How to Translate English Slang Into Other Languages

Translate Slang

In general, slang refers to informal language that is used more often in speech than in writing, and may only have meaning to a specific group of subculture. Slang expressions introduce unique challenges for translators who want to capture the tone of the original content along with its meaning.

While slang tends to be more casual, not all slang words are vulgar or inappropriate. In fact, slang terms often become part of our everyday vocabulary. You wouldn’t tell your boss that their BMW is “lit,” but that’s an issue of formality rather than one of vulgarity.

Like any other form of language, slang evolves over time and varies widely between different countries and regions. How to approach slang is a key question in translation theory.

How Does Slang Affect Language?

Slang broadens the English language by adding words and giving speakers more stylistic options. No language is static, and English is itself a collection and reinvention of words from many other languages such as Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. Native speakers of a language typically have more control over their tone and style due to their ability to switch between slang and more formal registers.

Internet slang expressions like OMG and LOL have made their way into our conversations, but also into the Oxford Dictionary. Furthermore, social media platforms now play a key role in creating and popularizing slang terms and culture-specific language.

Of course, people use slang in all different languages around the world. The French use the term MDR or “mort de rire” (dying of laughter) in place of the English LOL. Similarly, the number 5 represents the letter “h” in Thailand. However, it isn’t always easy to find a perfect counterpart in the target language when translating slang expressions.

You might think that slang is limited to the under-30 crowd, but the reality is that most people of all ages use at least some colloquial terms. Overall, 80% of Americans report using slang. With that in mind, you should expect most content to include at least some slang expressions.

How Does Slang Affect Translation?

While standard language is usually easier to translate, slang tends to be more language-specific. Translating a straightforward sentence like “I saw a cat” from English into French is relatively simple. On the other hand, slang expressions might contain wordplay or cultural references that are difficult to communicate in another language. This is just one of many issues involved in the translation of slang.

Translators often struggle when it comes to interpreting slang and swear words in a source text. For instance, when an Englishperson says, “There’s not enough room to swing a cat,” they are referring to a cramped space. However, a Russian may not understand the phrase unless it’s translated into a similar idiom in the target text.

An effective translator needs a good grip on both the source and the target language in order to find the right translation strategies when dealing with slang expressions.

The most common translation process for slang involves using phrases with a similar meaning in the target language. This helps translators maintain the context and intention that the speaker or writer had in the source language. However, it may also require them to use an expression with a different literal meaning.

If you’re trying to translate the word “cool” into Spanish, for example, you’ll need to find the right word for that specific situation. While there are several similar words in the Spanish language, none of them should be used as a one-to-one replacement for the English “cool.”

How to Translate Slang Terms

There are three ways to translate slang terms:

  1. Softening

    Softening focuses on how the target reader will perceive a text.

  2. Literal Translation

    Translating word for word from the source language to another may work for some phrases. However, many colloquialisms may be completely lost in translation, and you should never use literal translation for a full text.

  3. Stylistic Compensation

    Unlike literal translation, this method involves looking for words with a similar semantic meaning in the target language. This is the most common way of translating slang and swear words.

Keep in mind that the right translation method for slang may also depend on the content in question. If you’re translating a book, for example, you might have the opportunity to give additional context for your word choice in a footnote. However, you probably won’t have the same luxury when translating subtitles for film or a TV show.

Final Thoughts

Slang evolves with time and adds freshness and relevance to a language. Accurately translating slang will help you engage with your target audience by making your content more relatable.

Localize has extensive experience in translating and localizing web content for a global audience. We use cutting-edge technology to ensure outstanding results for our clients. Request a demo today.

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