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'Shithole' remark by Trump makes global headlines – but it doesn't quite translate

Trump’s remarks were translated in China as ‘countries that suck’ and Greece’s Ta Nea paper settled on ‘thieving countries’.
Trump’s remarks were translated in China as ‘countries that suck’ and Greece’s Ta Nea paper settled on ‘thieving countries’. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Donald Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and unspecified African countries as “shitholes” in an Oval Office meeting with US senators to discuss immigration on Thursday quickly shot around the world.

But by the time the story arrived on screens and front pages in some countries the offensive language had been somewhat lost in translation, while in the more conservative corners of America – Utah, network TV – it was hidden by euphemism.

Taiwan’s central news agency led the confusion in Asia by translating “shithole countries” as, in phonetics, “niao bu sheng dan de guo jia”. This means, literally, “countries where birds don’t lay eggs” but turns out also to be an allusion to places of desolation or tedium.

In China, the People’s Daily decided it meant “countries that suck”, while Vietnam’s Youth newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City went for “rubbish states”. In Europe, Greece’s daily Ta Nea settled on “thieving countries”.

France’s venerable Le Monde did not quite get there with “pays de merde” – shit countries. But a sister French news site, Courrier International, went straight for the jugular with “trou a merde”, or hole of shit.

It further felt the need to explain the phrase, in French, which the Guardian re-translates to the best of our ability here: “Literally, shithole means hole of shit, and refers to toilets and, by extension, backwaters, ‘ratholes’.”

Courrier’s headline, however, declared “pays de merde” to be the word of the day.

The headline in Poland’s liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, based in Warsaw, referred to “Donalda Trumpa” slamming “imigrantach z zadupia”, which means immigrants from either shitholes, hellholes or “nowhere”.

Meanwhile, in some of the countries Trump insulted, there was no confusion. Digital news site La Pagina in El Salvador referred in its headline to “agujeros de mier…”, which is the equivalent of saying “s…holes”.

Haiti’s oldest daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, ran a coy and cryptic headline in French meaning simply: “The Haitian government condemns Trump’s words.” But in the body of the story itself it dispensed with both modesty and asterisks and referred plainly to “un trou de merde”.

Given that Trump didn’t specify which countries in Africa he was referring to, it was tricky for some nations to know how to respond. At least Trump appeared to know that Africa is a continent not a single country, unlike 2008’s vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Still. The government of Botswana posted a tweet announcing that it has “enquired from the US Government, through the ambassador, to clarify if Botswana is regarded as a “shithole” country.” It said it viewed “the utterances as highly irresponsible, reprehensible and racist.”

In the US, policies differed widely. The Washington Post, which broke the story, wrote shithole in its headline and within the story.

But although the Post’s article was syndicated for use in the Salt Lake Tribune, in Utah, word for word, the newspaper in that more conservative patch of America chose to employ a censor’s pencil and doctored the headline and body of the story to read “s---hole”.

USA Today used the word within the story but headlined it: “Report: Trump uses crude term while attacking protections for immigrants.”

The Associated Press wrote primly: “Trump dismisses Haiti, African countries with vulgarity.”

On New York radio station WNYC on Friday morning, host David Greene cautioned listeners sternly: “I want to warn you, according to our sources, he used a word that might offend you,” before clearly enunciating the offending word.

The Guardian published the word in full in its headline and story.

Network TV news programs were careful. NBC Nightly News repeated the word just once and anchor Lester Holt warned viewers beforehand. CBS and ABC did not use the word. PBS News Hour went with “S-blank-hole countries.” But CNN wrote the word out in full on its chyron, the headline along the bottom of the screen.

Friday morning’s GMA breakfast show on ABC had host George Stephanopoulos explaining that the station’s policy was “not to repeat the profanity.” But he then expressed his own dissent, saying: “I think that’s probably a mistake.”

• This article was amended on 18 January 2018 to clarify a translation.

This article titled "'Shithole' remark by Trump makes global headlines – but it doesn't quite translate" was written by Joanna Walters in New York, for theguardian.com on Saturday 13 January 2018 10.51am

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