The Translation of Slang

Within the Bounds of Possibility?

Essay, 2010

32 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 Slang in General
2.1 Characteristics and Functions
2.2 Linguistic Features
2.3 Slang in Literature

3 Slang in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity

4 Translatability of Slang
4.1 Compromise and Compensation
4.2 American, German and Hungarian Slang in Comparison
4.3 Translating Slang of From Here to Eternity

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1 Introduction

‘Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.’ This is how American poet Sandburg described the linguistic phenomenon of slang in the New York Times in 1959 (quoted in Crystal 2006: 117). His definition accurately expresses the spirit of slang, but somewhat exaggerates its virtue. Nevertheless, Sandburg’s definition has become an often quoted phrase. His quotation already indicates the peculiarity of slang, which sparked my interest in analysing the relationship between such a complex linguistic manifestation and the compound human activity of translation. Therefore, this essay aims to explore the questions evolving around the translation of slang and gives examples by reference to the novel From Here to Eternity (1951) by US American writer James Jones (1921-1977). The novel was translated into several languages, inter alia into German by Otto Schrag (1951) and into Hungarian by Szíjgyártó László (1975). The novel’s abundance in slang expressions means a great challenge for the translator and thus offers insightful material for the exploration of translation theory and practice.

After a general introduction of the linguistic phenomenon of slang, including a theoretical analysis of its characteristics, functions and its linguistic features as well as a brief overview of slang in literature in chapter two, chapter three shall introduce Jones’s novel with the focus on its slang elements. Furthermore, the first part of chapter four is exploring the translatability of slang on the basis of Hervey and Higgins’ theory of compromise and compensation by giving German and Hungarian translation examples of the novel. Moreover, subchapter 4.2 will examine the translation methods with regard to Jones’ novel by focusing on the different traditions of American, German and Hungarian slang usage. Subchapter 4.3 shall continue to analyse the German and Hungarian translations of slang, specifically in reference to From Here to Eternity . All the examples given throughout the essay refer to the novel and its German and Hungarian translation.

2 Slang in General

2.1 Characteristics and Functions

The nature and characteristics of slang are mirrored by the many definitions given to it. It is hardly possible to define slang without outlining its functions and usage. According to Eble, despite the difficulty of defining slang, one cannot state that slang has no remaining characteristics (Eble 1996: 12–24). In general, the lack of proper material on slang hampers linguists to form a definite explanation on the specific nature of the linguistic tool. Therefore, the major characteristics and functions of slang in general shall be introduced in the following. One of the main features of slang is that it serves as a linguistic variant that is group-marked. The usage of slang as a group language indicates demarcation, defiance to the standard and at the same time works as a group- cohesive force. Generally, every speaker is characterised by his/her language appliance, which gives away social belonging, even informs of the group or community the speaker belongs to. Thus, slang can be regarded as a verbal rebellion against the norm and hierarchy that is expressed by humour (Partridge 2007). At this point Chapman’s approach towards slang through the personality psychology of slang speakers seems noteworthy. He handles it as an established fact that the roots of slang are to be found in the unconscious and that slang serves as a defender against the suppression of a community. He believes that ‘slang as a remedy denies the weakness and brags about the sinfulness. In this view, it would not be too much to claim that therapeutic slang is necessary for the development of the self; that society would be impossible without slang. It is curious that a linguistic phenomenon that seems so fleeting and so frivolous, as slang undeniably does, should at the same time be so deep and so vital to human growth and order.’ (Chapman 1988: xiv). Accordingly, these theories argue that slang has a significant social role: it is the tag that marks the belonging to a group and can serve to contract friendships and to cement and maintain them. The common sharing and sustaining of the constantly altering slang vocabulary increases group solidarity and serves for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals (Trudgill 2003: 30). Thus, its function is to maintain relationships and to mark identities.

2.2 Linguistic Features

Defining slang is even more complicated by the question of context. In one moment a word or collocation is effective as slang, while in another situation this given word or collocation arouses a much different effect (Partridge 2007: 34). Thus, slang is relative; what one person or age group regards as slang in one situation can be perceived differently by others in a different situation. Since slang is rather an attitude, a feeling or an act, slang expressions harbour a much greater emotional tension than ordinary language does (Partridge 2007: 34). A further linguistic perception worth mentioning is that slang is a mode of speech that stands in contrast to the higher language, to which slang is the anti-language (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 79). The key feature of slang can be defined as being the mirror image of the higher language variant; however, slang should not be confused with dialect (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 73-74). Thus, slang is characteristic for informal situations and is a peculiarity of the spoken language, but not every colloquial expression is slang. Although some culturally taboo subjects abound in slang synonyms, not every slang expression hurts the social decency. Slang often manifests itself in vulgarisms and trivialisms, however it is not limited to these (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 71-75). Words such as fella and chappy , for example, are elements of standard slang, but are no vulgarisms. The widespread association of slang being simply a thieves’ argot or the gang language of young people is not tenable as such ‘for we all use slang’ (Crystal 2006: 113). According to Eble, the tendency that slang names objects in an indirect and figurative mode, especially by means of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony, is representative of its semantics (Eble 1996: 62). Slang is located below the language level that is stylistically neutral and thus ranges from colloquial to vulgar to obscene (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 69-70). To identify which category a slang expression belongs to, the classification of words according to the relation between form and content, made by Andersson and Trudgill, shall be looked at. Words can generally be classified into four categories. Terms that belong to the second and the fourth group can be slang elements. Stylistically they are colloquial, while in terms of content they draw on neutral or taboo strata. The peculiar employment of the words in the fourth category are regarded as swearing, when these terms and collocations are used in emotionally filled meanings (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 76).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Slang is basically short-lived: its vocabulary generally alternates very rapidly. Slang words ‘either make it into accepted neutral style or else die out rather quickly’ (Andersson-Trudgill 1990: 78). This is strongly related to their creative and often inventory nature that makes slang expressions fresh and new. As soon as slang words do not harbour these elements anymore (that inevitably happens after a while) they are either adopted in general language or come out of fashion (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 84-85). This quite clearly explains slang’s short-lived character.

