997; Ron 2002; Rodríguez 2013; Fernández 2013). They agree that this is usually a very deficient aspect in the Spanish dubbed versions of American films, and criticize common calques. They underline that no native Spaniard would use these expressions if they had not heard them in a dubbed script, so they sound strange and unfamiliar to Spanish ears: voy a patear tu jodido culo (I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass; Rodríguez 2013); ¿dónde demonios has estado? (where the hell have you been?; Ron 2002). This peculiar language that has become a typical feature of dubbed dialogues not only in Spanish but also in other European languages is known as dubbese (Romero 2006: 134).

Rodríguez (2013: 1) defines dubbese as “the hybrid language used in the translation of an audiovisual product, especially in the film industry”. Despite the importance of dubbing in Spain (Latorre 2012: 18), and the scholarly calls for more research on the Spanish dubbese (Díaz 2004: 24; Chaume 2004: 151), which is often described as unidiomatic, literature on this subject is still scarce (Romero 2006: 134). This seems to be due to the great complexity and methodological difficulties that this type of research entails. To start with, as Romero (2009: 50) points out, the following questions remain unanswered:

how can the naturalness of a dubbed text be assessed? Having used a well-built parallel corpus made up of a source text (ST) and a target text (TT), who is to decide which TT units are natural and which ones are not?

The main obstacles are the peculiar features of dubbese:

(1) Interferences from the source text such as lexical and syntactical calques have often been  recognized  as one of  the  main  features of dubbese (Latorre 2012: 18), though they may be now considered as normal by regular viewers of dubbed films. Nevertheless, there are not enough studies on viewers’ reception of these calques (Latorre 2012). In fact, in one of the few studies about acceptance of the Spanish dubbese (Latorre 2012: 56-57), the author concludes that although his respondents were aware of the unnaturalness of dubbese, he could not find enough evidence to draw any conclusions.  

(2) Naturalness is a vague concept, which is very difficult to pin down and which tends to trigger dangerously impressionistic observations in the case of dubbing (Romero 2009: 51). Romero prefers the use of idiomaticity as “nativelike selection of expression in a given context” (2009: 51). But he admits that this definition is still indeterminate and does not help translators.

(3) Audiovisual translation presents many constraints, particularly lip synchronization in the case of dubbing (Romero 2009: 57). In Chaume’s opinion (2007: 84), “constraints on dubbing and subtitling at times involve sacrificing the grammatical correctness of target text dialogues, which may sound somewhat strange to the receiver”.

Finally, other complex factors related to the peculiarities of dysphemisms have also to be considered in this study:

(1) Sociolinguistic variables (gender and social class of the different characters).

(2) Film genre. There is a high frequency of dysphemisms in American crime films. Leitch’s description of crime films (2002: 14) includes several subgenres (thriller, gangster film, film noir, private-eye film), though sometimes they overlap. In my study, most of the corpus sources are gangster films, since I have observed a higher use of offensive language in them.

(3) The pragmatic context. The pragmatics of the different situations where dysphemisms are used in the source text must be analysed in detail, since their translation will depend on many factors surrounding this pragmatic context. For instance, they may be intended to express anger, emphasis, contempt, among other emotions and attitudes (Pujol 2006: 122).

(4) Cultural differences. Although there are no publications comparing taboo areas and interdiction in Spain and the United States, it seems obvious that differences will emerge (Mayoral 1986: 350-351).

In the next section I will describe my methodology in dealing with these complex difficulties.

2. Methodology and analysis

2.1. The study

Although different kinds of dysphemisms are found in American crime films, I decided to limit this study to the linguistic structure which causes the most problems in Spanish dubbese. According to the authors who have researched this specific area (Pujol 2006: 122; Fernández 2006: 10; Fernández 2012), this is the case of the word fuck and especially the fucking+noun structure, so this was chosen as the object of study. The reason why both scholars and professional translators (Castro 1997; Fernández 2006: 14; Pujol 2006: 123) agree that the translation of the fucking+noun structure is usually very deficient in the Spanish dubbed versions is that there are no dysphemisms with a similar syntactic structure in Spanish. Swear words functioning as adjectival modifiers do not exist in this language[2]. Thus, the expression jodido/a+noun was created to translate the fucking+noun structure when American films became popular (Castro 1997). For this reason, it is considered artificial as it can only be found in Spanish dubbese[3]. Furthermore, apart from this expression other strategies to translate the fucking+noun structure are often criticized in the specialized literature as will be discussed in the analysis of the corpus. Hence, the main aim of this analysis is to detect and describe the main strategies that are usually adopted to translate this expression in the dubbed Spanish versions of American gangster films in order to outline some translation guidelines in this unexplored field. The following hypotheses will be contrasted with the results:

