Translating Trump

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Whether he really said it or not — "Trump appears to deny using 'shithole' language" (POLITICO [1/12/18]), see also here — "shithole" is already part of the ever-burgeoning scatalogical lore surrounding President Trump, so people have to deal with it, including translating this colorful term into other languages.

Via Twitter, here are some early stabs at how to handle "shithole countries" in Chinese and Japanese.

Aaron Mc Nicholas:

Watching Chinese-language media try to translate 'shithole countries'
CNA in Taiwan have opted for an idiom that literally means 'countries where birds don't lay eggs' 「鳥不生蛋國家」 which is perhaps best translated as 'godforsaken countries.'

Johnny Strategy:

Can’t wait to see how Japanese media is going to translate shithole

Ah, seems we already have a contender: 便所のように汚い国 (countries that are dirty like toilets)

I won't speak for Japanese or other languages, but in Chinese there are a couple of straightforward, readymade renderings I can think of:

fènkēng 粪坑 ("cesspit; cesspool")

shǐkēng 屎坑 ("dung/ feces pit")

Simply add guójiā 国家 ("countries") after them and your translation is complete.

Just as I was about to make the above post, this came in:

"‘Countries that are dirty like toilets,’ and other ways Trump’s profanity was translated abroad" (WaPo, by Samantha Schmidt [1/12/18]).  It covers Spanish, French, Finnish, Swahili, Korean, and German.  I think the most of the renderings are quite lame and lackluster.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 10:44 am

    "In Swahili, Trump’s phrase would likely be translated into “Bongo land,” a term used to describe poor or uncivilized places, Jan Blommaert, a Belgian linguistic anthropologist, told The Post. It’s a phrase considered disparaging by many. The phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” was actually banned for its members by the UK Independence Party in 2013 after a member of European Parliament used it to describe countries receiving government aid."

    I wonder where Blommaert got this. "Bongo" is a common nickname both for Tanzania and for Dar es Salaam in particular. It derives from the Kiswahili word "Ubongo," which means "brain." One of the most popular musical genres in Tanzania is called "Bongo Flava."

  2. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 10:56 am

    I would offer "nchi za choo" ('countries of toilet') as the most likely translation. The words aren't considered vulgar, but "choo" ('toilet') is usually a longdrop– that is, a literal hole of s—. "nchi za shima za choo" ('countries of pits of toilet') would be more literal although more ungainly.

  3. Edward Cook said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 10:57 am

    In Hebrew, they are using מדינות מחורבנות, "shitty/crummy countries," where מחורבן is a roughly equivalent crudity to "shit" (although not etymologically scatological). There doesn't seem to be a good cross linguistic equivalent for the suffix "-hole" (e.g., "hellhole") meaning "place."

  4. mollymooly said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    @James: See Wikipedia Bongo Bongo Land. I think the fact that it is pejorative in both Swahili and English is coincidence.

  5. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    The BBC opts for a phrase, saying that the American President said African countries are "machafu"– 'filthy.' "chafu" is frequently used as a more polite colloquialism for "choo."

  6. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 11:06 am

    @mollymooly: apparently it's an *English" slur, then. For Kiswahili usage of "bongo" as positive slang, see . I've never encountered the word "bongo" used pejoratively in Kiswahili.

    There is even a popular (and excellent) children's educational video serious called "Ubongo Kids." Hardly an obscenity!

  7. Gene Hill said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    My shipmate Venable and I were wandering the outskirts of Tokyo. armed for fun with his banjo and my ukelele..After several of those large Asiia Beers we found a venue to play in a small bar. Venable had lost his banjo pick. Having next to no Japanese he gestured with his hand and repeated in English several times, "Banjo Pick" A very friendly young Japanese disappeared and promptly returned with a roll of Toilet Paper, pointing outside ,saying Benjo !

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    For a European (and Latin American?) use of "Bongo" that could be interpreted to mean something like "Nowheresville", see Manu Chao's "Bongo Bong":

    The basic meaning is probably just "bongo drum", but there's some "deprecated source of immigration" association there as well.

  9. Yuval said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    Strong Language is on this like a flyhole on shithole.

  10. Jeff DeMarco said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

    A bit more extreme, but basically the same sentiment as expressed by Hacker in the Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister series: TPLAC (Tin Pot Little African Country). He was promptly reprimanded by Sir Humphrey who went through the series of designations and redesignations to avoid offense.

