By Rima Abdelkader
“Shithole countries.” Foreign journalists had difficulty translating this reported phrase attributed to President Donald Trump about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries to their audiences.
There is no exact translation and the phrase itself differs in interpretation across cultures, according to Al Jazeera bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara.
It was reportedly heard in a Thursday White House meeting with a bipartisan group of senators, and it has received worldwide condemnation and differing interpretations.
“However, the “Shithole” situation poses a unique challenge when it comes to translating it to Arabic-speaking audiences,” Foukara told NBC News.
“Obviously, there is a direct equivalent of “shit” in Arabic and Arabs use it a lot in daily conversation. But there is no equivalent for “shithole,” he explained.
The Arab network chose instead to define the phrase as “filthy zones.”
Japanese network NHK opted for a similar translation, defining it as “filthy countries.”
Foukara said that while American networks would not have opted to use a euphemism for this phrase, Arabic-language outlets tend to be “more conservative.”
He said that is due to there being “no vulgar equivalent in Arabic that also delivers the same emotive punch as “shithole.””
For foreign-language news media around the world, finding the right interpretation caused the same dilemma in Europe.
Italian journalist Matteo Bosco Bortolaso said a niche Italian newspaper called il manifesto referred to the situation as “Water Gate” on its front page.
“Because “water” in Italian is used also as a technical term for the chair of the bathroom,” Bortolaso told NBC News.
Bortolaso said LaPresse news agency where he reports defined the phrase with “cesso,” which Bortolaso explained “refers again to the “chair”” on which you sit when you go to the bathroom.”
“A lot of reporting took place in Italy about the words of Trump,” Bortolaso said.
“And reporters here did try to explain what this expression “shithole” actually means,” he said.
Bortolaso referred to the Italian television channel La7 and how one of its newscasts described this phrase as “comparable to that place in the bathroom where you go for your needs” and emphasized “if not worse.”
He said the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera used “Paesi di merda” or “Shitty countries.”
This isn’t the first time Foukara and Bortolaso have tried to define a buzzworthy phrase in American politics for its audiences.
During the U.S. Presidential Election in 2008, defining campaign buzzwords like “maverick” associated with Senator McCain and Sarah Palin at the time also brought its challenges.
Foukara opted then to define “maverick” as “a bird that sings outside the flock.” Bortolaso defined it as “dog without a leash.”
“It goes without saying that moving from one language to another culture almost always loses something in translation,” Foukara said.
Similarly, translating across borders posed challenges for French news media.
French journalists interpreting President Trump’s phrase opted for a much more literal definition.
“Well, for the moment, the usual translation for “shithole countries” is “shitty country,” Le Figaro reporter Francois –Xavier Bourmaud told NBC News.
“I must admit that Trump gives us a lot of strange work,” Bourmaud said.