How do you translate “새끼”?

At the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York City, the South Korean president was caught on a hot mic disparaging the United States Congress. He said:

국회에서 이 새끼들이 승인 안 해주면 바이든은 쪽팔려서 어떡하나?

On YouTube, one must now bear witness to Korean news commentators contorting themselves into awkward shapes while reporting on how English language newspapers translated Yoon’s faux pas (this means, translating – into Korean – the English translation of the original Korean). As Dave Chappelle might say, a dubious activity to be involved in.

The crux of the issue revolves around how to translate the word “새끼.” The literal translation of the word is “child, offspring, kid, spawn, baby.” It can also be applied to animals: “pup, cub etc.” Of course, it would be nonsensical to translate it this way – and I’m a big proponent of translating the intent as opposed to the literal meaning – understanding that translation is an effort in approximation, and that you are bound to lose nuance.

One instance when a literal translation would be appropriate is “개새끼” which means “son of a bitch.” This is an excellent alignment – both in the literal meaning, and the intent.

새끼 is difficult to translate because it covers a broad spectrum. It lies in that gray area between “dude” and “bastard”, or “guy” and “asshole.” The English language seems surprisingly lacking in words like these – namely, a pejorative but not necessarily a term of abuse. For instance, I’ve seen the words 가시나 (or 가시내) and 기지배 (or 개지배) translated as “bitch” which seems a bit unfair. An English speaking grandparent, after all, is unlikely to call their five year old granddaughter “a bitch.”

So, how is the world’s press translating the word “새끼?”

In the United States, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and the Washington Examiner are going with “idiots.” This is a bad translation. “Idiots” implies a lack of intellect, and Yoon was not disparaging their intellects. The crasser CBS and Fox – are going with f****rs and fers, respectively. Clearly, they mean “flowers.” Fox felt the need to add the “e,” no doubt worried that their readers might not discern which word they were referring to. Meanwhile, in Asia, the South China Morning Post is adopting the Fox strategy and going with the “e”. The Straits Times adopts the “idiotic” Washington Post strategy. The old colonies of the British monarch also show evidence of the Queen’s propriety – CNA (Singapore) going with “fers”, the Hindustan Times with the (now boring) “idiots”. The Dawn (Pakistan) gives us the “k” as well as the “e” in order to drive the point home. The Filipinos (much inured to crassness under the rule of Rody Duterte), the Nigerians and News18 (Indian, I believe, albeit clearly not as cultured as the Hindustanis) all give us the full monty.

Again, for the record, in my opinion, both “idiots” and “fuckers” are inaccurate translations. I would go with something a little less offensive. “Douchebags, Jimmy Savile Row merchants, Lord BucketHeads” come to mind. On Twitter, @aaronvandorn suggests “these fuckin’ guys” which may be the best translation yet.