    I'm not the first one to make this connection!

  11. RP said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

    As far as I'm concerned and in my experience, "shithole" doesn't primarily designate a dirty place – though that's one possible interpretation. It often designates poor repair, poor infrastructure or poor general social and economic conditions.

    The OED defines "shithole" as " A wretched place; spec. (a) a dirty or dilapidated dwelling; (b) a remote, downtrodden, or unpleasant city, town, etc." Thus, "dirty" is just one of several possible implications (though (b) is more readily applicable here).

    I take it that this (20th-century use of "shithole") is the usage Trump is using, rather than the (much older) use of "shithole" to mean "asshole".

    The OED shows that since the 16th century, "hole" has meant a dungeon or prison-cell, and since the 17th century, it's meant "A small dingy lodging or abode; a small or mean habitation; an unpleasant place of abode; a term of contempt or depreciation for any place."

    As far as I can see then, the 20th- and 21st-century use of "shithole" is just a vulgar variation on this usage of the word "hole". The word "shit" is not referring literally to shit, but is being used either as an intensifier or with the same metaphorical meaning that "shitty", "crap" etc often have.

    Thus, the French translators' interpretation of "shithole" as meaning "shitty place" seems to me to be close to the mark and somewhat better than interpretations stressing the "dirty" or "toilet" aspects (though these words, too, of course, admits of metaphorical interpretations).

  12. RP said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

    It is definitely true that "(bongo) bongo land" is an offensive term, generally considered racist, in English.

    Assuming that James is correct that the related term is inoffensive in Swahili, is it possible that Jan Blommaert was suggesting that the English term "bongo land" (as a loan word) would be used in Swahili, rather than using the similar Swahili term? Perhaps the connotations of the specifically English form of the expression are well understood by Swahili speakers.

  13. Don Clarke said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:02 pm

    Mainland China seems to go for 茅坑国家:

  14. maidhc said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    Although "shithole" has long ago turned into a generic insult, I would understand its literal meaning to be the pit that is dug beneath one's shithouse.

    I'm reminded of The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby, a book about his time as an apprentice on the four-masted sailing ship Moshulu of the Swedish-owned Erikson line for the round trip from Europe to Australia and back in 1939. As soon as he signs on, the mate (I believe) says to him: "Right. Go clean the skithus." In this case I imagine the (whatever the Swedish word is for) shithole would lead to outside the ship.

  15. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:10 pm

    @RP: Possibly. At any rate, we see that Kiswahili media are *actually* using the word "machafu" ('filthy').

    And here's the Kiswahili wikipedia page for ubongo/ bongo:

    The word, in Kiswahili, simply means brains.

    This BBC article notes the distinction between Kiswahili and English usage:

  16. James said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    As an amusing follow-up, the Kiswahili word for CPU is "bongo kuu"– literally, "big brains."

    It should be abundantly clear by now that 'bongo' is not, in Kiswahili, an offensive bit of vocabulary. It would be a very strange translation choice for 'shithole.'

  17. liuyao said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

    If someone came up with 鳥不生蛋, there's an even more fitting one: 鳥不拉屎. Perhaps that phrase didn't go across the pond (i.e. Taiwan Strait).

    It's strange that 屎 doesn't strike as a profanity in Chinese as it does in English (thus 屎 is more like feces than shit), so I wouldn't say 糞坑 or 屎坑 are good translations.

  18. cliff arroyo said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

    One Polish site I saw used 'zadupie' (lit. beyond the ass) a term usually used to describe small out of the way towns or villages with no redeeming features.

  19. Doug said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

    I'm no linguist, but it seems to me that many of these translations (like the Japanese one) are trying to hard to be literal.

    Surely most languages have some existing slang term for dangerous & disgusting places that could be used, instead of starting from the literal meaning of "shit" and "hole",

  20. GeorgeW said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

    I saw an Arabic site that translated Trump's description as الخراء (feces).

  21. Jim Breen said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 5:54 pm

    For Japanese the following list is being circulated:
    Huffington Post「汚い便所」
    Asahi 「便所のような国」

  22. AntC said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 6:10 pm

    "shithole" doesn't primarily designate a dirty place – though that's one possible interpretation. It often designates poor repair, poor infrastructure or poor general social and economic conditions.

