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Imus in (mis)translation

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  May 7, 2007 10:44 AM

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Today's Language Log has a guest post by Reinhold Aman, editor of Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, on the ineptitude of translators around the world when confronted with Don Imus's nappy-headed hos.

Almost all translators mistranslated nappy-headed or hos or both. Below are samples from 16 languages to prove my assertion that foreign readers were severely misled by the wrong translations and that Don Imus was depicted as having been far nastier than he actually was.

Outside North America, English-language news media did no better than Germans and Romanians, Aman reports:

My four U.K. dictionaries (Chambers, Collins, Concise Oxford, Longman) define nappy only as "(baby's) napkin," American English "diaper," without any reference to hair, except for Collins which also lists "having a nap; downy; fuzzy" among its seven definitions of that adjective. For whatever reason, those translators were not puzzled by their strange translation "diaper-headed" or by the bizarre image of black women having diaper-shaped heads or wearing diapers on them. Perhaps those translators thought that nappy-headed was a synonym of "rag-headed" or "towel-headed," common pejoratives applied to Arabs because of their customary headdress.

Readers might take issue with Aman's judgments about the offensiveness of ho -- perhaps because he's immersed in abusive language, he considers it closer to "broad" than "slut" -- but his examples are fascinating.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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