The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 15, 2008

Slumdogs and the cussing complex

By Tamara Lee

I just saw Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s latest film. Set in Mumbai, India, it essentially depicts the lives of two lower caste brothers. Aside from the complex story structure, two other production choices intrigued me, as someone with a toe in the film subtitling business. Not typical of post-production subtitles, the subtitling was, instead, treated as an added dimension of the film. Also interesting, the cussing in the film was not translated, as it usually is in subtitled films. Instead, Boyle lets the story unfold with the assumption audiences will recognize, if not understand, some colourful cursing is being used, adding to the layers and textures of the film.

Afterwards, I revisited one of my pet subjects: how we learn secondary languages. Often, we start our teen or adult second-language learning by heading straight for the cuss words (In fact, very often only learning the cuss words). Learning to cuss in a different language, getting the intonation and correct usage down, can act as a marker of one’s acquisition of a language. But how often do we really get it right?

Most of my current favourite curses aren’t actually English. Lately, I’ve been fond of French profanity, which I’m sure I don’t use correctly. But the mutterings of these cusses end up just being profanity for myself. I don’t tend to use them around folks whom I know speak French. As much because I don’t want to offend them with the content as I don’t want to amuse them with my misuse.

And this is what I find most fascinating about writing dialogue and creating narrative voice. I’m currently working on the third draft of a story and noticed the narrator cusses, but the characters do not. I’m now pondering what it means for my characters, and my narrator, wondering whether I should add some profanity or take it out. How will this change the story? What kinds of layers might cussing add, or how may it distract?

For example, if Character X, who speaks English as a second language, is cursing with an accent, and hasn’t mastered the basics of English curse structure ("I damn understand well"), his misuse of the curse word could be for effect; or it could be inappropriately comedic, with either choice adding a different depth to the story or character.

I’ve always preferred profanity be used like em dashes—sparingly or pointedly, in everyday speech and literature. But if all the children’s cussing in Slumdog Millionaire had been translated onscreen, it would’ve affected our sympathy for them. And for those who speak Hindi, perhaps the role the language plays adds yet another dimension to the film that speaks only to their experience.

As for my cussing narrator, perhaps we'll have to sit down and have a chat about where he got that dirty mouth from.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

This is such an interesting topic. I do think it is always better to leave the cuss word out, if you can. But there are other times when you simply can't avoid it, it's part of the story. As for the translation of cuss words... it ain't always possible. We Greeks, we have swear words that just wouldn't compute in any other language.

Tue Dec 16, 05:49:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating, Tamara. I agree with Tony that some profanity can't be accurately translated because it's so closely linked with the culture of its language. Good point that if you can understand the language of a subtitled film, you can enjoy it on different levels.

Thu Dec 18, 01:24:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks, guys, for reading. Speaking as someone who works in this field, the translations, when done well, are not literal or exact, but should be chosen as equivalents (for example, every culture has its own version of rude gestures like tossing shoes at a president.)

Fri Dec 19, 08:06:00 pm GMT-5  

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