    Somewhere like how Puerto Rico is under Trump's (non-)administration?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    From Jim Breen:

    For Japanese the following list is being circulated on Twitter.

    Huffington Post「汚い便所」
    Asahi 「便所のような国」

  24. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 6:49 pm


    If you say that 屎坑 is not a good translation because 屎 is not profane enough, then why would you propose 鳥不拉屎 as "an even more fitting one"?

  25. Mat Bettinson said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

    I've noticed a pattern where native speakers of a language a predisposed to believe that there are words or phrases which are untranslatable.. To show this to be true, you need similar understanding of all possible translations, and to judge that none of them are the semantic equivalent. Nonsense.

    So in that vein, the Guardian claims that shithole 'doesn't translate' [1], which is seemingly just parroting the view of a article[2]. The author of that article, Echo Huang, states that Asian countries are struggling to translate. According to whome exactly? Two examples provided:

    Haiwainet, a news portal of China’s state newspaper People’s Daily, used lan guo, or 烂国, which means “countries that suck.”
    Taiwan’s Central News Agency tried niao bu sheng dan de guo jia, or 鳥不生蛋的國家, meaning “countries where birds don’t lay eggs.”

    Those seem like perfectly good translations to me, yet they are used as examples of 'struggling' translators because they are poorly back-translated to English. The first as a generic broad translation (I would have said rotten myself), and the second as a direct translation of an idiomatic phrase which I, at least, think is a pretty good approximation of shithole country.

    I think we can also claim more nuance in a phrase than there is, because we all tend to believe that the true meaning of a word is the nuance in our head. Yet, just as with classic demonstrations like asking people to describe the true meaning of a 'few', you will find that we all have slightly different nuances. You can capture this with a definition as follows:

    A place which the speaker judges to have little worth.


  26. liuyao said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

    Sorry for the confusion. I meant that 鸟不拉屎 is more fitting, compared to 鸟不生蛋, because it contains the word for shit. It also would not be a good translation (I may be biased because my mother likes saying this phrase, and she doesn't swear at all). Perhaps any phrase that centers on 屎 would fall short for the same reason.

    I can't think of a good translation, I'm sorry to say.

  27. Oha Nueba said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    In Español: países mierderos.

  28. Levantine said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

    A little off-topic, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear the word being said uncensored (in English) on cable news this morning. The same didn't happen when the "grab them by the pussy" recording hit the headlines. It seems that Trump's departure from presidential norms in his use of language (among other thing) is pushing the media to break with their own conventions.

  29. noname said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:34 am

    「糞坑國家」or「茅坑國家」, these are appropriate. But「鳥不生蛋國家」 or「鳥不拉屎國家」 , which refer, at most, merely to god-forsakeness, suggest a bad grasp of one or both of the two languages or terms. (It is possible that non-native speakers' de-sensitization to English four-letter words may be involved.)

    In the Taiwan language-context, the only thing worse than 「鳥不生蛋國家」would have been 「有的沒有的國家」。

    In yesterday's Aftenposten, "shithole countries" is appropriately translated as "drittland":

  30. Gwen Katz said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 2:25 am

    Does anyone here speak Croatian, and can they corroborate whether the term being used, "vukojebina," does in fact mean "place where wolves fuck?"

  31. Andy said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 3:58 am

    Another straightforward Spanish translation is 'países de mierda'.
    In keeping with the arse-theme of Polish 'zadupie', mentioned above, Czech also has 'prdel' (the Czech news has 'lidé z prdelí světa'). Polish also has the much stronger 'wypiździewo', and Croatian 'pripizdina' -rather less likely to be seen in the news!!

    @Gwen Katz: Yes, 'vukojebina' means exactly that. Surely a candidate for one of the best words of all time.

    It's interesting how in the Slavic expressions the central idea is remoteness, whereas in others, including 'shithole', 'país de mierda/mierdero' and perhaps (though I'm just guessing) the Chinese terms in the OP, this connotation isn't necessarily present.

