In Need of Translation-Related Help

So in the novel I’m translating, a future mother-in-law tells her daughter’s suitor (of whom she doesn’t approve) that his face looks like this:

This is an unpleasant gesture in our culture, and comparing one’s face to it is not flattering.

The problem is I don’t know how to translate it into English. If you wanted to compare a person’s face with something bad to put them down, how would you do that? In a way that would be easily understandable to English-speakers? It has to be unpleasant, but not extremely offensive.

I just translated a poem by a Russian poet Benediktov as part of this translation project, which was a feat in itself. Β So now I need help with the ugly face comment because there is a limit even to my inventiveness.

26 thoughts on “In Need of Translation-Related Help

  1. There are several terms you could use:

    In England, a face ‘like a bulldog chewing a wasp’ basically means ‘ugly’

    A face ‘like a slapped ass’ is also quite common.


  2. I’m fresh out of ideas on this, but I’ll ask aquestions that may be of use to the next attempt: Is this insult supposed to be recognizable to a modern English speaker? Of what nationality? Or just something that is conceptually offensive [like “you’re face look’s likes a goat’s behind] that has no idiomatic aspect?


    1. That’s my question too: do you need to find an equivalent phrase in English? If not, you could translate it literally, and either put in a footnote or leave it to the audience to work out.


  3. That gesture is called “Giving the fig leaf” I’m told. If I were translating, I’d say “His ugliness is like a slap to the face.” or, “A face that ugly is obscene.”


      1. I think that originally in Russian it’s supposed to stand for male genitals.

        OK, I need to go ask the Russian. πŸ™‚ As for me, I come from the kind of background where I wouldn’t know a spade if I saw it. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚


        1. I think that originally in Russian it’s supposed to stand for male genitals.

          Really?? I always thought it was supposed to represent a vulva with a prominent clitoris, which is certainly not ugly.


          1. I just found out that in China it’s the equivalent of flipping the finger in the US.

            And in Japan, it’s a sign a prostitute makes to suggest a sex act to a customer.

            And in Ukraine, you hold it in your pocket to prevent witches from casting spells on you. Also, you show it to a person who has an eye inflammation to cure them.

            Ukraine seems to be the only place where the gesture doesn’t carry any sexual connotations.


  4. These are all really great suggestions! Now I’ll have a hard time picking just one.

    A moldy potato sounds great and culturally relevant because Ukraine is all about potatoes. πŸ™‚

    The fig leaf sounds like the original (“Figa.”) Thanks to nominatissima I now understand where the expression comes from.

    But “a bulldog chewing a wasp” sounds so funny that maybe I have to use it.

    I can’t choose! πŸ™‚

    Thank you, everybody.


  5. I was told that the “fig leaf” is actually a reference to female external genitalia, where the thumb represents the clitoris…so it would be literally “face like a cunt”. It’s not from my culture, so I don’t know if that’s true.

    If you wanted to keep the mild obscenity, “face like a horse’s ass” would be a common American way of saying it.


  6. So in Russian-speaking cultures, you show this gesture to people to say “nothing.”

    For example, somebody asks you, “Would you share that chocolate bar with me?” And you show them the gesture to say, “You’ll get nothing from me!”


  7. Class and age has a lot to do with insults. So we should know about the class of the mother and aspiring son-in-law, we can guess the age. Thirty-five years ago a common insult among people between the ages of 10 and 30 that was not fighting offensive was, “You were beat with an ugly stick.” It sounds like it came from an Eddie Murphy routine, but I don’t know.


    1. The whole thing is taking place in 1949. The woman’s social class was quite high. She was my great-grandmother. πŸ™‚ The future son-in-law’s class was very low, hence her contempt for him. He was to become my grandfather.

      The novel is about my family history. πŸ™‚


  8. I like “you have a face like a moldy potato”. A similar possibility might be “your face makes onions cry”. I would think that potatoes and onions would be culturally appropriate, especially in 1949 in Ukraine, and English speakers could relate to them. Since your great-grandmother was very high class, she probably wouldn’t use anything crude like “horse’s ass” and probably not use sexually charged insults with a younger man.


      1. Of course, when I say that my great-grandmother was from a high social class I don’t mean she was rich or anything, God forbid.

        She was member of the intelligentsia, a social class into which you couldn’t gain access through any amount of money, marriage, or any kind of education. A member of intelligentsia cannot be rich or value material possessions by definition.


  9. I know it as “the fig”. bit when I googled to see if others knew it as that I found a Wikipedia page with the same picture you used, so I suppose you know that.


  10. doesn’t giving the fig in Russia mean basically a mix between sticking your tongue out at someone, and flipping your middle finger to someone? You can do it to be semi crude- or to just say go away- or You get nothing from me- or you could do it if you are angry and do it to be a little more upset. Depending on the connotation you give it- you can mean different things. It is not a real kind symbol to give anyone, but can be used jokingly to a friend, or more crudely to someone you do not know as well.


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