Getting away with murder: The Maltese Falcon’s specialized homosexual slang gunned down in translation

Daniel Linder
University of Salamanca, Department of Translation and Interpreting

In The Maltese Falcon (1929/1930), U.S. hard-boiled author Dashiell Hammett used common colloquial terms (queer and fairy) and specialized slang terms (gunsel, the gooseberry lay) to include homosexual characters at a time when pulp magazines and mainstream publishers frowned on diverse sexualities. Hammett subversively introduced these terms in a resolvably ambiguous fashion, relying on readers to trigger underlying homosexual interpretations. Instances of queer and fairy were attenuated in early versions (1933, 1946) but in more recent versions (1968, 1974, 1992, and 2011) were generally preserved (marica) or even intensified (maricón). In many cases, the Spanish translators misinterpreted the gooseberry lay, which has no sexual connotations at all, thinking it meant something homosexual. In all cases, the term gunsel, which does have a homosexual meaning, was stripped of all male same-sex significance and was cast into slang terms for gunman, thug or killer.

Table of contents

When in 1929 Dashiell Hammett submitted his manuscript of The Maltese Falcon to Black Mask editor Joseph “Cap” Shaw, homosexual characters were virtually banned from pulp fiction except for the negative roles of criminals and victims of crime. Nevertheless, Hammett included a greater number and a wider variety of them than had ever appeared in detective fiction before. Hammett’s highly memorable character, Sam Spade, is very adept at recognizing bi-/homosexual characters around him and engaging with them, using language they can understand.

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