1. Fucking+noun is a common structure in the dialogues of American gangster films.

2. The translation of the fucking+noun structure in the Spanish dubbed versions of American gangster films is usually deficient. Mistranslations and omissions are often found in the target text.

As explained above, it is fundamental to determine the pragmatic function of the fucking+noun structure in each context in order to analyse it conveniently, i.e. the speakers’ intention and the characteristics of the situation need to be described. Consequently, the features of the sources must be as similar as possible, so data can be contrasted reliably. I have chosen 20 American crime films produced since 1994[4]. Most of them belong to the subgenre gangster film, though there are also a few crime films of other subgenres where dysphemisms are abundant[5] (for instance, Summer of Sam).  Movies depicting periods previous to the 1970s were not included because this genre was not allowed in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), so there are no Spanish original films produced in this period to compare them with (González Ruiz 2005).

To establish the definite list of films I utilized different databases and web sites (cf. Appendix 1). Thus, in this study, which is still in progress, all the fucking+noun structures and their pragmatic contexts in these 20 films are to be identified and included in a record file, together with their corresponding Spanish translation in the dubbed versions:


Film title

   Spanish dubbed version


End of match (2012)

Sin tregua (2012)


Pride and Glory (2008)

Cuestión de honor (2009)


Alpha Dog (2006)

Alpha Dog (2007)


Running Scared (2006)

La prueba del crimen (2006)


The Departed (2006)

Infiltrados (2006)


Dirty (2005)

La ley de la calle (2005)


Harsh Times (2005)

Vidas al límite (2005)


Bad Boys 2 (2003)

Dos policías rebeldes 2 (2003)


Narc (2002)

Narc (2003)


Empire (2002)

Empire (2003)


State property (2002)

Propiedad estatal (2002)


Get Carter (2000)

Asesino implacable (2001)


Summer of Sam (1999)

Nadie está a salvo de Sam (1999)


The Boondock Saints (1999)

Los elegidos (2000)


Another day in Paradise (1998)

Al final del edén (1999)


Donnie Brasco (1997)

Donnie Brasco (1997)


Casino (1995)

Casino, de Scorcese (1996)


Kiss of death (1995)

El sabor de la muerte (1995)


Dead Presidents (1995)

Dinero para quemar (1995)


Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1995)

Table 1. Sources of the corpus (American crime films and their Spanish dubbed versions)

Apart from watching all these films, several screenplay databases were also used (cf. Appendix 1). After selecting the sources of the corpus, I came up against some methodological problems. First of all, if I were to assess the degree of idiomaticity of the different translations of the fucking+noun structure, a reference for what should be regarded as idiomatic was needed. For a similar purpose, Romero (2009: 59) compared a corpus of discourse markers from the American series Friends with CREA, a corpus of colloquial Spanish (Real Academia Española). However, the pragmatic contexts where dialogues take place in crime films are hardly similar or comparable to those compiled in CREA. In fact, multiple factors such as the violence expressed by dysphemisms in these films are certainly absent in the available colloquial Spanish corpora (CREA, CORLEC, among others).

So how can one assess the degree of idiomaticity of the fucking+noun structure translations in the dubbed versions? From my point of view, a model for comparison is the analysis of a large corpus of Spanish original films. Offensive language is also abundant in the Spanish films of the same genre, though the production of crime films is rather low in this country. Nevertheless, since Franco’s death and the end of censorship, a variety of films related to crime and organized crime have been produced in Spain as table 2 shows (e.g. La caja 507, released in 2002), while others have focused on urban contexts where the characters are outcasts constantly using dysphemisms (e.g. Princesas, released in 2005). Besides, crime-related comedies in which offensive language as a distinctive feature of the main characters’ personalities can also be found in the Spanish film industry (e. g. Torrente, released in 1998). In comparison to American films of the same genre, they share many similar pragmatic situations as far as dysphemisms are concerned.

