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Those LLog readers who aren't already Radiolab listeners should give their latest episode on translation a listen. There are 8 stories packed into this one episode, a few about language and a few not-so-much, but all of them well-worth the price of admission.

But I'm not just here to promote Radiolab. I'm also here to comment on something that happened in this episode that I am now very curious about (curious-enough-to-blog-and-solicit-comments curious, not curious-enough-to-do-some-real-research-of-my-own curious). There's a point in the show where one of the show's hosts (Jad Abumrad) warns listeners that there's going to be some raunchy language used and discussed for the next several minutes; even though the putatively offensive words were bleeped out in the version I listened to (via my iTunes podcast subscription), it was clear that I wouldn't have wanted my 5-year-old child to hear the piece so I appreciated the warning.

But at the very end of the episode, something very different happens. With no warning whatsoever, long strings of uncensored expletives assaulted my ears. I was wearing headphones and nobody else was around, but still I wondered: where was the warning? Why was there no bleeping? And then I realized that I wasn't listening to people speaking English anymore, but rather people swearing in other languages — and the first one was Spanish, which I am also a native speaker of.

But still: is Radiolab's audience (and their innocent children!) not at least potentially multilingual? Why the bleeping of English words and the elaborate warning preceding a story about their use, but no warning or bleeping whatsoever about the same sorts of words in other languages? It's not like I ever understood this sort of censorship and prudishness in the first place, but now I'm royally confused.



  1. Lauren said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    I think you see that kind of thing in popular media a lot, where other languages are treated as like secret codes or whatever. The presumption is that (white) Americans are monolingual. Which, uh, is true actually, but not really a good thing.

  2. Jamie said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 3:24 am

    @Lauren: That suggests that only (white) Americans will be offended. Which might be true, for all I know.

  3. magdalena said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 6:26 am

    I speak three languages: Polish, Czech, and English. Polish and Czech are my native languages while English has been acquired later in life. Even though I would now say I am fluent in all three, I find English expletives less offensive than either Polish or Czech ones; the explanation being that to me, English will always be "the language of other people", a code I might be very familiar with, but still a code and not the language of my emotions,
    not part of my deepest self; I daresay native speakers of English feel similarly about other languages as well…

  4. John Roth said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 6:29 am

    @Lauren: I think it's simpler: whoever does the editing doesn't know any language other than English. In other words, it's not a deliberate decision on the part of Radiolab management.

  5. Delano said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    I actually don't think it's that simple. If you read the literature on Mock Spanish, minority languages are often relegated to this type of use. That is, they are only used to be offensive, to make fun, etc. It's as if they couldn't be used in serious situations like English. While English (and it's speakers) is respected by warning the audience and using bleeps, the minority language (and their speakers) is taken as less deserving of censorship. It's interesting to see how pervasive this behavior is. It may not be a deliberate decision on the part of Radiolab management, but it's evidence of how minority languages are (maybe subconsciously) treated with less regard in the U.S.

  6. Ed said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 7:33 am

    I noticed a similar situation this summer when NBC aired the Swedish sitcom Welcome to Sweden. There were several instances where people used what I would consider obscenities but they were not bleeped. Rather the subtitles simply translated them with milder language. For example, the Swedish word for "fuck" (knulla) was translated as "screw". I looked into it and the FCC does consider obscenities in other languages as obscenities and can fine a broadcaster for them. If the Radio Lab segment went over the air un-bleeped, they could get fined.

    On a personal note, I am shocked, SHOCKED, that you are keeping your 5-year old from hearing swear words.

  7. S Frankel said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    The FCC acts only if there has been a complaint. A lot of radio stations permit foreign-language obscenities on the grounds that only a vanishingly small number of the kind of people who would file a complaint have any foreign-language skills (even Spanish).

  8. Paul said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    What's even weirder is that this week Radiolab was specifically seeking native Spanish speakers to listen to their Spanish language version of their segment "Bolero" and respond to a poll about it.

  9. Eric Baković said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    @Ed: Just to be clear, I'm not keeping her from hearing swear words per se. The problem with that part of the story was not so much the words (which were bleeped anyway), but what was being described. In short, I would have had a lot of 'splaining to do.

  10. Ed said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    @Eric. I get it. I once let my 8-year old listen to RadioLab and I had to explain what dildo was.

