I do not know if you, dear reader, know this problem from personal experience, so I am going to tell you how it felt to me. Perhaps you can sympathise. The problem I am referring to is the problem often encountered by bilingual children when their school-peers realise they (the bilinguals) know a language they (the peers) do not. Children’s natural curiosity almost always leads them to ask for the way such-and-such a word is said in the other language. Almost invariably, this word is an insult. In my case, as I went to school in Madrid, the word most wanted was gilipollas, together with cabrón easily the most common insult among the children of my generation. It always struck me as incoherent to want to know how to insult in other languages, perhaps because I had the impression they (my peers) thought they could then insult with impunity, as the insulted would not understand the meaning of the translation into German (in my case) of the word gilipollas. But what is the sense of an insult the insulted party does not understand? Why utter these sounds at all? It is ridiculous.
Even worse was the fact that the word gilipollas has no evident translation into German, something my peers flatly refused to believe. “How should there be no gilipollas in German(y)?” was then their usual question. Well, I did not know then, I probably do not have a definitive answer yet, but I have the hunch that just as “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, kind words are the same all over the world, whille insults have a tendency to be culturally specific and not easily translatable. So what was my solution to my peer’s question? I came up with the German term Arschloch, which, perhaps by coincidence, was the word my German friends asked me to translate for them into Spanish (which I gladly did, claiming the right translation was gilipollas). Please do not ask now what a gilipollas or an Arschloch actually is. I do not know. I can only hope I myself am neither. I know that the usual translation for Arschloch into English is Asshole, that much seems easy. From the fact that the usual translation for Arschloch into English is asshole together with the fact that Arschloch is not translatable into Spanish I infer that asshole, meant as an insult, is not translatable into Spanish either. Medically, an asshole is easy to translate: ano, or esfínter anal if you wish to sound posh and highbrow (do you really want to? When insulting? As you wish, go ahead…). But of course this is not an insult in the Spanish language, it is an anatomical term and you have only managed to make a fool of yourself. This is the moment when somebody could rightly ask what an asshole (or an Arschloch or a gilipollas) actually is and how he or she is defined. There you might find that the definition of the term is rather vague: it is a pejorative word, that much is sure. But what the difference between an asshole and a moron or an idiot is, to put but two examples, I ignore. Neither do I know what a gilipollas really is. But I know that the word asshole is very often used in Hollywood and indie movies and I also know that the translators of these movies need some guidance to cope with that word. Because it is so often used. No insult in Spanish sounds natural when repeated so often as the word asshole is used in some movies. A possible solution is to use many different translations for this single word. Another possibility would be to translate the term with the Spanish word cabrón, already mentioned above, which would merit an entry on its own. I will do that in Spanish one of these days, if you do not mind (I did it! At last!).
And I skip over the difficulties in translating the terms fuck and fucking for now, even more often used in movies, often in combination.
Update: Nice interview in the Spanish El País with John Walker, autor of a documentary on assholes. They translate the term with gilipollas. I am not conviced, but they could not find anything better, so there you go.