Slang translation, a localization challenge

slang translation

Slang is like the cool, trendy way of talking that makes you sound like you’re in the know. Basically, a bunch of informal words and phrases that people use in casual conversation. You can’t escape slang, it’s everywhere these days: in movies, TV shows, books, marketing materials, and so on. But for linguists, slang translation can be a real headache in the localization process. Here’s why.

Challenges of translating slang

Slang translation poses a unique and intricate challenge in the field of localization due to several factors.

  • Cultural specificity. Slang is deeply rooted in the culture, social norms, and even specific subcultures of a language community. It often reflects local customs, trends, and history, so as you can imagine, it’s difficult to find direct equivalents in another language that carry the same connotations and cultural relevance.
  • Temporal nature. Slang terms come and go quickly. What is popular slang today might be obsolete tomorrow. A translator needs to stay up-to-date on current slang to avoid using something outdated or even offensive.
  • Creativity and playfulness. Most slang involves wordplay, puns, and creative use of language. This linguistic creativity can be challenging to replicate because it relies heavily on the specific sounds, double meanings, and cultural references inherent in the source language.
  • Non-standard usage. Forget about grammatical and syntactical rules. It hard if not impossible to translate slang using standard linguistic approaches. This non-standard usage requires translators to have a deep understanding of both the source and target languages to convey the intended meaning and tone accurately.
  • Beyond dictionaries. Unlike formal words, slang terms often don’t make it into standard dictionaries. Fortunately, translators can consult slang dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary, but often have to rely on cultural knowledge to grasp the true meaning.

Approaches to slang translation

Luckily, as difficult it is to translate slang, there’s still a few strategies translators use to tackle this challenge. Note that some are riskier than others.

Literal translation

Just one of the many types of translation, literal translation involves translating each slang word directly into its dictionary equivalent in the target language. Now, this is something that we don’t recommend, especially when it comes to slang, because it’s rarely a literal term. Think of “sick” (slang for cool) in English wouldn’t translate to “sick” (meaning ill) in Spanish.


Sometimes, a slang term from the source language might be so widely used that it becomes adopted into the target language with a similar meaning. “Cool” is now understood in many languages besides English, so you can use the same word in a different language. However, this approach should be used with caution – slang terms can evolve differently across cultures.

Explanatory notes

In some cases, the translator might include a brief explanation within the text to clarify the meaning of the slang term, especially for cultural references. For example, the translator might add a footnote explaining a meme format.


When dealing with potentially vulgar or offensive slang terms, you might need to reduce the intensity or offensiveness of the term while still conveying its general meaning. You can do this through a technique known as softening, and it involves replacing the slang with milder synonyms. So, instead of “This movie is total crap!” you could say “This movie was disappointing.”

Stylistic compensation

This is the most common method of translating slang. It involves replacing the slang term with a natural-sounding phrase in the target language that captures the same meaning and tone. Here’s an example: translating “That party was lit” into Spanish. Instead of a literal translation, a translator might use “Estuvo genial” (It was awesome).


Sometimes, slang terms are so culturally specific or too vulgar or offensive in the target culture that omitting them ensures the translated message remains respectful and avoids cultural faux pas. If the slang term isn’t crucial to the overall meaning and omitting it doesn’t alter the message significantly, omission can help prioritize clarity in the translation.

How to effectively translate slang

When translating slang, it’s very important to understand the target culture. And to understand how slang is used contextually and socially, what better way than to immerse yourself in culture through various media such as television, social media, movies, music, and street conversations? Since slang evolves quickly, you should also try to stay up-to-date with trends and changes.

It’s advisable for translation teams to include individuals from various age groups and backgrounds. This way, you gain a broader perspective on slang usage, as younger team members or those deeply immersed in pop culture can bring fresh insights into contemporary slang.

Consider the target audience’s age and background too. While younger audiences might be more receptive to slang, formal settings require a more neutral tone. You can conduct focus groups or user testing with members of the target audience to see how well they understand and connect with the translated slang.

Can you use machine translation?

With human translators often struggling to translate slang, imagine how many challenges machine translation (MT) systems face. While there have been advancements in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, slang translation remains too of a complex task for these systems.

MT systems will often struggle to interpret and translate slang correctly without a comprehensive understanding of the context, so you need would first need to “teach” it. Furthermore, slang often breaks conventional grammatical and syntactical rules, while MT systems are typically trained on standard language usage.

Nonetheless, MT systems can sometimes handle basic or well-known slang terms if they have been adequately represented in the training data. You may find that common expressions with clear equivalents in the target language may be translated reasonably well. But puns, wordplay, and humor rely on specific linguistic and cultural knowledge, and MT systems may not fully grasp that.

The best approach to using MT to translate slang is to combine it with human post-editing, where human translators review and refine MT output to ensure slang is translated accurately. This approach leverages the efficiency of MT while maintaining the cultural and contextual sensitivity of human translators.

How a TMS helps translate slang

A translation management system (TMS) such as POEditor can be highly useful in slang translation by leveraging its various features to manage, standardize, and streamline the translation and localization process.

A TMS stores previously translated slang terms and phrases in a translation memory. When similar content is encountered, the system suggests past translations. Translators can quickly access and reuse translations of slang that have already been vetted and approved, speeding up the translation process and maintaining quality.

You can make use of POEditor’s glossary feature to create glossaries specifically for slang terms. Translators can refer to these glossaries to understand the context, usage, and preferred translations of slang, ensuring that they use consistent and culturally appropriate equivalents.

The platform also allows adding context to each string. Translators can provide additional context about the slang term, its usage, and any cultural nuances. It is also possible to attach screenshots or leave comments on specific strings; visual context and any other additional information can aid in understanding and translating slang correctly.

Overall, POEditor offers a range of features that can significantly enhance the localization process. Its capabilities in translation memory, glossary management, collaboration, contextual translation, quality assurance, integration, customization, and user-friendliness are of great help in the challenge that is to translate slang into different languages.

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