The Challenge of Impolite Language

If you’ve been watching the 2014 World Cup, you’ve probably heard the controversy over the meaning of a particular word that fans yell in Spanish from the stands.[1] During Sunday’s game, the television station I watched went so far as to read a lengthy disclaimer about the use of impolite language during their broadcast. What’s interesting is that the opinions continue to vary wildly about the actual meaning and intention of the term. We judiciary interpreters should take note: it appears that the beauty of non-standard language is in the eye of the beholder, a situation that can quickly lead an onlooker to question how we render it.

We make split-second decisions about how to interpret emotionally charged recounts of he-said-she-said disputes into English for the court. Because family court litigants are often their own attorneys, the nature and extent of the testimony is hard to predict. Add in some swear words, insults, and generally impolite conversations, and all the decorum of the court can go out the window, leaving the interpreter to handle quite a challenge.

Even as we’ve done our homework over the years, learning all the standard equivalents for impolite terms and insults, we still have to account for the actual tone and context of the matter at hand, let alone how modern society treats and perceives it. Much like the controversy of the World Cup, a particular term can be meant and taken a myriad of ways.

It’s important to consider ways to respond to challenges to our renditions. In family court, cases often require the interpreter for only one side, and the person who doesn’t require an interpreter could easily be in a better position to render a fantastic interpretation of impolite language into English. They know the entire context and how impactful language is meant and taken in their relationships at home.

Despite the insider’s apparent upper hand, if a bilingual litigant tries to explain to the court that he feels the interpreter is wrong, it could be for reasons that have little to do with accuracy and more to do with achieving a favorable outcome by skewing shades of meaning.

Our favorite dictionaries may not cut it for today’s impolite language and rudeness. This World Cup controversy is a great reminder to be on our toes when it comes to keeping up with modern language. After all, the words our parents would only whisper could be what a future generation uses as a term of endearment.

Join the conversation! Share how you handle challenges to your interpretation or your favorite slang resources by leaving a comment below.

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Impolite Language”

  1. Great post, Jen!

    Many times the interpreter faces all these challenges of interpreting what a person really meant (even though we know all these ‘cus’ words hehe, right? 😉 ). Tones and situations tend to change what they really wanna say, and that’s the moment when misunderstandings take place. We got no choice but to keep learning from these experiences and develop a keener ear to figure out by their tone of voice. I just shared your post in my Twitter. Loved it! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and thoughts with all of us.

    I wrote a post related to said controversial topic (FIFA vs. ‘The bad word’) in my blog a few days ago. Check it out:

    Happy 4th of July!



  2. Loved your article on the NAJIT blog, Jennifer! It’s very interesting to compare the scenarios where interpreters MUST think on their toes and the fact that there may be words or idiomatic expressions that no dictionary could ever contain but must be translated on the fly; a situation that is often the case in court. Brava!

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