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I have noticed when watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles that the Spanish seems to render a "softer" version of any coarse language spoken in English. For example, "god damn it!" is usually translated as "maldita sea" which simple means "cursed be it." I have also seen other English "cuss" words translated simply as "idiota" or "imbecile" in Spanish.

Does this really reflect a kinder, gentler nature among Spanish speakers, or what's going on here?

As I mentioned, I have noticed this in general, but I noticed multiple examples of it last night while watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off

My wife (who speaks no Spanish) and I had a somewhat lively discussion about it when I mentioned the disconnect to her - she thinks the translations must be wrong. So which is it? For the sake of honest translation, should the subtitles have been coarser?

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    Translations are misleading you. Usually movies -and almost without exception translations- tend to be way more polite than day-to-day language. We do curse a lot, and with the usual regional variations
    – Rafael
    May 26, 2016 at 22:56
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    Censorship is what has led you to this conclusion.
    – Paul
    May 27, 2016 at 0:59
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    Curse words are slang by definition, and slang varies a great deal from a country to another. If translators want to keep it not too localised, they generally opt for general and mild expressions such as "maldita sea", which no one says in real life. A more accurate translation requires being more specific. Me cago en sus muertos sounds fine in Spain and ridiculous in Mexico. Me lleva la verga works the opposite way. Besides that, I swear way more than people do on TV, even in national series where script writers don't have to worry about regional diff. I think it is a cultural thing.
    – Yay
    May 27, 2016 at 9:07
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    I have always thought that in movies spoken in Spanish language is much ruder than translated. It's probably your same feeling, but in reverse.
    – Rodrigo
    May 27, 2016 at 23:11
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    God damn it actually means maldita sea. If God damns something, the thing is maldita. So, it's not really a softening at all. And in Maldita sea, you are in fact asking God to damn the thing.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 17:42

5 Answers 5

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Rude words and expressions have little to do with their literal meanings. For example a literal translation of "God damn it!" would be something like "¡Que Dios lo condene!" which doesn't sound rude at all in Spanish. In fact it sounds kind of refined, like you personally think something is bad but are humbly deferring the judgment to God.

It is inevitable that the translation of many curse words and rude expressions will not transmit the same rudeness, so the translators usually just make something up.

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  • This is simply not true. You just have to know the two languages really well.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 18:17
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Besides the arguments given by @SantagoTórtora, you have to considerer that usually it takes more time to read than to listen. In a movie that is fast paced, they may need to cut the subtitles short, and that may be another reason for their not translating faithfully the audio - they sometimes omit words (or even full sentences), make substitutions , etc.

A famous example of a substitution is Bart Simpson's "Eat my shorts" translated in Spain as "Multiplícate por cero"

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  • In the Latin American version, Bart Simpson says "Cómete mis calzones". It sounds more funny than rude but since it's The Simpsons, it works. May 27, 2016 at 17:17
  • @SantiagoTórtora You mean, funnier?
    – Schwale
    May 27, 2016 at 20:39
  • I mean it's more funny than it is rude. May 27, 2016 at 22:33
  • I listen Bart say "Comeme los calzon" sometimes too.
    – Malkev
    May 30, 2016 at 9:14
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I believe there is another reason for inaccurate translations: the harshest curse words are heavily localized, and there's usually a single translation for all of Latin America (2 at most). I would personally translate "God dammit" as "la concha de la lora" in Argentina, but it would sound strange in other countries. Therefore, lighter versions are used for "neutral" Spanish.

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  • Lo curioso de esto (y no digo que no tengas razón) es que el traductor busque un lenguaje "estándar" a pesar de que el director de la película, o sea su verdadero "dueño", no quiso ser neutral. Siendo argentino, el director dijo "la concha de la lora" y le dio lo mismo que lo entendieran o no los mexicanos.
    – Rodrigo
    May 30, 2016 at 15:13
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    @Rodrigo esto aplica únicamente a traducciones. Por supuesto que las películas argentinas usan vocabulario argentino. Tal vez, precisamente, porque el que traduce NO es el "dueño" de la película. May 30, 2016 at 15:16
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    En los doblajes a veces los traductores dicen arbitrariamente "éste personaje habla con acento argentino/español/mexicano". Por ejemplo las palomas neoyorquinas en Bolt tienen acento argentino y hablan más informalmente. El gato con botas en Shrek tiene acento español y habla con vocabulario más formal y anticuado. May 30, 2016 at 16:36
  • La concha de la lora is not god damn it however you look at it. And I always hear de tu madre there.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 18:55
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Perhaps to avoid excessive localization ?

Cursing in Spanish has huge differences from country to country. In the translation they use geographical neutral language, even if the meaning is somewhat milder than the original. It sounds better for the audience than a curse word from the other part of the world.

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  • There is also a lot of cursing that is the same across the Spanish-speaking world.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 18:52
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You have discovered that subtitles are very rarely correct.

A family member of mine who does not speak any Spanish even noticed this watching La casa de papel (the subtitles were totally failing to capture the 'scientific' flavour of what one of the characters was saying, which was obviously essential to that character).

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  • So an industry that makes gazillions of boodle can't afford to improve thier product. Typical, as seen in the sorry state of editing in recent years, especially online news. Nov 6, 2022 at 17:44
  • I think the reasons behind them not doing subtitles properly are a bit complicated and might be to do with logistics or something like that. Not something I pretend to understand though. Nov 6, 2022 at 17:45

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