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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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