Piss, Shit, Jesus, Mary, soap-operas, & sex

Piss, Shit, Jesus, Mary, soap-operas, & sex

Do you think about God while watching sex on tv? Don’t tell me. Keep your answer to yourself for the moment and we’ll come back to it. Here’s another question instead.

Do you know that ‘Piss’ is the Danish for ‘Shit’? No? Most people don’t. In fact, even the Danish don’t. ‘Cos it’s not true. At least, not literally. In Danish, ‘pis’ is the Danish for ‘piss’. But, when the subtitler on hit political tv drama-series ‘Borgen’ was confronted with the first ever female prime-minister saying “Pis! Pis! Pis! Pis! Pis! Pis! Pis!”, she decided to translate it as “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!”. *

Two things must have gone through the translator’s mind. One was, “This is not what I imagined I’d end up doing when I graduated as a talented linguist and made my mother so proud”. And the other was, “They don’t use ‘piss’ as a swear-word in English the same way we do in Danish, so I’d better use ‘shit’ instead or it’ll seem odd”.

But that’s my supposition. Maybe they use ‘piss’ exactly the same way we do and it was a deliberate attempt to mark out the character as distinctive, but you’d have to bow to the translator’s professionalism and presume that she had taken that into account. After all, she did manage to translate ‘Borgen’ as ‘government’, and not ‘pile of tossers screwing people over’, so she obviously is making decisions in an objective manner.

pic shit on tv

Swearing is a peculiar issue on television. Some things can’t be said before ‘watershed’ times and, even then, some channels have quotas for the usage of certain words within a day. Sometimes this apparent censorship is no harm, and the constraint can even lead to creative breakthroughs. The writers of ‘Porridge’ created an entire new lexicon of meaningless slang for their prison sit-com which was so effective that some of the words were adopted into popular parlance, allowing people to tell ‘nerks’ and ‘scrotes’ to ‘naff off’. The writers of ‘Father Ted’ came up with ‘fup’, when they were stuck for an alternative to what an angry man would naturally say, and got great comic mileage out of the notion of frustrated people being forced to say ‘fup’ instead of ‘fiddlesticks’.

Soap-operas always walk a particularly fine line in trying to capture the realism of everyday speech but without using post-watershed swearwords. Differing cultural attitudes to swearwords – even within the same island – are noticeable  on the two Irish soap-operas. On the English-language, ‘Fair City’, set in the capital city, swearwords such as ‘shit’ and ‘bastard’ are still out-of-bounds. However, on the Irish-language ‘Ros na Rún’, which is set in a west-of-Ireland rural community, the word ‘cac’, which is the Irish for ‘shit’, is scattered about with the casual abandon of a cow being literal. Similarly, a slight gaelicisation of ‘bastard’ into ‘a bhaisteird’ also makes the word acceptable.

And it’s this notion of what’s acceptable to the audience that is important. The two soap-operas are mostly following guidelines laid down by their broadcasters but some of the decisions are made according to the reactions of the viewers. In particular, the use of ‘holy names’ tends to draw complaints about blasphemy from religious viewers. Ignoring the semantic issue as to whether the usage is specifically blasphemous or not, the result is that the makers of the programmes tend to try and minimise the Jesus-es and Marys.

However, anyone who has ever spent more than two minutes in Dublin will know that it is almost impossible to capture the natural speech of a native Dubliner without including the word ‘Jay-zus’. And in both Irish and English, the average Irish person tends to spend a lot of time bemoaning their situation to the ‘Mother of God’. And yet, in direct response to the requests of the religious people who complain to the shows’ makers and broadcasters, these exclamations are being left out of the dialogue.

It can seem unnatural at first but writers and actors gradually find new ways of filling the gaps with other expressions. And the result is that the casual inclusion of religious exclamations in everyday speech is being eliminated from the most-watched programmes which purport to portray the ordinary people of Ireland and how they speak. And this, curiously, – and surely counter to the desires of the religious complainants – will accelerate the ongoing secularisation of Ireland, further obliterating the vestigial traces of Catholicism, removing the cultural fingerprint that has been left on Irish society by a once all-pervasive religiosity.

It’s like that old chestnut, “What do atheists shout during sex?”. Or, more specifically, “what do atheists who grew up as Catholics shout out during sex?”, since they will presumably have developed the majority of their range of exclamations when the religious lexicon was what was available to them. Of course, this ignores the fact that an atheist isn’t bothered whether they shout ‘God’ or not during sex, since it’s as valid or invalid as any other utterance that is really only a vocalisation of a feeling. The atheist may be quite happy to use the words in their contextual or metaphorical form without being troubled at all by the notion of being in any way blasphemous.

So the only real question would appear to be “What does an atheist shout out while having sex with a Christian who would be offended by their use of religious words and whom they don’t wish to offend (at least, presumably, until they have finished having sex)?”.

As to the answer? Well, as with many questions, a lot of people will take their lead from what they see other seemingly ordinary people doing on tv. And, as what they see – and hear – on tv is to an extent dependent on what other viewers choose to complain about, the question for the religious tv viewer who is considering making a complaint is:

“Do you want to have God in the minds of people while they’re  watching sex on tv ?”.

pic sex on tv

*          Hell is other people, said Sartre (in French). You can debate that all you like but Helle is certainly an other person. The translator/subtitler on Borgen was a woman called Helle Schou Kristiansen (she also did a great job on a rather wonderful film called ‘A Hijacking’ that you should have a look at if you get a chance). One sidebar arising from the translating of piss into shit is the fact that both the verbs and the nouns are spelt** the same in English. But in Danish, the noun is pis while the verb is pisse. So, if we could attune our ears to the phonetic difference, or if we got to see Borgen  with subtitles in Danish, then we would know whether the Danes consider when they  swear that they  do so using piss and shit as verbs or as nouns. Alternatively,  next time you get annoyed and shout shit, perhaps  pause for a moment  to consider whether you are using it as a verb or a noun yourself. If nothing else, it should serve to distract from your annoyance and that, as Sartre might say, is better than a slap in the face with a wet fish (in French).

**        Americans tend to consider ‘spelled’ as correct and ‘spelt’ as a type of wheat. Outside of America, ‘spelt’ is considered both correct and a form of healthy punishment for having enjoyed other food too much.

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4 thoughts on “Piss, Shit, Jesus, Mary, soap-operas, & sex

  1. Really interesting about the substitution of “shit” for “piss” by the subtitler of Borgen. I had no idea, I really thought that “pis” was “shit” in Danish. Probably the right decision though, it would have seemed extremely strange to us English-speaking folk if the PM had started proclaiming “oh piss piss piss!” Doesn’t really seem strong enough for the actions all those tossers screwing everyone over, as you so rightly put it.

  2. I’m very impressed with Kristiansen’s translation work on Borgen. In fact, it’s what led me to your blog in the first place. She does a great job, with highly idiomatic translations which translate the sense and feel, rather than just a plodding, too-literal translation. Of course “shit” was right here: it’s what an anglophone of that approximate age in this time would have said.

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