  11. Ed said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    No, that's not a typo for Bilbo.

  12. S said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    You don't even have to go as far as Spanish—American broadcasters use Commonwealth profanity ('wanker', 'shite', 'bugger', 'bloody' and so forth) when they'd never dream of using equivalent-strength American words.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    Perhaps a parallel to Gibbon's famous: "My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the obscurity of a learned language." (Usually quoted as "the decent obscurity" but some internet source claims that's a post-Gibbon accretion.)

  14. BZ said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    I think "Commonwealth" swear words are different in that they are readily understood by the target (American) audience, and are actually found to be less offensive than the "American" swear words, whereas foreign language swear words are not expected to be understood and are therefore left in. This is similar to many other countries where English swear words are widely known and understood, but considered milder than native ones.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

    This also slightly reminds me of Lorca's "Ode to Walt Whitman" which has toward the end a semi-Homeric catalog of different slang terms (mostly but not exclusively in Spanish) for gay men, which the standard English version (or at least the one I googled up matches the one I have in a hard-copy book somewhere in this regard) just leaves untranslated. But that may be less out of prudery (the rest of the English is not particularly euphemized) but more because it's one thing to decide whether to render a given Swedish word as "screw" v. something stronger, but perhaps overtaxing for the translator to come up with seven or eight different near-synonyms in English (to be doled out one at a time at the beginning of consecutive lines) and think you've gotten anything like the original intended effect. http://www.artofeurope.com/lorca/lor1.htm

  16. FM said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: I don't think there would have been a problem with finding the requisite synonyms. After all, there was no problem translating this from Russian:

    "Well, God rest her soul," said Bezenchuk. "So the old lady's passed away. Old ladies pass away . . . or they depart this life. It depends who she is. Yours, for instance, was small and plump, so she passed away. But if it's one who's a bit bigger and thinner, then they say she has departed this life. . . ."
    "What do you mean 'they say'? Who says?"
    "We say. The undertakers. Now you, for instance. You're distinguished-lookin' and tall, though a bit on the thin side. If you should die, God forbid, they'll say you popped off. But a tradesman, who belonged to the former merchants' guild, would breathe his last. And if it's someone of lower status, say a caretaker, or a peasant, we say he has croaked or gone west. But when the high-ups die, say a railway conductor or someone in administration, they say he has kicked the bucket. They say: 'You know our boss has kicked the bucket, don't you?' "
    Shocked by this curious classification of human mortality, Ippolit Matveyevich asked:
    "And what will the undertakers say about you when you die?"
    "I'm small fry. They'll say, 'Bezenchuk's gone', and nothin' more."
    And then he added grimly:
    "It's not possible for me to pop off or kick the bucket; I'm too small. But what about the coffin, Mr Vorobyaninov? Do you really want one without tassels and brocade?"

    There are almost as many words for gayness as there are for dying…

    But I think the translator made a fine choice in Lorca's case — the list sounds like it was intended to sound foreign/exotic even in the original.

  17. Alicia said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

    I agree with what everyone's said about it being, uh, tacky to assume that all languages other than English are so mysterious that you can say anything in the world in them on the radio and have it not count as naughty.
    But it is NOT true that there is "no warning whatsoever." They make a joke about the broadcast is over and now we're going to go waaayyyy off the map and… I think the word "hideous" was used. I think that is enough warning to switch off the radio if there are little pitchers with big ears around and go back and finish it later once they are down for their nap. I don't know that I would have anticipated exactly what it was if I hadn't been told in advance, but they were clearly marking the impending section as meeting a lower standard of social acceptability.

  18. Penny said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

    I heard an unbleeped "merde" on the French sewing contest show Cousu Main. I don't get to watch enough French television to know what the usual practice is. I believe I was told once that the French is considered milder than the English equivalent, though why that should be, I don't know.

  19. D.O. said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    @FM. Nah. 'Bezenchuk's gone' is too generic. Anyone can be said "to have gone". гикнулся on the other hand is slangy and has a meaning of "died and it's not a big deal". I am not saying there is no adequate English expression, but it was not found by the translator.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    There are plenty examples of the mildness of foreign profanity in writing, too. Even between dialects, some American writers have used "arse" where "ass" would be natural. Between languages, one I remember is in Robert Heinlein's novel Friday. In English, nothing stronger than "damn" and "hell" appears, but the narrator never uses any of the colloquial English words for the genitals. However, she casually uses French con in its literal sense ('cunt'). I don't know whether it's as bad a word in French as in English, but still….

