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How to translate: Venomous and Poisonous

When I started learning English, two words always confused me, due to my textbook not explaining the difference. Those words were, as you might have guessed, poisonous and venomous. In my textbook, it said that they both mean giftig in Dutch, which gave me the impression that they were interchangeable. One time, I gave a presentation in English class and said something along the lines of “a venomous frog,” which resulted in a weird look from my teacher, who explained to me that it’s supposed to be “a poisonous frog” and “a venomous snake.” But 14-year-old me wasn’t satisfied yet. I have always had a slight interest in poisonous and venomous animals, and I wanted to know why that distinction mattered. What makes a snake venomous and a frog poisonous? And what about scorpions? Or spiders? Eventually, I stumbled across an image on the internet that said “If it bites you and you die, it’s venomous. If you bite it and you die, it’s poisonous.” To many of the people reading this, it all sounds so simple, but it was confusing to me back then, and this single sentence helped me understand the distinction better.

If we want to translate the words poisonous and venomous, we need to be clear on the difference in meaning. A venomous animal uses fangs, stingers, spines, or other body parts to inject a toxin in a prey or attacker. Some examples are cobras, hornets, box jellyfish (which I’ve written something about in a different post), and the platypus, one of the few venomous mammals. A poisonous animal uses toxins as a way to not get eaten by predators. Some examples of poisonous animals are poison dart frogs, the infamous fugu, and the pitohui, one of the few poisonous birds. So to give a concise definition:
Poisonous: Secretes toxins through its skin or a specialized gland to avoid being eaten.
Venomous: Injects toxins into a wound, in order to kill/capture prey and fend off attackers.

Out of all languages I’m familiar with (this doesn’t mean I speak all of them fluently of course), English is the only language making the distinction between poisonous and venomous. Dutch, German, Japanese, and Hindi all have a single word which means both poisonous and venomous.

LanguageMeaning
DutchGiftig
GermanGiftig
Japanese毒々しい (dokudokushii)
Hindiविषैला (vishailaa)

So now that we’ve established the definitions of the words poisonous and venomous, as well as their counterparts in other languages, how are we going to translate it? In most cases, the solution is quite simple: just use the words I’ve given above. Most sentences and texts talking about venomous and poisonous animals will most likely not focus on the distinction between the two terms, so there’s no reason to make this more difficult for yourself. But if you ask me, thinking about translation is more fun when it comes to the rare corner-cases that you barely ever see, so let’s make one up! Let’s say we have a text fragment that looks like this, with a translation brief that specifically wants us to keep the distinction:

Some frogs are poisonous, while some snakes are venomous.

As you can see, translating this using the words in the above table gives us a bad translation. Let’s look at the Dutch translation for this sentence, as that is the language I’m most comfortable translating to. The sentence would look somewhat like this: “Sommige kikkers zijn giftig, maar sommige slangen zijn giftig.” Do you see the issue? We’re repeating the same adjective, even though there’s supposed to be a distinction between the two, and the meaning of the Dutch word giftig doesn’t allow for that distinction to be made. What are our options? We can’t just make up two new words that mean poisonous and venomous respectively, try to get them printed in the Dutch dictionaries, and expect people to use and understand them. That’s now how language works, so we need another method to make our target audience understand the distinction. Making these distinctions the core of our translation is a good option here. There are a few ways that we can differentiate between venomous and poisonous, which I will explain next.

The first way to differentiate the two terms is with the method of delivery. A poisonous animal does not need a specialized delivery method, as the goal of a poisonous animal isn’t to poison something, but to deter predators from eating it. Venomous animals, on the other hand, do have specialized delivery methods for their venom. Snakes have fangs, scorpions have stingers, and stonefish have spines. In other words, venomous animals actively inject venom into other organisms, and poisonous animals passively poison other organisms when they’re eaten. Using this method, our translation looks like this: “Sommige kikkers zijn passief giftig, maar sommige slangen zijn actief giftig.” This doesn’t quite work as a sentence, so we need to do some retooling. Depending on how much space we have, we can edit our translation to explain the distinction a bit more, for example: “Kikkers scheiden passief gif af, maar slangen moeten hun gif actief injecteren.” This still isn’t a sentence I would use in the final translation, but since this is a hypothetical situation, that’s not important. The most important thing here is to give a clear distinction between a poisonous animal and a venomous animal, which you can do by placing focus on the difference in delivery.

Placing focus on the different delivery systems can also be done in another way. Instead of looking at active and passive delivery of toxins, we can look at the body parts used to deliver them. Many poisonous animals have toxins that don’t need to enter the body through the bloodstream, but enter through the skin and digestive system, so they don’t need specialized fangs, stingers, or barbs. Dart frogs, for example, secrete their toxins through their skin, and show their toxicity using their bright colours (this is called aposematism). Venomous animals have specialized body parts to inject their venom into their victim’s bloodstream, such as fangs, stingers, or barbs. So if we focus on that difference, we can translate the sentence like this: “Giftige kikkers scheiden hun gif af door hun huid, maar giftige slangen moeten hun gif in hun prooi bijten.” The issue with this sentence is that it only shows the difference between frogs and snakes, and not necessarily between all poisonous and venomous animals. There are many poisonous animals (including the fugu) that have their poison concentrated inside of their bodies instead of on the skin, and not all venomous animals use bites to inject venom. Of course, if the text you’re translating is only about frogs and snakes, then this would be a great way to show the differences between the two, but it’s not quite right for describing the general differences between poisonous and venomous animals.

Another way to differentiate poisonous and venomous animals is with the way they use their toxins. Poisonous animals mainly use their poison defensively to avoid being eaten, while venomous animals use their toxins offensively, to capture and kill prey or fend off attackers. If we use this in translation, we get a sentence like “Kikkers gebruiken hun gif defensief, maar slangen gebruiken hun gif offensief.” This clearly shows the difference between poison and venom, while making it understandable for the readers. I personally prefer this translation over the others, as it clearly explains the difference in a concise manner and doesn’t cause much confusion.

That’s all I have to say for now about the words poisonous and venomous, and how to translate them to a language that doesn’t naturally make that distinction. I have one last question to think about with regards to this translation: there is a snake that’s both poisonous and venomous (the Rhabdophis keelback snake), and I’m curious how you would translate that in a text if you need to explain this. If the sentence to translate is “Some snakes are both venomous and poisonous,” how would you do this? Feel free to let me know!

One reply on “How to translate: Venomous and Poisonous”

Great post. Actually even many English speakers don’t use venomous versus poisonous correctly. In casual speech you will hear people talk about “poisonous snakes” and “how to tell if a snake is poisonous” when they mean venomous. I guess it shows that in most languages, one word is perfectly capable of carrying both senses. 🙂

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