"Wait a second - you're not translating anything I say to him - which means you totally understand me, dude!"The heroes are talking to someone, like a Ruthless Foreign Gangster or the head of a foreign Mega Corp., and they have to go through a translator to do so. After a few back and forths, the foreigner will answer the heroes directly in the language of the work fluently, meaning they like to keep around a Completely Unnecessary Translator. Story-wise, this is good to show that they are obviously foreign, what with the Russian/Chinese they were using, and that they are intelligent (dumb characters never pull this off beyond one or two lines in English). Behind the scenes, it's expensive and takes up too much screen time and effort to be plausible for very long. Common with characters who Majored in Western Hypocrisy. Subverts Tactful Translation, as it turns out at least one person in the conversation knew exactly what the other really said the entire time. See also Elective Unintelligible.
— Hurley noticed this trope, Lost
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- Towards the end of Astérix and the Goths, Getafix, who has been kidnapped by the Goths so they can learn the secret of the magic potion. Getafix has no intention of helping them but the translator lies and says he will because he's been told that if Getafix says no, they will both be executed. However, Getafix can actually speak Gothic fluently and knows what the translator is doing. Once Asterix and Obelix are thrown in jail with Getafix, he drops the ruse as part of their escape plan.
- In Bananas, the dictator of San Marcos had a (heavily accented) translator when he met with the President of the U. S. — even though the dictator was American Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen).
- A variation occurs in Inglourious Basterds; Hans Landa asks a French farmer he is interrogating if they can switch to English during their conversation because his French is so bad and he knows the farmer is also conversant in English. He does this so that he can openly converse about the fact that he knows the man is hiding Jews in the house, supposing (correctly) that they won't understand what is being said.
- Done in Team America: World Police in a meeting between Kim Jong-Il and a Chechen terrorist.
Kim Jong-Il: *vaguely Korean-sounding gibberish*
Translator: He asks what part of the deal you did not understand. He says that perhaps his translator did not make it clear to you. He says he should... fire his... translator?
Kim Jong-Il:*Shoots translator.* DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW FUCKING BUSY I AM?!
- In Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Harold's parents speak perfect English, but the translator assumes everything they say in English is Korean.
- In The Sum of All Fears, Jack Ryan is brought to Russia and asked to work as a translator. President Nemerov asks Ryan if he's read his dossier. Ryan says he has, and starts listing biographical information about the man. Including the fact that in college, he got his highest grades in English. Nemerov drops the act immediately, and is impressed by Jack calling him on it.
- In Batman Begins, Ducard translates for Ra's al Ghul, who later speaks to Bruce in about five words of perfect, if clipped, English. May serve as foreshadowing that Ducard IS Ra's al Ghul, and that was a decoy. Using this trope allows him to literally speak for Ra's, while not revealing his identity.
- A justified (from the "foreigner's" perspective) example, from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, where the pirate boss has a huge, imposing Badass Baritone 'translator' to speak for him. When the translator says the wrong thing at the wrong time and gets shot for his trouble, the pirate leader eventually speaks up... in a hilariously soft and squeaky voice.
- In Mr. Baseball, Tom Selleck plays an American baseball player who signs up with a Japanese team. He has a completely necessary translator to help him get around, who must often perform Tactful Translation to keep Selleck's brash character from offending everyone immensely - but eventually it turns out that his manager was feigning a lack of English knowledge the whole time.
- It's not exactly "translating", but Sigourney Weaver's character Gwen in Galaxy Quest repeats everything the ship's computer says as if she was translating it. In one scene one of the other characters mentions that it's annoying, causing Gwen to blow a gasket:
Gwen DeMarco: Look! I have one job on this lousy ship, it's stupid, but I'm gonna do it! Okay?
- In Gambit, a Japanese businessman seems to be employing a very incompetent translator, but it's quickly revealed that he doesn't need the translator, but finds it keeps his opponents off-guard.
- One scene in A Song of Ice and Fire has Daenerys speaking with a slaver via a little girl slave named Missandei, who provides a Tactful Translation of the slaver's comments. Dany, who speaks the language being translated, alternates between amusement at the slave and disgust at the slaver, and ultimately saves the girl by recruiting her and sets her master on fire.
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: One of the foreign leaders does this to Fudge at the World Cup. His only reason is that watching Fudge mime everything "vos very funny."
- In The Dresden Files book Changes, The Red King, through his translator, arranges a duel with Dresden. Once Dresden wins, the Red King goes back on his agreement, stating, IN PERFECT ENGLISH, "We never even spoke to each other."
- Harry should have seen it coming (though of course it wouldn't have helped him even if he had). Earlier in the series, Queen Mab speaks through one of her servants, and Harry wonders to himself if she's doing this so she can pull a "I never said that," trick on him later on. Eventually, he learns she's using the "translator" because she's really pissed at Harry, and if she spoke with her own voice, it would kill him, such was her rage. Though Cold Days reveals Mab's rage was not actually directed at Harry, as such, after all. Rather, it's a more personal anger.
- In The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, this is done by Corlath, the Damarian king, to the Homelanders, as a way to buy a bit more time for thought during negotiations.
- This is a major plot point of Eloise McGraw's Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Mara is a double agent posing as the princess's interpreter — to a king who speaks her language. She initially convinces him that her role is to preserve his rank, but when he catches her changing his words, she is forced to reveal the truth (or part of it, anyways).
- Played for laughs in The Marvelous Land of Oz, when Jack Pumpkinhead and the Scarecrow decide since they are from different countries in Oz, they must require a translator, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the conversation until they realize that they are speaking the same language.
"Won't you take a chair while we are waiting?"
- Comically Missing the Point: Even when discussing the need for a translator, the Scarecrow and Jack are talking with each other and responding to what each other says:
"Your Majesty forgets that I cannot understand you," replied the Pumpkinhead. "If you wish me to sit down you must make a sign for me to do so." The Scarecrow came down from his throne and rolled an armchair to a position behind the Pumpkinhead. Then he gave Jack a sudden push that sent him sprawling upon the cushions in so awkward a fashion that he doubled up like a jackknife, and had hard work to untangle himself.
"Did you understand that sign?" asked His Majesty, politely.
- Used in The Tamuli by at least two rulers, since the time for translation gives them a chance to think about what they're going to say.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A variation occurs when The Professor Aronnax, Battle Butler Conseil, and Idiot Hero Ned Land cannot understand the language used by their captors, every one of them try to talk to them in their respective native languages (French, German, and English, respectively). When their captors didn’t react, Aronnax spoke Latin without success. In a second interview, the man that will present himself later as Captain Nemo tells them:
...After some moments of silence, which not one of us dreamed of breaking, "Gentlemen," said he, in a calm and penetrating voice, "I speak French, English, German, and Latin equally well. I could, therefore, have answered you at our first interview, but I wished to know you first, then to reflect…"
- In The Hunt for Red October, when Mancuso, Jonesy, and Ryan have finally managed to get on the titular submarine, the Americans and the Soviets just look at each other. Ramius notices Mancuso's prominently displayed sidearm and mentions it to his Number Two in Russian (fearing Mancuso is the "Buckaroo" type he'd been worried about), causing Ryan to chuckle, as he knew Russian. Ramius questions him for a bit in Russian, then switches to fluent English. At least one other Soviet officer speaks English.
- In the Discworld novel Snuff, