Translating Cockney Rhyming Slang

What is cockney rhyming slang?

Cockney rhyming slang is a group of expressions developed by market traders in East London during the 1800s. To disguise their conversation from passers-by, they created a group of expressions which rhymed with their original meaning. This way, they could chat with each other without being understood by customers. Cockney rhyming slang worked as a coded language. Nowadays, cockney rhyming slang is widely known in Great Britain but translating cockney rhyming slang into another language is very difficult.

Cockney rhyming slang works by using random words that rhyme with the intended word. For example, “apples and pears” means “stairs”, “trouble and strife” means “wife”. Sometimes, speakers abbreviate them, making it even harder to decipher. For example, Ruby Murray means curry but a lot of people would use the expression “Let’s go for a Ruby after the pub”.

How can we translate cockney rhyming slang?

Cockney rhyming slang poses many different challenges for translators. First of all, translators need to be able to identify the slang. If they can’t recognise that in a sentence “fat boy slim” means gym, they run the risk of a literal translation. Moreover, because they work with rhymes, they will almost always lose their slang aspect. Especially if you consider that many rhymes with only work with an East London accent.

Sometimes, we have to accept some things will be lost in translation. Depending on the context and the relevance of the expression in the text, translators have to make decisions on whether to attempt a translation or let it go. In my experience, letting go is the best option. However, let’s imagine the job is to translate a novel set in an East London market in the 1800s, in which the use of rhyming slang allowed for the precious exchange of information. In this case, not translating this coded language would change the context of most of the story. The loss would be irreparable. An option would be to develop a translated slang with a dictionary for the reader, along with an explanation about cockney rhyming slang.

In cases where cockney rhyming slang is a passing expression, it may be best to go straight to the correct meaning. Other than that, the translator may include a translator’s note. Personally, I am not a fan of translators’ notes. I find they can detract from the text. Moreover, justifying your professional decisions never instils confidence. I use them sparingly.

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