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.