Thus, 20 Spanish films (crime films, films about outcasts and crime-related comedies), produced since 1994[6] have been included in the corpus. According to the film databases and the official lists of nominated films to the Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars) that were used for this purpose (cf. Appendix 1), these are the main films of these subgenres produced in Spain in this period:


Grupo 7 (2012)


No habrá paz para los malvados (2011)


Celda 211 (2009)


Mentiras y gordas (2009)


El patio de mi cárcel (2008)


Café, solo o con ellas (2007)


Yo soy la Juani (2006)


Volando voy (2006)


Princesas (2005)


A golpes (2005)


Horas de luz (2004)


La caja 507 (2002)


Barrio (1998)


Mensaka (1998)


Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley (1998)


Airbag (1997)


Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando

hayamos muerto (1995)


El día de la bestia (1995)


Historias del Kronen (1995)


Tres días de libertad (1995)

Table 2. Spanish original films (1994-2014)

2.2. Analysis of American films

As a representative sample, I will analyse in this paper the use of the fucking+noun structure in three American films that were produced in the same decade: Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), Casino (Scorsese, 1995) and Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997), as well as the different translations of the fucking+noun structure found in their Spanish dubbed versions. I decided to choose these films because they have very similar plots and lengths[7], so they seemed to be convenient for my purposes.

I watched the original films and also read the scripts to detect and compile all the fucking+noun structures, apart from fuck words and expressions, which were also recorded in order to contrast these figures. They were registered in a file with all the necessary information for their analysis:

-the whole sentence where the fuck word or expression is included

-the exact time in the film


-pragmatic function and context (type of situation, i.e. argument, casual conversation, violent fight, etc.).

Then the Spanish dubbed versions were watched and the exact translation for each fuck word or expression was introduced in the file. Table 3 provides us with the results:





other structures

with fucking

fuck as a noun

or verb

Total fuck words

and expressions

Pulp Fiction










Donnie Brasco










Table 3. Results

Casino is the film with the highest use of the fucking+noun structure (209), which means an average use of 2.28 per minute, followed by Donnie Brasco (90; 0.75 per minute) and Pulp Fiction (0.45 per minute). As Table 3 indicates, the fucking+noun structure was also the most frequent structure with the fuck word in these three films, though other structures with fuck and fucking were also present. These results are significant, since they confirm our first hypothesis.

Once the corpus of the fucking+noun structure was compiled, I watched the films again taking into consideration every detail of the pragmatic context and other aspects such as intonation and personality of the character to assess the pragmatic functions of the fucking+noun structure as accurately as possible. Thus, each conversation was carefully analysed. Furthermore, I decided that voice-over cases should be studied separately, since there was no actual dialogue and consequently, the pragmatic information had to be determined through intonation and the aim and context of these commentaries.

Six main pragmatic functions of the fucking+noun structure were observed: anger, contempt, admiration, surprise, emphasis and sarcasm. In general, these pragmatic functions seem to demonstrate that the use of fucking as a modifier of nouns is not superfluous in the source texts. These films are full of dialogues with plenty of information and the characters are very expressive in their intonation and gestures, so it was not especially difficult to identify these functions in their contexts:








Pulp Fiction














Donnie Brasco





















Table 3: Main pragmatic functions found in the corpus

As table 3 shows, anger (35.2 per cent) seems to be the main pragmatic function. This may be due to the violence and aggressiveness typical of these films, since many scenes consist of fights and arguments. These are some examples[8]:

I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ face! (PF)
You tie up our kid and you lock the fuckin' door? […] Are you out of your fuckin' mind? (C)
Don't ask so many fuckin’ questions! (DB)

When the characters want to emphasize something in the less violent scenes, even when they are only chatting casually, they keep on using the fucking+noun structure (30.5 per cent):

Heroin's comin' back in a big fuckin' way. (PF)
You could be there all fuckin' night. (C)
This ain't a fuckin’ rodeo. (DB)

Contempt is also significant (21.15 per cent) as the main characters are continually showing contempt for each other and making scornful comments. This also occurs with women (Jody and Yolanda in Pulp Fiction; Ginger and Jennifer in Casino; Maggie in Donnie Brasco), so the gender variable does not seem to be relevant in the source texts, where dysphemisms function as a distinct feature of speech style. A lower number of cases are related to contexts where characters express their sarcasm (6.04 per cent) or admiration (4.12 per cent) in a rather aggressive way:

Normally both of your asses would be dead as fuckin' fried chicken. (Sarcasm; PF)
What balls on this fuckin' kid! (Admiration; C)
I’m the invisible fuckin’ man. (Sarcasm; DB)

Finally, the lowest figures were obtained in the function of surprise (3.02 per cent):

What just happened was a fuckin' miracle! (PF)
What, are you gonna have a fuckin' meeting here? (C)
You lost a screwdriver in my fucking stereo! (DB)

2.3. Analysis of the Spanish dubbed versions

The analysis of the Spanish dubbed version is aimed at

(1) detecting and classifying the different translation strategies of the fucking+noun structure

(2) contrasting the degree of pragmatic intensity of these translation strategies in the target text.

In this study, I consider the degree of pragmatic intensity to be the impact of a dysphemism in a specific pragmatic context of a determined culture[9]. Thus, the pragmatic features of each translated fucking+noun structure were compared to those in the original films. Unlike the usual methodology found in the few studies on the translation problems of this structure[10] (Gómez Capuz 2001a, 2001b; Ron 2002, Fernández 2012, Fernández 2013, Rodríguez 2013), we did not focus on the calques  found in the dubbed version, but on how frequently the fucking+noun structure was translated with the same degree of pragmatic intensity as in the source text. In my opinion, this assessment of the degree of pragmatic intensity is fundamental in analysing the translation of dysphemisms and should precede any evaluation of translation adequacy.

Hence, I consider that the degree of pragmatic intensity should be the same in both the source text and the target text. Therefore, omissions and translation strategies using ‘softer’ dysphemisms or even neutral words will cause a lower degree of pragmatic intensity in the target text. This means a loss of pragmatic nuances and a lower presence of verbal violence in the target text.

In the analysis of the Spanish versions of the three films, four main translation strategies of the fucking+noun structure were observed in the corpus:

(1) Omission. No trace of linguistic dysphemisms is left in the target text.

(2) Mitigation. In Pragmatics and Cognitive Linguistics this term refers to a way “to ease an anticipated unwelcome effect” (Fraser 1999: 342). In this analysis I regard mitigation as a translation strategy consisting of downgrading in the target text the pragmatic intensity of dysphemisms found in the source text. They are translated with  words or expressions which are not considered as dysphemisms in the target culture or if so, they are less offensive or vulgar than the dysphemistic terms in the source text. Dictionaries of use of Spanish (Real Academia Española’s Diccionario de la lengua española and María Moliner’s Diccionario de uso del español) and Briz’s lists of dysphemisms compiled in his book on pragmatics in colloquial Spanish (1998) were utilized as guidelines.

(3) Structures with adjectival modifiers (puto, maldito, jodido).

(4) Structures with adverbial modifiers (jodidamente).

(5) Expletives: cojones, no me jodas, etc. 

traslation strategy

Pulp Fiction


















Adjectival m.: puto/a






Adjectival m.: maldito/a






Adjectival m.: jodido/a






Adverb. m.:  jodidamente












Table 4. Translation strategies of the fucking+noun structure in the target texts

As table 4 shows, omission figures are very high in comparison to the rest of the translation strategies found in the corpus (144 out of 364). It is the most frequent translation strategy of the fucking+noun structure in the target texts (39.56 per cent). In my opinion, these omissions result in more softened and milder-toned dialogues, since the pragmatic intensity of the fucking+noun structures used in the source texts is completely lost in the target texts, especially in the most violent scenes. As a consequence, these parts of the film become less violent in the Spanish versions:

ST: Nobody does a fuckin' thing 'til I do something. (PF)
TT: Nadie hará nada hasta que yo haga algo.
BT (Back translation)[11]: Nobody does a thing 'til I do something.
ST: Look what you just did to this fuckin' guy!  If you would have just kept your fuckin' mouth shut! (C)
TT: ¡Mira todo lo que le has hecho a ese tío! ¡Si hubieras tenido la boca cerrada!
BT: Look what you just did to this guy! If you would have just kept your mouth shut!
ST: Here comes a fucking cop. (DB)
TT: Aquí viene un poli.
BT: Here comes a cop.

