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I am editing a piece of writing for my English-speaking friends from a rough translation. I need softer words to replace "vagina", "penis", "breasts" etc. I have used words such as "mounds" (breasts), "flower" (vagina) and "rod" (penis).

Example:

As he pulled down his pants, revealing a bulging rod ready to pierce into her soaking flower.

It seems so weird. I'm not sure it flows the way I would like it to. What better alternatives are there?

Edit:

Thank you so much for your answers. I believe the text meant to be a strange mix of Young Adult and erotica. It is a little cringy to edit at times due to the strange wording, as I roughly translated the text from google translate and some words may not be what they appear.

I will send the revision to my friend and see how she reacts. Thank you

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    That...that makes it worse. It makes it sound like erotica rather than a clinical, dry, boring description of reproductive organs. Mar 3, 2021 at 18:43
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    What kind of writing this is? Fiction, non-fiction, poetry? P.S. From your example it looks like "erotic fiction" - so all kinds of metaphors and similes are in play :)
    – Alexander
    Mar 3, 2021 at 18:55
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    The words thatr might work depend very much on the overall intended effect, and the genre. "Rod" would be pretty much limited to explicit erotica, and is in no sense "softer" in my view, indeed it seems more explicit than "penis". Mar 3, 2021 at 19:09
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    Welcome to Writing.SE! I've tagged this with "erotica" under the assumption that the story you're translating falls under that category. If it doesn't, please edit your question to clarify.
    – F1Krazy
    Mar 3, 2021 at 19:34
  • This reminds me of a question I asked here writing.stackexchange.com/questions/32336/…
    – Andrey
    Aug 27, 2023 at 23:28

3 Answers 3

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The clinical terms, “vagina,” “penis” and “breasts” would be considered the softer option (ages ago when I used to teach Catholic confirmation classes, there was specific direction when we got to the class on sexual ethics to stick to those terms in all discussion).

Choosing other words is going to change the tone dramatically. The example you gave reads not merely like erotica, but like bad erotica (perhaps intentionally so). There's a (tongue-in-cheek) award given out by the UK's The Literary Review for bad sex in fiction. While sometimes they seem to forget their remit and pick scenes that they find unpleasant rather than unpleasantly written, it's still a good resource for what not to do.

In general, unless you're going for the intentionally comic, it's best to keep the metaphors and euphemisms to a minimum in writing sex.

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What complicates your question and makes it simple at the same time is that you're asking about translation. As a translator, it's not your call to improve the text. Hands off.

A translator's task is to reproduce the existing text in the target language as close as possible to the original in terms of meaning, style, connotations. An over-the-top metaphor for an over-the-top metaphor, clinical for clinical, derogatory for derogatory. If the author is writing about a lily in full bloom misty with morning dew, you also translate it as "lily in full bloom misty with morning dew" (you're allowed to roll your eyes as you type). If the text on the page in no uncertain terms says vulva, you go ahead and write "vulva". If the story is talking about a cunt, you dutifully type "cunt". If you're not comfortable with that, you've chosen the wrong piece of writing to work with.

You can only edit as you translate if you have the author's consent to do so - such as if the writing you're translating is your own. Otherwise you're misrepresenting what the author said, and that's a no-no.


Considering there's a good chance the story you're translating is actually yours, and for the sake of others who are writing an original version of their story, this is what to do if you're the writer:

Presumably you're writing the scene from the point of view of one of the characters. (Honestly I can't imagine erotica written from an objective POV not crossing into the realm of base porn.)

So ask yourself, What would the protagonist call it?

If they'd think of it as a bulging rod, call it a bulging rod. If they'd think of it as a manhood, call it a manhood. If they'd think of it as a dick, call it a dick.

Being lowbrow won't really hurt the quality of the text in itself; being out of character will. Especially in an erotic scene, which is a very intimate moment for your character, staying true to the character's nature is key. A very emotional character using clinical terms, a very straightforward character using flowery terms, or a very "clean" character using vulgar terms are all equally a mismatch.

You can even use the vocabulary as a tool to show things. For instance, choosing somewhat more poetic language about the partner's body and casual about their own can help you show that the protagonist is giving attention to the partner, rather than their own pleasure.

And one more remark: A lot of erotica writers are way too flowery. The result is an unintentional parody. If what you quote in the question is representative, you too are steering a bit too much in this direction. Try to tone it down. Don't be afraid to be direct - if you want to give lots of physical detail (mind you, you don't have to, and sometimes it's better if you don't), combining such detail with a cautious taboo about the words for it is a writing disaster. And in the end it can sound even dirtier because what's fine wouldn't be unspeakable, would it?

"Breasts" has a wide range of usage, fitting for both clinical talk and casual conversation, and usually is a good option; "bosom" is more bookish; "boobs", on the other hand, is very informal (something a teenager would be in character to say); "tits" is kind of vulgar and will only really work with a limited type of protagonist; but "mounds" is something straight out of purple prose (and also, "mound" is a common euphemism for a different part of a woman's body - clitoris) - if I may be so bold, it sounds ridiculous and like the heroine is an avid reader of bad erotica, which is probably not the intended characterisation.

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I would have a good look at your Shakespeare. The Bard was rather bawdy and lived in a time that's often jokingly called English's "Golden Age of Innuendos" for the sheer number of words that doubled as euphemisms for genitalia or sex. This article (warning: TVTropes) has several lists of archaic euphemisms that can easily be recycled back into your story, including an entire section devoted to Shakespeare (he's that infamous for these jokes that he not only inspired the article's title but has a whole section) and the Bible (the phrase "To Know Someone Biblically" is still used to this day. The fact that the Bible has been translated several times over has some of the jokes get lost. The Koran has a similar level of dirty jokes and word plays, but with less loss, since you are supposed to read it in the original Arabic.). Just use a format where the characters have a conversation about a euphemism in question, then later, when you write the erotic scene with one of the characters in that conversation, make a not-so-subtle use of the now naughtified phrase. (One favorite of mine is that Shakespeare wrote several dirty jokes where the assumption that the word "wit" would be understood as a euphemism for "penis" which, as I was in High School when the Harry Potter books were coming out and knew that Rowling was an English Lit major, gave double meaning to the Sorting Hat's line about Ravenclaw believing that "wit beyond measure was man's greatest treasure."

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