Donald the Trump has yet again opened his cakehole and gifted us – and especially lexicographers – with another citable instance of vulgarity. Naturally, his ass-mouth made headlines around the world when he said “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” And naturally, this shit has to be reported on in other languages. So what do you do when you’re writing in another language and trying to translate shithole countries effectively?
The problem that journalists in other languages face, on top of how to deal with vulgarity, is that this use of shithole is non-literal. The word shithole (originally and still sometimes shit-hole) has been with us since the 1600s to refer to the hole shit comes out of (that’s your anus, Pluto), but only since the 1930s to refer to a godforsaken hole-in-the-ground, an undesirable place. Why is a place a hole? We’ve been using hole-in-the-wall since the early 1800s to refer to insignificant and low-grade stores and similar locations, and hole-in-the-ground since around the same time to refer to an outhouse (you know, an outdoor toilet without plumbing). I haven’t found proof of influence from those to the use of shithole to refer to an exceptionally undesirable and insignificant place, but taken holus bolus they at least establish hole as potentially referring to a place, not just an actual aperture.
Some who have undertaken explications of shithole for speakers of other languages have focused on the ‘outhouse’ sense, as for instance this rundown from the national broadcaster of Canada: “Terme très vulgaire, « shithole » se réfère aux latrines extérieures pour designer un endroit particulièrement repoussant” (‘A very vulgar term, shithole refers to outdoor toilets to designate a particularly repulsive place’ – a bit of an excessive focus on the shit, from my view as someone who’s used the term since childhood). Others… well, let’s dive in. So to speak.
Vera Bergengruen alerted Strong Languagers that in Norway, cited by Trump as a more desirable source of immigrants, the translation preferred by the two major newspapers is drittland, which means ‘shit country’. A little looking around the rest of Scandinavia finds Sweden’s Aftonbladet using “shithole countries” in the headline and translating that as skitländer, which again means ‘shit countries’. In Denmark, DR and Ekstra Bladet render it as lortehul (plural lortehuller), ‘shitty hole’, while BT makes it lorteland, ‘shitty country’. In Iceland, Morgunblaðið uses skítalönd, ‘shitty countries’. The words used are perhaps not as shocking in their languages as shit is in English, but they have the same tone. But they mostly skip the whole ‘hole’ part.
Meanwhile, in Finland, where they speak a completely unrelated language but are still part of the Scandinavian sphere, Helsingin Sanomat gives it to Finns as persläpimaat, which means ‘asshole countries’ (if you click the link you’ll see persläpimaista – that’s an inflected form meaning ‘from asshole countries’; if you want to know what part of all that means ‘asshole’, it’s persläpi – from perse ‘ass’ + läpi ‘hole’).
How about the countries maligned by Trump – El Salvador, Haiti, and countries in Africa? In El Salvador, La Prensa Gráfica renders it as agujeros de mierda, ‘holes of shit’ (or ‘shit holes’), but in the headline made it agujeros de mier…, which is like putting shi…holes. I’m sure their consideration for the delicate eyes of their readers was appreciated; they could all pretend he said Wednesday holes (agujeros de miércoles) and imagine the accent on the e. (There’s really no other Spanish word that mier… could stand for.) Elsewhere, the Spanish-speaking world is divided: Spain, El Mundo renders it that same way, while El País makes it países de mierda, ‘countries of shit’ or ‘shit countries’. Mexico’s La Jornada goes with países, but Argentina’s Clarín goes with agujeros. None of them bother with ellipses on mierda, though.
In Haiti, if you look in Le Nouvelliste, you will find it rendered as trou de merde, which is literal. But the French word trou is a more all-purpose word than Spanish agujero; it can also mean ‘pit’, ‘grave’, ‘mouth’, and – yes – ‘insignificant town’. (As it happens, though, trou de merde can be found in French literature – all the way back in Rabelais – meaning ‘asshole’.) Nonetheless, the hole is empty in other parts of the French-speaking world: Le Monde and Le Figaro make it pays de merde, ‘shit countries’ or ‘countries of shit’, and so do Quebec’s Le Devoir and Le Journal de Montréal.
But how about Africa? Well, there are rather a lot (hundreds) of languages in Africa, and I’m not even conversant in most of them, alas. Some African countries speak French (Journal du Cameroun and Benin’s La Nouvelle Tribune translate Trump’s epithet as pays de merde); many have their greatest online media presence in English, which obviates the translation issue but isn’t much fun for us here now. Interestingly, news sites in Swahili, Amharic, and Zulu that I looked at didn’t seem to have coverage of the story – or much of any interest in Donald Trump, which seems a healthy and very non-shitty attitude. I checked out a few news sites in Afrikaans, which (as you may know) is a Dutch-based creolized language of South Africa and might present a different perspective, and of the two that had a story I could find on it, one quoted shit hole in English and the other had a paywall.
