A Quick Overview on Slang and how it Affects Translation

Slang is prevalent in every language spoken today. This informal language is more commonly used in speech, primarily in casual and everyday conversations, than in writing. Furthermore, its meaning may only be known to certain groups or subcultures. Slang expressions can pose difficulties for translators who wish to retain the meaning and tone of source content for the target audience. 

Despite being informal, not all slang words or expressions are inappropriate. Slang terms eventually become part of daily vocabulary without most people noticing it. Similar to other forms of language, slang constantly changes and varies between regions. Therefore, slang should also be considered during the translation and localisation process. Below, we explore how businesses can approach slang when translating content for foreign audiences. 

Slang and its effect on language 

Let us look at how slang affects the world’s lingua franca: English. Slang broadens this language by adding new words and phrases that grant speakers greater stylistic choices to express themselves. Languages constantly evolve, and English is no exception, with it being a reinvention and collection of words from various other root languages like Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Native language speakers enjoy more control over their style and tone by switching between slang and formal styles. 

Well-known online slang expressions like ‘lol’ and ‘omg’ have now made their way into daily conversations of both the young and the old and even the Oxford Dictionary. Moreover, social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram play a vital role in making and popularising slang and other culture-specific languages. 

Naturally, other language speakers use slang terms that are equivalent to other popular slang or unique to them. For instance, instead of typing out ‘lol’, the French use the term MDR, abbreviated from ‘mort de rire‘, meaning dying of laughter. Another example is the number 5, which is pronounced ‘ha’ for the people of Thailand. Given the cultural nuances of slang, finding a perfect counterpart to it in another language is not always easy. 

While 92 per cent of Gen Z and 83 per cent of Millennials in America use slang the most often, it would be incorrect if one were to assume that slang is limited to only the under-30 demographic since the reality is that people of all ages use slang to some degree. Overall, 80 per cent of the American population reported using slang. With this in mind, brands may include certain slang terms or expressions in their content if it is more effective to do so.

How does slang affect translation?

Translating formal language is undoubtedly easier than translating slang. Converting straightforward sentences like ‘I drove to work’ from English to Spanish is easy, but slang expressions may have cultural references or wordplay that cannot be simply communicated in another language.

Translators struggle to adapt slang from its source context. For instance, the English idiom ‘There’s not enough room to swing a cat’ is slang for a cramped space. Naturally, other language speakers will not get the idea unless it is translated to a similar idiom in their native tongue. Among the top qualities a good translation service provider should have is a good grasp of the source and target language(s) to develop the right strategy for effectively translating slang expressions.

The most common approach to adapting slang is to use phrases with the corresponding meaning in the target language. If they exist, they help keep the original tone and meaning. However, there may be times when using an expression with a different literal meaning is necessary. An example is translating the adjective ‘cool’ into Spanish. In English, this word is typically used by the younger generation as slang for something amazing, excellent, and fashionable, as well as an expression of agreement or acceptance.  

Since the word ‘cool’ can be used in many contexts, finding a natural Spanish translation requires using a different word for each situation. Despite there being many comparable words in the Spanish language, none are an exact match for the English ‘cool’.

How to translate slang expressions

There are three main methods for adapting slang terms and expressions;

1. Literal translation

Literal translation, as the phrase implies, means adapting expressions word-for-word. This approach works in certain situations but often leads to the original text losing its meaning.

2. Softening 

Softening works to reduce the offensiveness or vulgarity of an expression in its translated version to make the content more understandable and appropriate for the target audience.

3. Stylistic compensation 

Stylistic compensation replaces the source expression with a contextually appropriate substitute from the target language. This is the most common and preferred way of translating slang.

It is important to note that the right translation approach for slang may also depend on the given context. For instance, translators can provide additional context for word choices via footnotes when adapting a book for another language. However, the same cannot apply when translating marketing material and brand identifiers such as slogans and catchphrases.


Slang adds relevance and introduces freshness to a language if used appropriately. Accurately translating and localising slang helps you better connect with your target audience because they find your content more relatable.

For professional translation services in Singapore, look no further than Eureka Translations! We are a leading translation service provider in Singapore whose experienced and multi-lingual team of translators can effectively translate everything from informal to formal content with extreme precision. To learn more about our services, please do not hesitate to give us a call today or fill up our contact form.

Hello, need a EurekaEureka Translations moment?

Eureka TranslationsLet us help. Get in touch.