Monday, 18 June 2012

"Oh, no, maadarcho-": On subtitling vulgarities in Hindi films

John McWhorter, in his recent New Republic article, "Gosh, Golly, Gee: Mitt Romney's verbal stylings", discusses what he appears to view as Romney's over-sanitised style of public speaking as a marker of inauthenticity. Lucy Ferriss, in her post "Jeepers!" on the Lingua Franca site, is somewhat sceptical of this argument.

However, what struck me in Ferriss's post was the following paragraph, because it touches on something I was pondering a couple of days ago.
It is certainly true, as McWhorter observes, that public discourse has grown more casual and that examples of “taking the name of the Lord in vain” are not so proscribed as they once were. I only became aware of my own habitual use, not only of various expletives involving Judeo-Christian names for the deity, but of designated euphemisms, when I was in Pakistan recently. I would start to say, “Jesus, it’s hot,” and realize that my hosts’ theological frame of reference was somewhat different. Soon I began censoring not only “God” and “Christ,” but also “jeez,” “criminy,” “omigod,” and “lordy.” It was surprisingly easy to do, and as my speech changed, I also noticed no swearing (at least in English) on the part of my interlocutors, who did use other American slang freely.
 An oddly persistent feature of Hindi-language film English subtitling is the bowdlerisation of cursing. A particularly amusing instance of this occurs in the film Murder 2, a somewhat gruesome thriller. The main character, a hard-boiled ex-cop, is verbally abusing another character, and calls him मादरचोद (mādarchod).* Now mādarchod means "one who has sexual relations with his mother" and thus has a readily available and obvious English gloss. However, in the English subtitles mādarchod is rendered as "scoundrel". The disparity between the original and the translation afforded me a good chuckle (my wife simply ignores the subtitles, so wondered why I started laughing).

What is even more amusing is that this bowdlerised subtitling extends to subtitling English as well. So, in the same film, when the hero disgustedly says "Fuck." in sotto voce, the subtitles tell us that he said "Oh, no!".

I wonder if there is a certain subset of South Asians (who can speak English, and reside somewhere in South Asia, as opposed to abroad) who are uncomfortable with cursing in English (even if they do so in other languages) - this subset would seem to include everyone who provides English subtitles for Hindi films.

Postscript: "Taking the name of the lord in vain" doesn't translate well very into a Hindu setting. Hindi speakers will exclaim हे भगवान! (he bhagwān) "Oh, lord!" in times of crisis (or mock-crisis), and likewise will say "Oh, lord!" or "Oh, god!" in English in the same fashion. But these are all what I would call vocative uses, supplications to divine powers for assistance (and I would think "lordy" would fit into this category too). I can't think of Hindi language curses which parallel zounds (< "by god's wounds"). Hindi swearing usually involves some sort of reference to sex or sexual organs, usually involving someone else's mother or sister --- बहिनचोद (bahinchod) "one who has sexual relations with his sister" being in fact a bit more typical than मादरचोद (mādarchod).

 * मादरचोद (mādarchod) is interesting from the standpoint that mādar is a borrowing from Persian but is infrequent outside of this compound. That may well not be accidental --- its use in other contexts may be "blocked" by association with mādarchod.


  1. From Robert A. Heinlein's 1970 novel I Will Fear No Evil (Johann Smith is speaking to his secretary, Eunice):

    "[...]Why, those bastards — excuse me, Eunice."

    "My [transcribing] machine is instructed to spell that word as 'scoundrel,' Mr. Smith."

    "Thank you, Eunice."

    In fact, however, there are only three other occurrences of scoundrel in the book, versus twenty of bastard, all of them in dialogue — the novel is almost all dialogue.

  2. @John Cowan: A more general difference on the constraints of oral vs. written discourse then?

  3. "I wonder if there is a certain subset of South Asians (who can speak English, and reside somewhere in South Asia, as opposed to abroad) who are uncomfortable with cursing in English..."

    It may not be their discomfort, but their perceptions of those who will read the translations.

    Or there may be other cultural manifestations at work. I hear of periodic scandals in Bollywood when male and female stars are observed kissing in public. It appears this ranks only slightly below public sex on the scale of taboos. It's one of those things simply Not Done in front of others.

    A similar dynamic may be in play here.

    (And I'm just guessing, but the taboo about public kissing might have been one picked up from the English during the period when Britain ruled India. A people conquered by another tend to assimilate bits of the victor's culture, and some of those bits may hang around long after those it was copied from are gone.)

  4. Yes as in Jamaica where it's actually illegal to cuss and you can be arrested for cursing in a 'public place'...this is fascinating, thanks so much, i have written a lot about so-called 'bad' words in the Jamaican context so very glad to see this're on the money to attribute it to the puritanical morality of the English-speakers, and McCunney is right to attribute this to the residue of cultural contact w the Victorians....

  5. @DMcCunney: There are occasional kissing-in-public scandals in India, sometimes involving public outcry at foreigners kissing in public. And in Bollywood movies for a long time kissing was not shown (though often implied) even in films involving near nudity. But since sometime in the 90s Bollywood films have shown kissing and even sometimes sex scenes (without nudity).

    But the point about the perceptions of the subtitlers about the sensibilities of English-speakers is interesting.

    @Annie Paul: There is at least one town/county or the like in the US which has begun enforcing its no-foul-language-in-public law (it involves a fine, and I'm assuming the economic downturn is not unrelated to the re-enforcement of the law).

    I'd love to see your writing on "bad" words in the Jamaican context.

    Re: the idea about the assimilation of (Victorian) British culture by Indians. That must certainly be sure. The difficulty is always knowing to what extent, and which taboos/ideas are correctly attributed to this cultural contact. I recall reading that saris were originally worn without the now ubiquitous sari-blouse, and that this change was due to Victorian prudery.

  6. Tanks for writing about something that has long amused me. When words like madarchod and benchod are bowdlerised in translation I can sort of understand why, but the practice of subtitling English dialogue with different English words is just surreal - is there anyone who can read English but can't understand it when spoken? The practice goes beyond vulgarities, too. It never fails to amuse, hearing one thing and seeing another, and trying to figure out why.

  7. @Stuart: Well, certainly there are people who can read "standard written English" but fail to understand (or have limited understanding of) particular varieties of spoken English. So Australian English speakers might not fully comprehend spoken Indian English, American English speakers might have trouble with spoken Scots English, etc. etc.

  8. I know I'm late to the conversation, but I'm a new reader so you'll have to excuse me.

    I've done some freelance translation (English to Danish and Danish to English)including translation of subtitles. Translation of subtitles is usually not a direct translation, as you are taught to shorten the sentences (because it takes longer to read than to hear a sentence). In addition, swear words and vulgarities are usually banned - even when used in the original speech, and as such you have to find euphemisms and other ways of saying things.

  9. @Rebekka: That's interesting. Sometimes, as in this case, the *absence* of the taboo word is more jarring than its presence....

  10. The word mādar is also used in another, and, much less profane context. In mādar - e - watan, i.e. moherland or matribhoomi.