Sprinkling slang into your content can help make it more engaging and expressive, but what happens if you want to translate your content for new audiences?
Naturally, you can’t just leave the slang unmodified in your translated content – it’d just stick out like a sore thumb. You’d need to translate it too, and this task can pose a hurdle if the slang phrase has no direct equivalent in the target language. For one, some slang might not make sense when directly translated into another language, or mean something completely different. As a result, you might inadvertently confuse or even offend your target audience.
Over the years, however, experts have developed translation techniques that help capture the meaning of slang phrases without losing their color. We’ll explore some of these tried-and-tested techniques so you can adopt them for your slang translation efforts. But to set some initial context, let’s quickly recap what slang is and why you might want to translate the slang in your content.
What is slang?
Slang is informal language that specific groups or subcultures of people use to express certain concepts. Slang words and expressions can vary widely between different countries, regions, and cultures, and examples include:
“Barbie”: While you may know this word as the name of the popular doll produced by toy manufacturer Mattel, it is also slang for the word “barbecue” in Australia. So don’t panic if you hear an Australian say: “Let’s fire up the barbie” – they’re likely talking about lighting a barbecue grill rather than setting a doll on fire!
“I’m dead”: A popular slang phrase among Generation Z individuals where the speaker means they find something so funny that they’re dying from laughter.
The more often people speak or write slang (such as in text messages or blog posts), the more integrated such slang may become with the language used in that culture. The slang may even become so commonly used that it earns a spot – and a formal definition – in the dictionary!
Just take the word “sus,” for example. It’s a new word formed by shortening the existing word “suspicious,” and has been officially recognized as slang on the Dictionary.com website:
Can you think of other slang phrases in your language, whether they’ve made it to the dictionary or otherwise? You probably can!
Why should you translate slang?
Translating slang is an important aspect of content localization – in other words, the adaptation of content to suit the local culture and context of its target audience. Among other processes, content localization may involve the insertion of cultural idioms and slang used by the target audience into the content so that it reads as authentically local.
Here's a quick look into content localization:
But if the content that’s being localized contains slang from the outset, such slang will need to be translated to give full effect to the content’s intended meaning. Otherwise, some concepts that the content is trying to express may get lost in translation.
Translating slang can pose a challenge, though. If you were to do a literal translation of slang terms and expressions into the target language – just like what you might do for certain regular “non-slang” content – you might find the translation having a completely different meaning.
Here’s an example taken from the 1995 English-language film Clueless to illustrate. In the film, one of the characters, Lawrence, sees his friend Murray’s shaved head. He then says: “It’s the bomb!”
In this context, Lawrence uses “the bomb” as an English slang phrase for “cool.” (In other words, Lawrence is saying that Murray’s shaved head looks cool.) But when the film was given Swedish subtitles, the translator translated that line into “Det är en bomb.” In English, the subtitle literally means “It’s a bomb” and possibly refers to how a shaved head looks like a bomb, instead of looking cool.
Although the alternative interpretation happens to work here, it evokes a different meaning than what the slang phrase intended. Hence the importance of accurate slang translation in getting the right message across.
Correct slang translation signals to your target audience that you understand their language and culture, which is vital for building goodwill. It also avoids causing misunderstandings or, even worse, offense as you attempt to win over a new demographic.
How do you translate slang?
Barring the complete omission of slang from the translated text, translators typically use one of three slang translation strategies to translate slang. The right approach to use will depend on factors such as the type of content you’re translating, your target and source languages, and the specific slang words and phrases that need translating:
1. Literal translation
As its name suggests, a literal translation involves translating slang words and phrases in the source text word-for-word into the target language. While this approach works for certain slang in specific language pairs, other expressions may have no direct equivalence in the destination language. In such cases, translating them literally may result in the translated phrases having a different meaning from their source.
Just take the “I’m dead” English slang phrase mentioned above. It’s used to express how the speaker finds something hilarious, but doing a literal translation of this phrase into any other language might result in you telling your audience that you’ve passed away. And not only does this not make sense because you are clearly still alive, but it also doesn’t convey the humor you’re feeling at this point.
This approach is often used for slang words and phrases that may be considered vulgar or offensive when translated, due to cultural or linguistic differences in how users of the destination language may understand the translations. Translators generally tone down, or soften, such slang terms so that the target audience will find them more appropriate.
For instance, The Punisher English-language comic has a line that goes, “I’d rather not be left stuck to your crappy car (sic).” Since “crappy” is a potentially offensive way of saying something is in poor condition, translator Hindi R. Ibrahim replaced that line with “Aku tidak ingin terjebak di sini dalam mobil bututmu” when translating the comic into Bahasa Indonesia.
In English, that Indonesian phrase means “I don’t want to be stuck here in a beat-up car.” So we can see that the translator has softened the slang phrase of “crappy” by omitting the word’s offensive connotation from the translation, and focusing on the car’s poor condition (“bututmu”) instead.
3. Stylistic compensation
Stylistic compensation involves doing a paraphrase of the original slang term with a contextually appropriate word or expression from the target language or culture. It is the most common method of translating slang as it tends to produce the most faithful translations of the source text.
If you’ve read the English-language book The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, for example, you may recall how, at one point, Holden tells Sunny, “I have plenty of dough.” Here, the word “dough” is a slang term for money, and Holden is really saying to Sunny that he has lots of money (as opposed to the stuff you use for baking).
So in one Lithuanian translation of the book by P. Gasiulis, the same line reads “Pinigų turiu iki kaklo,” or “I have money up to my neck” in English. Not only does the Lithuanian translation evoke the intended meaning, but it also represents this meaning in a different slang expression.
(That said, at least one commenter has suggested that the stylistic compensation here could have been more effective had the translator used a Lithuanian-specific slang phrase for “money,” such as “babkės,” in the translation.)
Slang translation made easy with Weglot
If the website content you’re translating contains slang, you’d lose some of its nuance if you omitted such slang from its translated version. Neither might your translation be as relatable to your target audience. So as far as possible, we recommend translating your slang using one of the three slang translation strategies discussed above, as appropriate.
Our Weglot website translation solution can help ensure accurate and consistent slang translation throughout your web content, no matter how large your site is. Using a mix of machine translation and human editing, Weglot translates your website content into over 110 different languages instantly. In particular, a built-in translation glossary lets you set up rules on how slang terms and phrases should always be translated for various language pairs.
All translations (slang and non-slang alike) are stored in a central Weglot Dashboard. From there, you can invite internal and external collaborators to check if your translations accurately convey the intended meaning, and fine-tune them further as needed. Your translations are then automatically displayed on your website, under language subdomains or subdirectories – no manual uploading or transferring needed.