Taboo Language in Spanish Subtitles

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Taboo Language in Spanish Subtitles

We are often asked about how to deal with taboo or offensive language when preparing Spanish subtitles. The answer is, it depends…

What counts as offensive language in Spanish subtitles?

There are a number of issues to consider when making a judgement call:

  • The target Spanish-speaking country and target audience. How culturally acceptable is it to use and read swear words or use “profane” language?
  • Is there an equal understanding or standard between the two languages of what constitutes a swear word, in this case, English and Spanish?
  • Analysing attitudes to potential offence in terms of political, religious, racial or sexual language or pejorative terms relating to illness or disabilities.

Industry standard guidelines on the use of taboo language in subtitling

Main broadcasting and streaming organisations are pretty much aligned in this respect. Netflix advises that the subtitle “should always be an accurate representation of the intent of the original content language without adding additional vulgarity or censorship.” Source:

The BBC advises, “Do not edit out strong language in subtitles unless it is absolutely impossible to edit elsewhere in the sentence – deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers find this extremely irritating and condescending. Of course, if the BBC has decided to edit any strong language, then your subtitles must reflect this.”

Strategies for linguists preparing Spanish subtitles

A number of interesting articles have been written about the best way for linguists to tackle profanity and taboo language. See José Javier Ávila-Cabrera’s guide, The Challenge of Subtitling Offensive and Taboo Language into Spanish: A Theoretical and Practical Guide and Noemí Barrera-Rioja’s paper, The Rendering of Foul Language in Spanish-English Subtitling. According to Noemí Barrera-Rioja, Spanish speakers are generally much more lenient in their approach to swearing and the richness of profanity than the English are. So, if working from the English source and creating corresponding Spanish subtitles, the linguist’s job is to choose idiomatically correct equivalents that reflect the severity, or not, of the original English word or phrase.

If you have footage containing “profanities” or potentially “taboo” subjects, just get in touch with our team in the Spanish subtitling department so that an appropriate approach can be agreed and taken.

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