  32. Andy said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    And of course the corollary of that is that, had Trump been describing, for instance, a major European country as a 'shithole', the Slavic-speaking world would probably have had to find a different way of translating it.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    "'Shithole' remark by Trump makes global headlines – but it doesn't quite translate" (Guardian, 1/13/18)

  34. bks said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    Martin Mull sings I've Played Some Shitholes But This Takes The Cake

  35. M said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    Yes, I saw that Czech newspapers have been using “prdele světa” (assholes of the world) while the Slovaks seem to be going with “špinavé diery” (dirty holes). In my opinion “prdel světa“ is more “East Bumfuck” than “shithole,” but it works well enough.

  36. ~flow said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    All the exotic languages get their profanities printed literally in the WaPo, only English speakers must live with Wheel Of Fortune transcripts.

  37. Andy said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    @M: Ah, that's interesting, I didn't think to check the Slovak news. Of course, the Czechs had the option of using 'špinavé díry' too, but do indeed seem to have avoided it in all the headlines I've seen (although it's sometimes mentioned in the main text); but I see that when Trump referred to Brussels as a 'hellhole' in 2016, this was mostly translated by 'špinavá díra' (I saw a few instances of 'pekelná jáma', which is something of an overkill) -in this case they obviously didn't have the option of using 'prdel (světa)'.

  38. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    My newspaper used skitländer, where länder is "lands, countries" and skit-, literally "shit" (yes it's cognate), is a pretty common pejorative prefix. My offendometer would register it as somewhat more offensive than the original, but that's quite likely idiosyncratic.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    Mongolian media going with the dirty/sordid angle: бохир заваан орнууд.

    Damir Kamaletdinov has helpfully collected translations found in Russian media. Quoting from his post (which has links to the original sources):

    Rosbalt, RIA: «страны-гадюшники»
    Kommersant: «жопы» «задница мира»
    TASS, Izvestia: «грязные дыры»
    Novorossiya: «помойки»
    BBC Russian: «вонючие дыры»
    Mir24: «помойные дыры»
    NTV: «сраные дыры»
    TJ: «сортирные страны»

    Plenty of literal 'holes', allusions to toilets, cesspools, excrement and smells. The third one is a euphemism for жопа мира, the 'world's arse', which I understand refers to remoteness rather than quality of life (as indeed French 'trou du cul du monde', as Hervé Morin famously described the Orne department). The first one stands out: гадюшник 'a seedy place' is literally a 'snake pit'.

  40. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    Many of the earliest Spanish-language stories off the wire translated it literally as agujeros de mierda, which struck me as horribly unidiomatic.

  41. Perilon said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    Greek sources (e.g. are using "απόπατοι χώρες", which is as fitting a translation as one could wish for.
    My Oxford dictionary gives απόπατος as "privy, earth-closet, [military] latrine", and the related verb αποπατώ as "go to the loo, [vulgar] shit".
    Wiktionary defines απόπατος as "a place intended for urination or defecation" and "[metaphorically] a foul and repugnant place, or generally something disgusting/repellent" (απόπατος).

  42. J. Goard said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 4:14 am

    My feeling as a non-native Korean speaker is that calling someplace a "거지 소굴" (lit. 'beggar's den'; even more lit. 'beggar's small hole') is indeed about equivalent in offensiveness to my saying "shithole" in America. As in, joking fairly roughly about a friend's very messy apartment. Whereas literally translating "a hole filled with shit" would feel a lot worse.

  43. PB said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

    As a native German speaker, I think that the widely used German translation "Drecksloch" is fitting, as it is more common and idiomatic than the literal translation "Scheißloch". It's not diluting the offensiveness of the original expression, or just a little bit, as "Scheiße" (shit) is not a particularly taboo word in German, so it doesn't matter much whether you use this or "Dreck" (dirt, crap).

  44. Colin Z said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 4:13 pm

    Can we get a LL post on whether Trump said

    "I probably have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un."


    "I'd probably have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un."

    as the White House implausibly maintains.

  45. liuyao said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 11:30 am

    I felt obligated to add a little introspection on why I thought shi (屎, shit) was not a swear word to me (and other Chinese speakers may disagree). Although there are other words for the discharge from an orifice (some formal, some colloquial), I most often would just say 眼屎 (eye), 耳屎 (ear), and 鼻屎 (nose). I'm curious what other languages stand on this. On the other hand, I would refrain to use the word 屎 on a dining table, for example.

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