[Note: this post includes quotations from translations of ancient texts which contain explicit language--save your hate mail--it is for a legitimate scholarly purpose.]
During my studies within the field of classics it was quite routine for translators to liberally sprinkle expletives throughout their renderings of ancient Greek works and no one batted an eye when this was done. Every “four-letter” word was used and, depending upon the particular text, they could be used often. This was done because the translators fully believed that using these expletives was the way to faithfully render the texts they were reading–that is, these were coarse words within the ancient Greek register.
However, within biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies expletives are hardly ever used within translations but surely these words existed within these cultures.
There are several places in the Bible where various translations/translators have noted “coarse” language. For instance, the NET Bible says that the words that Saul used to describe his son in 1 Sam 20:30 were “very coarse and emotionally charged words.” In the note to this verse the NET Bible offers this translation: “You stupid son of a bitch!” while HALOT (796) gives the gloss: “bastard of a wayward woman.”
The famous New Testament example of a possible expletive appears in Philippians 3:8 which BDAG translates as “It’s all crap” and the NET Bible folks have an entire write up about it which they conclude that the word “stand[s] somewhere between ‘crap’ and ‘sh** [sic].’”
The only example of a translated expletive that I have seen in Mesopotamian writings appears in Martti Nissinen’s translation of a Mari letter in which a prophet complains: “I live amidst an abundance of shit and piss, eating reed of timinum” (p. 29). The word in question here is zû(m) which CDA translates as “excrement” and AHw gives the glosses “Kot, Exkremente; Schmutz.”
So, this leads us to three questions: How does one accurately determine which words within ancient literature are expletives? Once you have identified an expletive, how do you determine it’s strength within the target language? If there are expletives in the Bible, how should they be translated?