One plus of newspapers that aren’t in English is that they’re not always so embarrassed to quote English vulgarities. We saw this above with Aftonbladet; in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant screams, “VS, VN, Afrika, Cariben, Midden-Amerika: iedereen is boos op Trump om zijn uitspraken over ‘shitholes’.” (‘US, UN, Africa, Caribbean, Central America: everyone is mad at Trump for his remarks about “shitholes”’.) In the body of the article, they translate it as achterlijke landen, which is insulting but not vulgar: achterlijk means ‘backwards, benighted, retarded’. (Another paper in the same language, Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad, treats us to klotenlanden, which refers to testicles and might be translated as ‘screwed-up countries’.)
Newspapers in Portugal also quote the English word freely but are more varied in translation. CM explains it as “retrete de m*, numa tradução mais benevolente” (‘toilet of s*, in the most gracious translation’); Público glosses it more frankly as “qualquer coisa entre ‘latrinas’ e ‘merdosos’” (‘something between “latrines” and “shitty”’).
German news has hewed towards the idiomatic but less vulgar. As SistaRay tweeted to Strong Language, they give us Drecksloch-Länder or Dreckslöcher, ‘garbage dump countries’, using Dreck ‘dirt’ in place of, say, Scheisse ‘shit’, which is idiomatic but, as SistaRay says, “this means it’s a little unclear why the language is so bad.”
Italy’s Corriere della Sera joins the ‘countries of shit’ club, the put-“shithole”-in-the-hed club, and the ellipsis club with the headline “«Shithole»: Trump, bufera sull’ultimo insulto. «Basta immigrati da Paesi di m…»” (“‘Shithole’: Trump, storm over latest insult. ‘Enough with immigrants from Countries of sh…’”) But La Repubblica goes a different route, not quoting the English and not even hinting at a vulgar word in Italian. Instead, we get cesso di Paesi – cesso, which is related to English cess (as in pit or pool), is used for ‘toilet’ in Italian as Americans use john and Brits use bog, but it can also translate to ‘dump’ as a characterization of a place. Which makes it reasonably accurate – except, however, for the vulgarity, which is kinda important.
Tweeters have been helpful in extending this study around the world. Aaron Mc Nicholas let us know that in Taiwan, CNA translated it as 鳥不生蛋國家, which can be translated as ‘countries where birds don’t lay eggs’, which is an idiom meaning ‘godforsaken countries’; James Palmer pointed out that that’s the short form of the idiom, the longer form being 鳥不生蛋狗不拉屎, ‘birds don’t lay eggs and dogs don’t shit’ – and since the idiom is a familiar one, the readers can fill in the blanks.
Nick Kapur looked at the Japanese media and found Asahi rendering it as 便所のような国 ‘restroom-like countries’, Reuters making it 不潔な諸国 ‘unsanitary nations’, and Nikkei using 肥だめの国 ‘night soil storage pit countries’. Meanwhile, in Israel, we get מדינות מחורבנות ‘shitty countries’ from Haaretz and Ynet and חורי תחת ‘butt holes’ from Walla! This brings us back to the incessant focus on literal shit, which, honestly, I gotta say is not as central as all that. When you say shit a lot, most of that shit is not shit, it’s just, y’know, shit.
Some languages don’t need to do runaround translations or anal-retentive literality; they have quite suitable equivalent idiomatic terms. Poland’s Wyborcza, for example, uses zadupia (plural of zadupie), which Google Translate renders as ‘shithole’ exactly, while Wiktionary gives ‘Bumfuck’ and ‘middle of nowhere’, which I’d say are the closest English synonyms of shithole. Given that zadupie more literally means ‘up the ass’, I’d say ‘Bumfuck’ is a splendid English equivalent, and certainly close enough to ‘shithole’ for our purposes.
But no one can quite top the Croatians for this. It’s not that their best word translates exactly to shithole or Bumfuck nowhere. It almost does it better (although Google Translate does render it as ‘shithole’). It’s vukojebina, and it means ‘the place wolves fuck’ – or, if we were to make a real equivalent English place name, something like Wolffuckington or Wolf-fuck-ville. (Birds may not lay eggs there and dogs may not shit there, but the wolves? They get busy.) And Croatia’s Express features that word in its headline.
There are plenty of languages I haven’t touched on – come on, I’m only one person and my resources aren’t infinite (and it’s already sheepfuck o’clock). I’m hoping that you all can add some more in our comments – and add further insight on the languages I have covered.
Thanks to Ben Zimmer, John Kelly, Todd Snider, Stan Carey, and Nancy Friedman for their help in the research for this article.