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

    (Sorry, for "but the narrator" read "and the narrator". Even in Friday's future, computers don't make the change's the user only thinks about.)

  22. Steve Rapaport said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    I think Magdalena has the right idea, and I'd go further and support the idea that swearing in one's native tongue comes from (and goes to) a special place in the brain. Foreign swearing just doesn't do it.

    Does this link work? https://helix.northwestern.edu/blog/2013/02/special-place-brain-swearing

  23. quixote said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    My first thought, like a couple of other commenters, was also the regulatory environment. I assumed the FCC had no rules about foreign swearing, but I see that's wrong. So it must simply be that they won't get a lot of complaints about it.

    I lived in a Hispanic neighborhood for years, and at least in my neighborhood nobody ever called the authorities about anything. Ever. Period. Including things as bad as what sounded like a kid being abused (which I called in). A few swear words wouldn't even be a ripple. I'd be willing to bet the broadcasters know that, which is another reason they're not as worried.

  24. Peking Man said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

    Jerry Friedman wonders if 'con' is milder than its English equivalent. Many years ago I took a conversational French course. The teacher had moved from France to Canada and taught high school French when she first arrived. One of the stories she taught used the word 'con'. When she spoke using the English version the reaction of the teen-aged boys quickly told her that it had a different strength in English than in French.

  25. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

    @Steve Rapoport:

    I'd go further and support the idea that swearing in one's native tongue comes from (and goes to) a special place in the brain.

    Yes! Steven Pinker's next book is going to be The Swearing Instinct.

    Also, it's not well known, but neurogeneticists have discovered the gene that gives rise to this instinct.

    It's called FUCKSP2.

  26. Guy said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    This s simply a reflection of the fact that offensiveness is determined with respect to the language community of the perceived audience. the finger is censored on US television but the similarly rude two-fingered gesture sometimes used in England to the same effect often is not. I suppose it's true that it reflects an assumption that there aren't many native speakers of foreign languages listening, or that if they are, they "should" be more lenient given they are listening to an English languish broadcast, but I would argue that attitude is mediated through the idea that offensiveness of arbitrary symbols is determined by the frame of the language you are speaking – just as more "central" notions of meaning vary with language and dialect, so too do "peripheral" notions of meaning such as obsceneness. That having been said, it's not unheard of, although rare, for usages to be censored based on them being used to reflect a particular dialect or language in which they are offensive.

  27. Ed said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    There are a few cases of the fcc fining stations for obscenities in Spanish:



  28. Stan Carey said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 6:45 am

    This reminds me of a certain paper on swearing preferences among multilinguals.

  29. Rodger C said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 6:53 am

    @J. W. Brewer: As Lorca's catalogue is a list of terms favored in specific countries, it seems appropriate to me to leave them in the original Spanish (and, iirc, Portuguese).

  30. John said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    Of course, in a lot of popular media they'll get around profanity censorship by simply translating it *into* another language (if appropriate to the character). Far from considering sparing the blushes of foreign-language speakers, they use those languages as pseudo-bleeps.

    It's not to do with the profanity not being understood, either. Many monoligual Anglophones know what "merde" and "putain", "cabron" and "pendejo" mean, they just don't have the same emotional impact as the equivalent words in their native language.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    In my mind, one of the advantages of being even minimally multilingual is the ability to select curses that are inherently best suited to circumstances. For instance, nothing expresses frustration better than the Swedish Djääääävlar i helvete; "devils in hell" pales in comparison. Or when you drop something German Pech! is more satisfying than "pitch!". No one objects when you say говно aloud in a checkout line, but it still gives you the same psychic relief that its equivalent in English would.

    A colleague once successfully introduced a form labeled Monthly Engineering R & D Evaluation in the company where we worked.

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    It's not to do with the profanity not being understood, either. Many monoligual Anglophones know what "merde" and "putain", "cabron" and "pendejo" mean, they just don't have the same emotional impact as the equivalent words in their native language.

    See also, as I think was discussed here, the use of "frak" in Battlestar Galactica as an exact replacement for "fuck".

  33. David Fried said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 11:02 am

    Of course, I agree that swear words in an acquired language generally don't have the same emotional impact as those in one's native language. But I find that the opposite effect can occur, too. I am a fluent but non-native speaker of Spanish. You can call me "cabron" or "pendejo" all day long if you like. But I find the incessant use of "cono" (how do I do a tilde here?) in Continental Spanish to be ugly and distressing, even though I know it doesn't have the same force as "cunt."