This softer effect caused by the omission of the translation of the fucking+noun structure is also favoured by mitigation. Although it represents only 9.35 per cent in the corpus, mitigation is especially intended to soften the effect of dysphemisms in the dubbed versions. The pragmatic intensity of the target texts is lower thanks to the use of this strategy, which avoids dysphemisms, so verbal violence becomes less intense in the Spanish versions. In general, different types of common emphasizers (como nadie, absolutamente, hasta el más+adjective, con toda su alma) or dysphemisms with a lower degree of pragmatic intensity in Spanish than the original fucking+noun structures are utilized (tonto del culo, capullo):

ST: But this one is fuckin' mad. (PF)
TT: Pero esta es una auténtica pasada.
BT: But this one is absolutely gorgeous.
ST: He told fuckin' Remo everything. (C)
TT: Le contaba a Remo absolutamente todo.
BT: He told Remo absolutely everything.
ST: a fucking spider! (DB)
TT: una de esas arañas peludas!
BT: one of those hairy spiders!

The use of adjectival modifiers (143) is the second most frequent translation strategy (39.28 per cent), with a prevalence of puto/a+noun (20.05 per cent), followed by jodido/a+noun (12.09 per cent) and maldito/a+noun (7.14 per cent). Despite the fact that puto/a+noun presents a degree of pragmatic intensity similar to the fucking+noun structure, this dysphemism is not as frequent in Spanish as in American English in some authors’ opinion (Castro 1997; Gómez Capuz 2001b), except for some collocations such as de una puta vez or a la puta calle, so this structure is usually regarded as an anglicism of frequency in Spanish. However, no scientific data of its real frequency is available. In my opinion, the high frequency of puto/a+noun in the target texts may be due to its syntactic similarity to fucking+noun and its relative shortness in comparison to expletives, which are normally longer in Spanish. Consequently, the puto/a+noun structure seems to be convenient in audiovisual translation[12] in terms of isochrony[13] and lip-synchrony:

ST: that was my father's fuckin' watch. (PF)
TT: era el puto reloj de mi padre!
BT: it was the whore watch of my father!
ST: You could be there all fuckin' night. (C)
TT: Vamos, que te puedes pasar allí toda la puta noche.
BT: You could be there all whore night.
ST: You ain't got no fucking idea! (DB)
TT: ¡No tienes ni puta idea!
BT: You ain't got no whore idea!

However, maldito/a+noun presents a lower degree of pragmatic intensity in comparison to the fucking+noun structure, so it is less offensive and therefore, it cannot be regarded as pragmatically equivalent to the fucking+noun structure. Thus, it is also relatively frequent (7.14 per cent) and it can be considered as another means to downgrade the effect of dysphemisms in the target texts, as well as jodido/a+noun (12.09 per cent), criticized by professional translators for not being idiomatic (Ron 2002; Fernández 2013). Since jodido/a+noun is only used in dubbese and not in real colloquial Spanish[14], its degree of pragmatic intensity cannot be as strong as an actual dysphemism such as the fucking+noun structure. For that reason, its use also contributes to soften the effect of dysphemisms in the target texts. On the other hand, only one adverbial modifier was found (jodidamente) in one of the films (Casino). As the jodido/a+noun structure, jodidamente is never used in Spanish except in dubbese. These are some examples:

ST: a fucking black magic marker! (PF)
TT: ¡un maldito rotulador negro!
BT: a damned black magic marker!
ST: I'm the foot fuckin' master. (PF)
TT: Soy el jodido maestro de los pies.
BT: I’m the foot fucked master.
ST: Turns out this guy and his fuckin' pals, they were knockin' this place dead for years. (C)
TT: Resultó que ese tipo y sus malditos compinches llevaban años operando en este local.
BT: Turns out this guy and his damned pals, they were knockin' this place dead for years.
ST: Turned out to be one of the other coaches was a fuckin’ metro intelligence cop. (C)
TT: Uno de los entrenadores era un jodido agente de la policía metropolitana.
BT: Turned out to be one of the other coaches was a fucked metro intelligence cop.
ST: Say his fucking name! (DB)
TT: ¡Di su maldito nombre!
BT: Say his damned name!
ST: that is my wife's fucking diamond ring! (DB)
TT: ¡Es el jodido anillo de diamantes de mi esposa!
BT: that is my wife’s fucked diamond ring!

