The Translation of Bad Words on TV

20394504-150x150Although it is quite possible that the new Dubbing Law in Argentina will imply an unexpected shove to the translation sector, the new norm could mark the end of a phenomenon which has for decades been coming to the attention of both linguists and those who study languages.

It is well known that generations of argentine children have grown up adopting a variety of Spanish different to their own when playing. It is in the context of these playful situations, when children incorporate the dialogues of their games’ characters, that this very curious phenomenon manifests itself and where these dialectical differences peek out, such as the use of the personal pronoun tu instead of vos that distinguish and identify the different dialects spoken in Argentina. This variety coincided with (and was a result of listening for long hours to) the variety of Spanish with which television programs were dubbed. The scripts of these programs were translated and dubbed by speakers of countries whose variety of Spanish differs in many ways from the vernacular type.

Before the new bill of the Dubbing Law reached Parliament, there had been few cases in which different television content began to distance itself from the dominant variety of dubbed programs. The animated series South Park, for example, went on air in 1999 on Canal Azul (currently Channel 9), and after a month on-screen and with positive reviews only in a juvenile newspaper supplement, the series was taken to cable TV. It is possible that the high amount of vulgarities per sentence resulted in the broadcaster reconsidering the translation included in the packet bought from Warner Bros. through Comedy Central ( The local adaptation of the comic created by Trey Parker (1969) and Matt Stone (1971), although it maintained many of the dominant style criteria of translation, heralded a new form of translation of terms (mainly insults, eschatological terms and pejorative nicknames) which until then had been subjected to the variety used by foreign translators and voice actors. Since this had never occurred before, the denominated “bad words” began to sound familiar.

Among the examples that have had the most impact on children born from 1970 onwards, aside from the already mentioned pronoun tu, there is: “maldito [damn],” “emparedado [sandwich],” “demonio [bastard],” “matrícula [license plate],” and the list goes on. Now, are we perhaps at the dawn of the end of an era? Will the future generations stop switching to neutral Spanish when they’re playing?


For the Spanish version, click here.