I am interested in how we translate those tricky swear words, innuendos, and inappropriate puns that we find throughout the elegiac poets. Poets like Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid often write what many of today’s society would consider wildly inappropriate poetry, yet their language and topics are meaningful, elegant, and packed with power. Those familiar with Catullus will think of poem 16, in which Catullus opens with probably the most crude line of poetry I have ever read: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.” I’ll let you search for its meaning yourself. However, the vulgarity of this poem is part of its brilliance. The implications of how we judge someone based upon their words would be lost without it.
So we can see the brilliance in the Latin, but then how do we make that come across in an English translation? This leads me to the question of what we mean by the “swear words” we use. Why use them at all? What, for instance, does the word fuck really mean? In order to translate vulgarity from another language into own, shouldn’t we first understand the words in our own language that we want to translate them into?
Let’s start with one of the most commonly used, yet one of the most offensive words (by many standards, like the MPAA who rates films): fuck. The MPAA description of ratings says that “a motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.” The power over who can see a film, how it will be marketed, and how the film as a whole will be perceived can rest on a single word. Wow. Language holds an incredible amount of power, yet how often do we carelessly throw around words like this? (This blog post would already be given an R-rating!)
According to dictionary.com, its definition is as follows:
That doesn’t quite cover it, does it? There are so many more colorful and vibrant uses of this four-letter word that I’m sure you are already thinking of which doesn’t even come under this definition. In The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way Bill Bryson states that this simple word “can be used to describe a multitude of conditions and phenomena, from making a mess of something (fuck up), to being casual or provocative (fuck around), to inviting or announcing a departure (fuck off), to being estimable (fucking-A), to being baffled (I’m fucked if I know), to being disgusted (fuck this), and so on and on and on.”
The online slang dictionary gives a few more examples, most of which come under generalized definitions of “an exclamation.” However, a lot of them seem to be blacked out. Other definitions include “to disregard, to take advantage of, to deceive, to kid.”
Yourdictionary.com gives the clinical “fuck is defined as an offensive curse word used to express anger,” and “fuck is an offensive curse word that is defined as to meddle with or to have sexual intercourse.” Venturing into Urban Dictionary with words like this is always risky, but they provide a much more rounded picture. Cave: Users included graphic descriptions, videos, and images. According to a few entries the definitions varies between expressing dismay, inquiry, or aggression, and to merely form an English superlative. With all its meanings, you can even create an entire sentence with few other words!
If nothing else, researching these definitions highlights how versatile vulgar language can be. There are so many definitions and implications, so how do you choose one? Let alone get it to mean the same things as the ancient poet meant by their words, many of which were probably just as versatile?
– Radha Deitenbeck
N.B. I used dogpile.com to find my links. I searched for “catullus 16,” “motion picture ratings,” and “definition of fuck.” The last search led me to the two colloquial dictionaries which I didn’t know existed and are good supplements to the well-known Urban Dictionary. Part of the trouble with these colloquial dictionaries is that anyone can post what they would like to them; there is no “authority check” prior to posting. However, with this subject, that is perfect. The connotations of these words exist in the minds of those in culture who use them. Those are precisely the people whose opinions I want when trying to ascertain what we mean when we curse.