In contrast to the 364 fucking+noun structures found in the source texts, only 42 expletives were utilized in the target texts (11.54 per cent), a rather low figure considering that they seem to be the only structures in the corpus with the same degree of pragmatic intensity and frequency as the fucking+noun structures: no me jodas, joder, cojones, (el muy) cabrón, (el muy) hijo de puta, noun+de los cojones, noun+de los huevos[15]:

ST: This ain't a fuckin' joke! (PF)
TT: ¡No es una broma, joder!
BT: Fuck, this ain’t a joke!
ST: Your fuckin' ass! (C)
TT: ¡No me jodas!
BT: Fuck you!
ST: I ain't taking my fucking shoes off. (DB)
TT: No me sale de los huevos quitarme los zapatos (DB)
BT: Bollocks! I ain’t taking may shoes off.

Admittedly, from the point of view of isochrony and lip-synchronization, they are more difficult to insert in the text than the puto/a+noun structure. However, expletives are not more frequent in the voice-over parts with no actors on screen, so dubbing  constraints may not be the explanation for this. Besides, as Chaume (2007: 82) points out, “[in Spain] most publications on the issue of dubbing confer greater importance to realistic dialogue than to good lip-sync. If the gestures, the intonation and the dialogues are credible and natural, the audience will be more tolerant of any unsynchonized lip movements”.

3. Conclusions

The results of this study indicate that fucking+noun is a common structure in American gangster films, so the first hypothesis is confirmed. The analysis of the pragmatic contexts where this structure is used also shows that it is not superfluous as argued by some authors, but it is aimed at reinforcing expressivity in different situations (mainly emphasis, anger and contempt), especially in the most violent scenes, which are so frequent in this film genre. Therefore, ignoring this structure in the Spanish dubbed version as some professionals have suggested (Castro 1997) does not seem to be justified in my opinion.

Furthermore, omission is the most frequent translation strategy in the target texts. Consequently, these omissions result in more softened dialogues, favoured by mitigation, which causes the same ‘softening effect’ in the dubbed versions thanks to the presence of neutral dysphemisms or even words and expressions which are simply emphasizers and not dysphemisms. Besides, the use of adjectival modifiers such as jodido/a+noun (inexistent in Spanish, except in dubbese) and maldito/a+noun (less offensive and frequent in Spanish than the fucking+noun structure) also contributes to downgrade the impact of dysphemisms in the Spanish dubbed versions. Thus, omission, mitigation and adjectival modifiers (except puto/a+noun), which together make up the three main translation strategies of the fucking+noun structure (68.42 per cent), cause a lower degree of pragmatic intensity in the Spanish target texts as far as dysphemisms are concerned.

In contrast, the only translation strategies found in the target texts with the same degree of pragmatic intensity in Spanish as the fucking+noun structure (expletives and puto/a+noun) are less used (31.58 per cent). As a consequence, the Spanish dubbed versions are less offensive than the source texts in terms of the pragmatic intensity of their dysphemisms. Hence, the second hypothesis is confirmed. The translation of the fucking+noun structure in the Spanish dubbed versions of American gangster films is deficient, since the degree of pragmatic intensity is far lower in the target texts due to the omissions and mistranslations described in this study. In general, the frequency of dysphemisms is considerably reduced, so they are softened and even lost in the target texts. The powerful ferocity of swearing in the most violent scenes of these films disappears completely in the dubbed versions, misleading the Spanish viewers[16].

From my point of view, this may be due to the generalized belief among Spanish audiovisual translators and dubbers that American crime films are linguistically more violent than Spanish ones, and therefore, the impact of dysphemisms should be mitigated eliminating or reducing their presence in the target text (Castro 1997). As a result, this unjustified approach is leading to poor quality dubbed versions in the Spanish audiovisual translation market.

The analysis of the Spanish dubbed version reveals a chaotic scenario of translations where omissions and other modulation strategies randomly intertwine with no apparent reason whatsoever. Although this study is mainly descriptive rather than prescriptive, the analysis also provides us with some guidelines on the translation of the fucking+noun structure. Thus, considering that the characters of these films are not Spanish, modulation strategies (omission, mitigation, some types of adjectival modifiers such as jodido/a or maldito/a) are not needed or justified, so they should be avoided. On the contrary, expletives and puto/a+noun, which express the same verbal violence in Spanish as the fucking+noun structure (i.e. they have the same degree of pragmatic intensity), seem to be convenient in the target texts.

