Volume 12, No. 3 
July 2008


Sathya Rao


Front Page

Select one of the previous 44 issues.


Index 1997-2008

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
On Becoming a Translator
by Salvador Virgen

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Everything’s Comin’ up Roses (with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)
by Bernie Bierman
Navigating in a New Era: Translators in the Age of Image and Speech
by Eileen B. Hennessy
Supply and Demand Analysis of Patent Translation
by Yvonne Tsai

  In Memoriam
A Farewell to Vera—In Memoriam Vera Maria Conti Nogueira: 1944 - 2008
by Danilo Nogueira

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
Übersetzung deutscher Nominalkomposita aus der Fachsprache der Technik und Analyse typischer portugiesischer Entsprechungen
Katrin Herget, Holger Proschwitz
Proper Names and Translation
by Samira Mizani

  Translators Around the World
The Influence of the Market on Translating—A Tentative Study of the Market-oriented Translation in China
by Tian Chuanmao

  Scientific and Technical Translation
Mini-Guide to Translating French Documents
for English-Speaking Markets (with general tips for other language pairs and writers of EFL)

by M.L. Seren-Rosso

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Translating Sexuality: The Translation Industry and Adult Websites
by Sathya Rao

  Literary Translation
Corpus-based Study of Differences in Explicitation Between Literature Translations for Children and for Adults
by Shih Chung-ling

  Translator Education
Bibliografía comentada sobre Traducción e Interpretación para estudiantes
Pablo Muñoz Sánchez
Individual Differences in the Translation Process: Differences in the act of translation between two groups of ESL Japanese students
by Atsushi Iida
El análisis crítico de traducciones literarias en la formación de traductores
Dra. Beatriz M Rodríguez Rodríguez

  Book Reviews
Book Review: A Companion to Translation Studies
by Esmaeil Haddadian Moghaddam
Book Review: The Locas mujeres poems of Gabriela Mistral
reviewed by Liliana Valenzuela

  Translation Theory
Meaning: The Philosopher's Stone of the Alchemist Translator?
by Maite Aragonés Lumeras, Ph.D.

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translation and Participatory Media: Experiences from Global Voices
by Chris Salzberg
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Cultural Aspects of Translation

Translating Sexuality:1

The Translation Industry and Adult Websites

by Sathya Rao
Assistant professor
Dept of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies
University of Alberta


Frequently used as an instrument of political censure, translation is equally in the service of the capital in whose interests it proliferates in an ever-increasing number of languages and cultures. Just like many traditional businesses, the adult entertainment industry calls on local translation specialists more and more to export its products. Using a study conducted on an agency specializing in the translation and adaptation of adult websites, the present article provides a close-up on this little-known practice. In an environment where censure, self-censure, and a multiplicity of national legislations often determine form and content, and where sexuality becomes a banal form of merchandise, how do translators position themselves? What ethical and linguistic problems do they encounter in translating these sexual terms so deeply engrained in the fabric of culture?


1. Translating Sexuality

he works of G. Bataille, M. Foucault, R. Barthes, J-L. Marion, G. Brulotte and even M. Chebel in the Isalmic world, have helped to draw our attention to the importance of sexual phenomena and their implications in the realm of culture. From a more historic perspective, a certain amount of research has, over the past ten years or so, attempted to put forward the importance of the role of pornographic literature (translated or otherwise) in the clandestine diffusion of the ideas of "les Lumières" (Darton 1995), in particular in England (Mac Calam 1988). In the domain of translation, there are several studies that broach this question directly. Most of these are the works of feminist authors, such as B. Goddard, R. Arrojo and L. Chamberlain, who place questions of sexuality within the terrain of political protest. In these studies, sexuality essentially takes the form of a reclaiming of women's "body language" unjustly constrained by phallocentric censure. Over the past decade, stimulated by Queer Studies and by research on postcolonial sensitivities, this question has been posed in renewed forms. In fact, it is precisely the effects of these new perspectives on contemporary translation theory that L. von Flotow endeavours to measure in a recent article (2001). To conclude this very brief overview, it is interesting to note that the Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature (2006) edited by G. Brulotte and J. Phillips succeeds in sealing the link between eroticism and translation by devoting an entire entry to this subject. Yet, although the legitimacy, moreover the necessity, of the feminist, Queer and postcolonial approaches must be acknowledged, the question of sexuality (in translation) must not be systematically associated with the protest of marginalities or minorities. In other words, it is essential to bring this question to the centre of reflections on translation theory without, in doing so, falling back into the phallocentrism of the past. From this point on, why not envision an "erotic turn" (Rao, 2005) that would influence the direction of translation as a whole, much like the previous political and ethical turns?

Researchers have chosen to adopt a more neutral and less judgmental attitude toward sexual language.
In a certain number of recent studies in the area of audiovisual translation, researchers have chosen to adopt a more neutral and less judgmental attitude toward sexual language. Two such researchers are J. Lung and G. Scandura who focus their attention on the multiplicity of uses and connotative registers characterizing the language of sexuality. For J. Lung, for example, the translation of words of a sexual nature will vary according to whether these are evoked implicitly or explicitly, whether they belong to a particular sociolect, or even whether they possess a given pragmatic function (to shock, to evoke laughter, etc.) This research on audiovisual translation insists also on the necessity of taking into consideration the cultural context. More precisely, J. Lung and G. Scandura highlight two forms of censure operating in the translation of subtitles for television series and films, in Chinese and Spanish respectively: firstly, the lack of knowledge on the part of the translator of the values operating in the target-language culture particularly with regard to sexuality; secondly, the translator's own prejudices toward sexuality in general (and toward its language in particular) as well as those imposed by his own culture of origin:

"A typical instance of censorship in Latin America is the usual habit of forcing translators to tone down language, i.e. substituting vulgar words for neutral ones (for example, using "penis" or "making love" instead of other slang expressions with the same meaning)." (Scandura 2004: 130)

The ideology of the "politically correct," so propitious to the production of censorship, seems to be replaced by a discourse of the "sexually correct" within translation. As Y. Gambier rightly notes, in our western democracies, censure is less the result of pressures exerted by outside forces than the outcome of the translator himself being left to his own devices (and, often, to his own incompetence):

"L'absence de précisions, de critères, d'exemples, revient à laisser le traducteur face à ses responsabilités et à son propre jugement, c'est-à-dire aux pressions normatives. Il devient ainsi à la fois le porte-parole de la compagnie et l'écho supposé des spectateurs qui réagissent rarement et presque toujours sur le choix de mots pris isolément. Cette double contrainte favorise davantage le conformisme que la transgression ou l'innovation. Elle fait surtout jouer l'auto-censure du sous-titreur—auto-censure non pas dirigée par des directives externes mais par sa propre idéologie, par ses propres représentations de ce que cherche la compagnie, de ce qu'attendent les spectateurs, par son propre sentiment linguistique." (Gambier 2002: 216)

Left to his own ignorance as much as his own prejudices the audiovisual translator acts, without necessarily being conscious of it, as censor, "(...) is actually robbing the audience of their chance of understanding and even learning about other cultures, other life styles, other realities." (Scandura 2004: 133). To these several studies on the treatment of sexuality in the context of audiovisual translation can be added another particularly interesting enquiry led by E. Hemmungs Wirten which explores the business of translating Harlequin romances into more than twenty languages. One of the merits of this research is to reveal the close relation between the expansionist interests of global capitalism (in this case the multinational Canadian Torstar Corporation which owns the Harlequin business), the profit-generating strategies of translation [essentially adaptation to the target language and culture or "transediting" (Wirten 1998: 9-10) that could be seen as a form of censure] and the diffusion of a product that is, to say the least, romanticized and toned down in sexuality.

The Ins and Outs: Translating for the Adult Entertainment Industry

The above-mentioned research on visual subtitles and the translation of Harlequin romances bears witness to how tightly interwoven are economic and cultural spheres. Having realized the importance there was in offering their products in a "local flavor," more and more businesses are seeking out translators and other regional specialists. This is particularly the case for the flourishing Adult Entertainment Industry (AEI) on the Internet which now calls on the services of several specialized translation agencies, among these: TranslationsXXX.com. As the economist K. Davidson points out, cultural standards with regard to sexuality are far from being homogenous—it is therefore important to have a precise idea of their diversity:

"Cultural and geographic differences in the perception of pornography, or in the acceptance of sexually explicit material, are important for marketers to understand. Current standards in the United States may seem rather prudish to Europeans, who are more accustomed to seeing nudism used in outdoor advertising or on television." (Davidson 2003: 89-90)

In order to understand what makes this company that translates resources for adults so unique, it makes sense to review a certain number of little-known facts about the AEI. In the first place, this industry generates colossal revenues in the range of several billions of dollars. According to the database N2H2, the number of adult websites has grown from over 71,000 in 1998 to 1.3 million in 2003 (the equivalent of 260 million web pages) and has not stopped increasing. According to a report commissioned by Yahoo in 2001, the five largest sites for adults welcome a little less than 4 million different visitors daily, that is 1.5 million more than the CNN website. In fact, the opportunities for profit are so appealing that more and more partnerships are being sealed between "classic" businesses and the AEI which thereby uncovers, for its part, a potentially virgin market. Worried about transparency, certain representatives of the AEI in the USA have formed a lobby group, the Free Speech Coalition Association, in order to protect the interests of the profession, fix quality standards and initiate a dialogue with the public at large. One of the most evident signs of this tentative to give a new spin to the AEI is surely the abandonment, by industry professionals, of the term "pornographic," too quickly associated with "obscene," in favor of the more effective and sexier term, "adult entertainment."

Secondly, the success of the AEI is founded on its mastery of technology and innovation. Driven by the need not only to circulate increasingly complex and dense data and to assure client anonymity but also to entice new clientele, computer experts within the AEI have perfected a number of solutions adopted by Internet operators as a whole (Bedell 2001: 2). Numbering among these discoveries: continuous stream techniques for downloading audio and video files, on-line subscription, and even pop-up windows.

Finally, the AEI must inevitably contend with censure. For adult websites, the exercise of censorship and the application of related laws in general becomes complex due to several factors: the transnational character of the Internet which escapes traditional territorial jurisdictions; the extreme diversity of legislation and standards concerning obscenity and pornography; the confusion inherent in establishing legal responsibility (i.e., should the access provider be pursued or the individual in possession of pornographic material?); and lastly the technical difficulty in controlling information that circulates in a more and more decentralized manner and under a wide variety of protocols.

Close-up on TranslationsXXX.com2

It is in this context, one in which economic interests mingle with a diversity of legislations and cultural standards regarding sexuality, that the activity of agencies specializing in the translation and adaptation of adult material must be situated. Furthermore, one of the principal commercial arguments put forth in the advertising brochure of TranslationsXXX.com is none other than the possibility of diversifying the languages offered by adult websites to make them accessible to a wider audience not always fluent in English:

"Website translation is one of the most cost-effective methods used today to reach international markets. While it is true that English is one of the most prevalent languages, and people in many countries read and understand English, cultural differences can lead to misunderstanding the 'intent' of your message. Consumers are most likely to buy your products and services if you speak to them in their native language."

The services offered by TranslationsXXX.com are not limited only to the translation of written content. They also include the localization and the modification of visual elements (e.g., icons, images, links) in several protocols, website maintenance and even changes in format. Moreover, the agency diversifies its field of specialization that ranges from legal and technical translation (instructions, notices) all the way to commercial translation. In fact, the most surprising discovery when reading their commercial brochure is that TranslationsXXX.com upholds the same professional standards as those of a traditional translation agency.

Despite its specialization in translation for adult websites, the agency TranslationsXXX.com could easily be mistaken for any run-of-the-mill translation agency. And with good reason, for its founder, Moreno Aguiari, is also the owner of a "straight" agency: Translateandlocalize.com. Gathered together under the name Primary Colors International (essentially for accounting purposes), these two agencies share their list of translators and offer similar services even though they are housed on different sites (where, by the way, no mention is made of the existence of the other agency). With two branches, one in Italy and the other in the USA, the now three-year old TranslationsXXX.com, relies on a network of freelance translators scattered here and there around the world working on commission in twenty-odd countries. In addition to its President, the agency includes an Operations Manager (responsible for overseeing both the translation projects as well as the European branch), an Accountant and a Marketing Manager.

Having, up to present, attracted very little attention, the translation / localization of websites for adults raises several specific questions: 1) What is the function and relevance of written content (and its translation) in an environment where images prevail?; 2) What are the principles of selection when choosing which information to translate?; 3) What sort of linguistic competence and cultural imagination are influencing choices made during the translation and localization of written, as well as visual, material? 4) In the absence of a clear and binding legal framework, is there an ethic that orients the translator's decisions? The ultimate goal of the present article is not so much provide answers to all of these questions as it is to offer for consideration the results of a study, conducted in English, French, and Spanish, in which M. Aguiari and sixteen of his translators were kind enough to participate. This study, which appears to be the first of its kind, brings the beginning of an answer to the last two questions raised above and, more generally, shines a spotlight on the little known task of translating for adult websites.

From a qualitative point of view, our sample is composed of ten female and six male translators ranging in age between 26 to 54 years; of these, three wished to remain anonymous. For purpose of anonymity, the translators will be referred to by their initials. Independent translators for the large majority, they represent as many as thirteen different nationalities, including German, Argentine, Brazilian, Chinese, Danish, American, Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Swedish, and Turkish. Thus it is legitimate to think that they possess diverse cultural attitudes in matters of sexuality. Furthermore, most of these translators have a university education in the domain of language (literature, translation, philology, foreign languages) to which can be added technical competence (political science, computer science, business) as well as at least three years of work experience (for one-third of the sample, it exceeds ten years). Thus, contrary to the commonly held view, translators of adult websites can be (though it is not always the case) qualified translators. In any case, such is the level of competence required by TranslationsXXX.com who calls upon professionals with specializations that often include technical, medical and legal translation. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that six of the sixteen translators interviewed do not consider the translation of adult websites fundamentally different from other types of translation. In this domain as in any other, they claim that what is important is to be familiar with the terminology.

However, several translators identify at least two singularities of translating adult material: firstly, it pays well in comparison to other types of translation; secondly, it's a change from the more rebarbative translation of technical texts, in the sense that it leaves the room for a certain creativity and, from time to time, allows the translator to make use of personal experience. Along these lines, certain translators admitted looking for inspiration among their intimate circle (often from their spouse). That being said, half of the translators interviewed preferred to keep their activity concealed (to the point of not mentioning it on their CV) or to discuss it only with trusted individuals. As for the rest, dictionaries (general and specialised), adult literature and most of all on-line resources (dictionaries, Google, specialized glossaries, adult websites) constitute their principal resources for terminology.

As revealed by some of the translators interviewed, the translation of adult material can pose a certain number of difficulties requiring a unique kind of competence. The translator must, for example, become familiar with the terminology specific to non-conventional sexuality (one could label them "sexolects" much like the one the homosexual community has created for itself) as well as with its modes of self-designation (that is to say the way in which the members of a community identify themselves within their own group). Thus, remarks one translator:

"There are some difficulties in very specific vocabulary. For instance, one time I did a translation for a gay website and they had some terms I have never heard (ex.: bears, studs, hunks, twinks)."

Aaron's Dictionary of Gay Terms (available on-line), which borrows a lot from Gay Slang Dictionary by Robert Own Scott, Jr, provides helpful insight into the lexical and idiomatic resources that can be used by the English gay community. The translator must also handle language registers and connotations with subtlety in order to conserve the effect of vulgarity or, if needed, to intensify or tone it down:

"I try to get the tone and style right, and maintain the right level of vulgarity. Often the main purpose of the text is to have a certain effect—to arouse sexually. The information value is, in that case, secondary."

As another translator remarks, it is important that the translation has its own flow and does not come across like offensive adolescent language. Conscious of the cultural and linguistic differences between the sexual imaginations of various nations, these translators are often required to carry out adaptations and to align themselves with the client's demands. Here are several examples of adaptations that certain of the translators interviewed were willing to share:


Language pair


M. M


Many words differ from one country to the other, many searches are necessary to find the right word: "coger" is the word for having sex in Argentina, while "coger" s to "take" in Spain so there is a necessity to change that word by "follar"

M. G


(...) the source text mentioned a nude girl as how God has created her. In Spanish it is not good to translate it literally: users don't want to think of God when they are thinking of having sex with the lady

A. Z


(...) when you follow instructions on how to do this or that, in English you put "please" almost each time at the beginning or at the end of each sentence (ex. "Please enter your password"); in Polish there is a literal equivalent to the word "please," but it is not so frequently used in this type of commands and the simple imperative is more common ("Enter your password");

(...) there are certain phenomena that are almost unknown or recently entered onto the local (i.e., Polish) market and sometimes a Polish equivalent does not exist or, at least, cannot be found; one of my recent headaches was the term: "glory hole"—I left it untranslated because a reference to this term could hardly be found in Polish websites and, when found, the term was delivered in the English language version (the rest of the text being in Polish)

B. A


When translating a general or even a technical text into Dutch there are so many ways and words to say exactly the same without changing the settings and the feelings that particular text evokes, but when it comes to adult content material terminology we Dutch prefer English... as if we prefer tagging every mainstream and sub category without having to expose ourselves. Examples: - A gay person = een homo (m) or een lesbische (f). Yet "gay" stands for more than just a sexual preference, it denotes a specific life style in the US/the UK/Australia. In several parts of the world gays still have to be careful when walking on the streets when it is dark. This is not the case in Dutch. Our 'gays' are generally accepted. They can get married and adopt children, just like hetero couples. So when the text only says "gay," we prefer "gay" (...)

- A cunt = een kut. A cold and hash word in Dutch, usually used for calling someone names or for cursing. A pussy = een kutje, een poesje... Less cold, still harsh. Commonly used to denigrate women in general, only used in intimate speech between lovers talking dirty to each other during playful moments. A pussy = een flamoes, een pruim, een zuignap.... Even worse: it is used by a man to say that a woman should raise her ass to do something for him for things he thinks he has no energy for/feels superior about. Which translation is best, depends on the client, the context and the audience in one.

Given the nature of the material being translated, the risk of being confronted with illegal source texts is ever-present. On this point, Mr Aguiari assured us of applying a very strict code of ethics with regard to his client. Likewise, for the translators (none of whom said they had encountered illegal material), the open-mindedness often claimed is nevertheless accompanied by certain well-defined limits. For these translators, homophobia, racism, child pornography, zoophilia, and violence against humans would lead to a categorical refusal to translate. Quite often, these limits arise less from a clear understanding of applicable legislation than from an individual ethical stance. Much like the audiovisual translator evoked by Y. Gambier, the translator of adult websites is essentially his own censor, with the client first in line to intervene, followed later by the editor. In the context of the translation/localization of adult websites, this practice of auto-censure, for which it is difficult to establish rules (since it is guided as much by the singularity of the translator's individual ethics as by the objectively delineated political and legal framework), is accompanied by a normalization of the language of sexuality whose status resembles that of a technical language. From here, the true task of translating/localizing adult websites is less the cutting use of censure (as may have been the case under certain more puritan, or quite frankly, totalitarian regimes), or even auto-censure, than the search for a translation that satisfies certain qualitative norms in terms of adaptation (the restitution of connotations, the search for lexical equivalents, the consideration of cultural factors). In sum, the translation of adult websites juxtaposes two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, there is privatizing of censure for lack of a truly binding legal and political framework and, on the other hand, objectifying of the language of sexuality that thus comes to acquire the status of a specialized language.



Aaron's Dictionary of Gay Terms, http://www.aaronsgayinfo.com/termsTOC.html

BEDELL Doug (2001). "Unlikely innovators: Many online technologies were first perfected by the adult industry," http://www.dougbell.com/adultweb.html

DARNTON Robert (1995). The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, New Lork, London W.W. Norton & Company.

DAVIDSON Kirk (2003). Selling Sin, Wesport, Praeger Publisher.

GAMBIER Yves (2002). "Les censures dans la traduction audiovisuelle," Meta, vol. 15, n2, 2002, pp. 203-221.

HALE Terry (2006) "Translation," in Gaetan Brulotte & John Phillips, Encylopedia of Erotic Literature, New York, Routledge, pp.1308-1309.

LEFEVERE André, Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Frame, London/ NewYork, Routledge, 1983.

LUNG Rachel (1988). "On Mis-translating Sexually Suggestive Elements in English-Chinese Screen Subtitling," Babel vol. 44, n2, pp. 97-109.

MAC CALMAN Iain (1988). Radical Underworld : Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840, New York, Cambridge University Press.

RAO Sathya (2007). "Traduire La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M.," Tamkang Studies of Foreign Languages and Literatures, n9, pp. 31-48

RAO Sathya (2005). "Peut-on envisager l'avenir de la traduction sans plaisir ? Vers une érotique du traduire," Meta, vol. 50, n4, 2005, URL: http://www.erudit.org/livre/meta/2005/000222co.pdf

SCANDURA Gabriela L. (2004). "Sex, Lies and TV: Censorship and Subtitling," Meta, vol. XLIX, n1, pp. 125-134.

VON FLOTOW Luise (2001). "Gender in Translation. The Issues goes on," Orées, n2, vol. 1, http://orees.concordia.ca/numero2/essai/Von%20Flotow.html

VON FLOTOW Luise (1997). Translation and Gender. Translating in the Era of Feminism, Manchester, St Jerome—University of Ottawa Press, 1997.

WHITE Amy E., Virtually Obscene. Jefferson, North Carolina, Mc Farland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2006.

WIRTEN Eva Hemmungs (1998). "They Seek It Here, They Seek There, They Seek It Everywhere: Looking for the Global Book," Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 23, n2, 1998, URL: http://info.wlu.ca/~wwwpress/jrls/cjc/BackIssues/23.2/wirten.html