Summed up, slang is characterised by its differentiation from the standard, its informality, the arbitrary and rapid formation of novel words and abbreviations, its inventive nature and its popularity. Further characteristics are wit, humour, imagination, creativity and spontaneity. It requires metaphors and figurative and expressive tools. It is universal, often mocking as well as ironic. Slang is straightforward, sometimes harsh and occasionally exaggerates, which shows its hyperbolic nature (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 69-86). To complete this, Eble’s definition of slang proves valuable: ‘In large part, slang is short-lived, slippery in meaning, characteristic of marginalized groups, oral, and, most important, defined by social context and situation - all characteristics that militate against slang’s showing up frequently and consistently in the files on which dictionaries are based.’ (Eble 1996: 22) Additionally, Eble (1996: 12-24) emphasises that body language, intonation, pitch, stress as well as pause play an important role to signalise that the respective word or expression is to be understood as slang. These, however, are elements that cannot as such be related to slang in literature and to translating slang, but nevertheless are worth mentioning.

All the mentioned social functions and linguistic characteristics that typify slang need to be taken into account by the translator when dealing with a text abundant in slang elements. So is James Jones’ From Here to Eternity , which is the major focus of this essay. Thus, the following chapters - after the next subchapter that introduces the phenomenon of slang in literature - are dedicated to exploring the slang components in the novel as well as to analysing their translations.

2.3 Slang in Literature

Slang is the linguistic divergence from standard (high language) usage and is commonly characterised by imaginary, creativity and wit- so much that it is called the common people’s poetry (Crystal 2006). According to English novelist G.K. Chesterton, ‘The one stream of poetry which is constantly flowing is slang. Every day some nameless poet weaves some fairy tracery of popular language […] All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry '. (Chesterton 1901, quoted in Crystal 2006: 117 and in Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 69). Slang expressions can be found in literature in various ways, mainly in novels and short stories (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 72). For the sake of attaining a realist approach, the application of slang is vital in certain cases, especially because characters can be best identified and marked through their use of language. Slang, however, does not only distinguish and mark, but also verifies. If, for example, in From Here to Eternity the author would depict the social togetherness while insisting on the linguistic norms, then the whole communication would appear non-authentic and implausible. In the novel, slang elements primarily appear as parts of dialogues, therefore, it is not the personal language usage of the author, but the author ‘puts the slang words into the mouth’ of his characters. The subsequent chapter will deal with the slang expressions that occur in the novel in more detail.

3 Slang in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity

James Jones, a twentieth century American writer, became famous with his trilogy about World War II. The first part was his novel From Here to Eternity, which is about the months prior to the war. In writing the novel he was allegedly inspired by personal experience. The presentation of unusual language usage and style in Jones’ books triggered a wave of shock among his US American readership. The novel is set in 1941 in Hawaii, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and tells the story of the personal struggle of soldiers of the G Company. From Here to Eternity mirrors oral language (slang) in writing (e.g. What the hells he doin way down there?). Alongside ordinary words, the vocabulary of specialised military slang and standard slang are applied to set up the text. At this point a small excursion is needed to explain these types of slang. Therefore, it is important to mention that slang is not to be confused with register, although the latter might include standard expressions. This leads to the fact that the register of most professions involves both an official terminology as well as an unofficial terminology, which is specialised slang and which is only used and understood by those working in the respective field (Andersson, Trudgill 1990: 77). Standard slang, on the other hand, is a language intelligible by everybody speaking colloquial and ordinary language and can be used by those dependent on its context. In From Here to Eternity , standard slang expressions outnumber military slang (e.g. top), which could be explained by the fact that standard slang (e.g. goddam ) is more applicable, while in the case of technical slang the stratum is narrower. The important question is whether these slang elements, may they be standard slang or specialised slang, can be translated properly and if yes, what methods are most efficient? The next chapter is dedicated to find an answer to this.


Excerpt out of 32 pages


The Translation of Slang
Within the Bounds of Possibility?
University of St Andrews
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
602 KB
Double spaced
Translation, Slang, Within, Bounds, Possibility
Quote paper
Robert Stolt (Author), 2010, The Translation of Slang, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Translation of Slang

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free