If we bear in mind that verbal violence is one of the most distinctive features of dialogues in these films, its careful translation should be a main issue for the audiovisual market professionals to achieve quality dubbed versions of American gangster films in Spanish.


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Appendix: On-line cinema databases and web sites

  • List_ of_films _ordered_by_uses_of_the_word_fuck


[1] All translations from Spanish are by the author.

[2] Except puto+noun, maldito+noun, but they are not always equivalent to the fucking+noun structure as will be discussed further in the analysis. Besides, they are not used in Spanish as often as fucking+noun in American English.

[3] This idea can be found in most audiovisual translators’ web sites and Internet forums.

[4] Since the use of dysphemisms in films may have varied throughout time, older movies were avoided.

[5] As I have explained, the translation of dysphemisms in the Spanish versions of these American gangster films is especially criticized by scholars and professionals, as it is considered to be full of calques and mistranslations.

[6] For the reasons explained above, films released before 1994 were not included in the American corpus, so the same criteria were used in the corpus of Spanish original films in order to be coherent.

[7] Their main characters are mobsters and their length is superior to 2 hours.

[8] An example taken from each film will be included in the different analysis sections. The source is indicated with abbreviations (PF: Pulp Fiction, C: Casino, DB: Donnie Brasco).

[9] All dysphemisms and offensive words and expressions have not the same degree of aggressiveness or vulgarity. For instance, cunt is extremely offensive in English in comparison to other dysphemisms such as damned, bloody or even fucking. The same is true in Spanish: hijo de puta (son of a bitch) is very disrespectful and derogatory in comparison to maldito/a (damned).

[10] Spanish audiovisual translators and dubbers usually publish articles on their web sites and forums  criticizing the calques and mistranslations of this structure, selecting some of them at random and adding general comments such as “they do not sound natural”, “they are not idiomatic” or “they are generally mistranslated”. No compilation of all the cases found in a source text with a rigorous comparison to the translation strategies used in the target text has been carried out so far. However, professionals have always recognized the need of a study covering these unexplored issues.

[11] Back translations are provided by the author. In the case of a few idiomatic Spanish expressions in the corpus (puto/a+noun, jodido/a+noun), literal translations are included as it may be of interest to non Spanish readers to understand these examples, though obviously they would not be used in these contexts in English.

[12] However, there is no consensus as far as this issue is concerned in the conferences, Internet forums and web sites of Spanish audiovisual translators. While some agree with the idea that it is a convenient solution for the translation of the fucking+noun structure, others criticize it arguing that is not as common in Spanish as in American English.

[13] It occurs when the duration of the dubbed speech is exactly the same as the original speech of the actor or actress on screen (Chaume 2005: 7).

[14] Jodido/a is only used after the verbs ser o estar (to be) in Spanish colloquial expressions such as estoy jodido (literally, I am fucked meaning ‘I feel awful’ or ‘I’m in trouble’), but it makes no sense as a noun modifier. Therefore, the jodido+noun structure did not exist in Spanish until it started to be used in dubbese as it has been explained.

[15] Interestingly, all these expressions found in the dubbed versions are also included in Briz’s (1998) lists of dysphemisms with a high frequency of use in colloquial Spanish.

[16] It should be pointed out that American crime films are very popular in Spain (almost every evening more than one film of this genre is broadcast in prime time on the main Spanish TV channels). Foreign films are always dubbed on Spanish television.

About the author(s)

María Jesús Rodríguez-Medina is a Doctor in Translation and Interpreting and works as an Associate Professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Faculty of Translation and Interpreting). She is also a member of the Research Group “Sociolinguistic and Sociocultural Studies” (ULPGC) and a specialist on language contact and translation. She has published some books and many articles and book chapters related to her research interests, which include scientific, technical, literary, and audiovisual translation.

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©inTRAlinea & María Jesús Rodríguez-Medina (2015).
"Appraising the Translation of Dysphemisms. Insights into the Spanish Crime Film Dubbese"
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