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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


Am 11.12.2014 um 10:31 von suzanne
Sensational article! Gilipollas is slightly more offensive than asshole , wouldn´t you agree?
best wishes

Am 11.12.2014 um 10:47 von Jordi
Thank you very much for your kind words, Suzanne, I really appreciate them!
As for your question, the answer is probably yes, slightly so, most of the time, but it may depend on the context and on the intonation. As they say in German: Der Ton macht die Musik
Am 30.07.2016 um 04:19 von Lakritze
This is great; thanks for reminding me of the strange workings of kids´ minds. I guess this (dishing out insults that no one understands) has to do something with the power of naming; must be something quite, well, biblical.
Am 30.07.2016 um 10:20 von Jordi
My pleasure, I am glad you enjoyed it :-) I think it is also magic thinking: you can name it, you gain power over it. Expelliarmus!
Am 27.12.2017 um 10:58 von Agent Orange-Utan
You must read https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/27/donald-trump-harvey-weinstein-sexual-predators-peak-asshole to understand what an asshole is.
Am 27.12.2017 um 11:01 von Jordi
You are right, a very interesting analysis. It does not help me in my quest for an adequate translation into Spanish, though. But thank you very much for the concept of "peak-asshole"! I sincerely hope the summit is behind us, though I doubt it.

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