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    Peking Man: Thanks for the story.

    David Fried: Keyboard shortcuts have worked for me, or you can copy and paste an ñ, or you can type ñ (which is what the one in this sentence is).

  35. Jongseong Park said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    No comments yet about the reverse situation where English swear words go uncensored in other languages? I had the impression from Korean broadcast television that the strongest swear words in Korean are censored, while milder ones get the curious treatment of being aired uncensored while its caption gets the asterisk treatment (captions are used liberally on Korean television).

    Anyway, I feel like I've heard pretty strong English swear words (on the order of shit and fuck) on Korean television on a couple of occasions, and it was jarring because you wouldn't hear such strong words in Korean in the same context. These were in the context of Korean shows—I'm not counting English-language films and series being shown un-bleeped on cable television.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    The links Ed provided involve FCC sanctions against US stations that were providing (either full-time, or for the relevant programming slot) Spanish-language programming presumably targeted at an audience that overwhelmingly understood Spanish. That makes sense: around NYC you can find radio stations broadcasting programming in Russian, Korean, Haitian Creole etc etc and in each case (assuming anyone complained and the FCC had investigators with the appropriate language skills to evaluate the situation) it would make sense for the appropriateness/inappropriateness of the programming to be judged from the perspective of the relevant language community. What would be more interesting would be an FCC adjudication dealing with the situation in the OP where Spanish (or some third language) taboo vocabulary occurs in the context of English-language programming but one can't rule out the possibility that some minority percentage of the viewers/listeners will nonetheless understand the relevant language.

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    Going back to the beginning of the thread, I am puzzled by Lauren's "(white)" qualification, insofar as it implies white Americans are substantially more likely to be monolingual Anglophones than black Americans. That seems implausible given both the high percentage of the black population that is native-born and the fact that a quite substantial percentage of black immigrants are monolingual Anglophones because they came to the U.S. from Jamaica or other Caribbean Anglophone nations. (The census bureau also claims that African-born immigrants have higher percentage levels of English competence than European-born immigrants, or any other continent-of-origin group, but that may cover a lot of, e.g., L1 Yoruba speakers who have very good L2 English skills because they were educated back in Nigeria in schools where English was the primary medium of instruction but would still understand Yoruba vulgarities if they for some reason were aired unbleeped.)

    Changing demographics mean it might well be useful for AmEng to have a word or short fixed phrase that means something like "the part of the US population not composed of recent Hispanic and Asian-American immigrants who can be safely assumed not to be monolingual Anglophones." But "white" doesn't meet that need.

  38. John Finkbiner said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    The FCC doesn't fine anyone for offensive language in podcasts. The broadcast version of Radiolab is one hour; the podcast is 77 minutes or so, meaning that a substantial chunk will be cut before broadcast. I would be extremely surprised if the section under discussion made it onto the air.

  39. Xmun said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer:
    The wording of your quotation from Gibbon's Memoirs of My Life and Writings is the same as that given in my Collins Dictionary of Quotations, i.e. "obscurity" without the adjective "decent" before it.

  40. GeorgeW said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

    "I think Magdalena has the right idea"

    I second the motion. The degree of tabooness of a particular sequence of sounds representing a certain meaning is ingrained in our first-language, emotional reaction to it.

  41. stephen said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    I remember an episode of the sitcom 9 to 5 (based on the movie); a young kid asks Rita Moreno how babies get made, and she answers in very rapid-fire Spanish. I've since wondered what she was really saying. I suppose it's not to late to ask her…

  42. SamC said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    There was a French movie – in theaters, with posters all over the place – called "Diner des Cons." Granted, censorship in France is different and more lenient, since I was warned that the word is "impolite." But it's not the exact translation that you think it is, since it's usually used to mean something more like "idiot/imbecile." You can find more on the word here: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=50157

  43. Vanya said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

    In Austria, where most of the urban population has a pretty good grasp of English, it is not unusual to see English obscenities even on signs. A wanna-be hip hotel near the Volkstheater recently had a sign outside that included "fucking" as an intensifier, in a fairly banal context that I can't even remember. I routinely see people walking around with t-shirts that say things like "bad motherfucker" , "no shit!", or "pussy magnet", sometimes those people are pre-teens. I have yet to see any kids wearing t-shirts saying "leck mich am arsch"" or "Geile fotze". Apparently multilingual societies still have a much higher tolerance for "non-native" swear words.

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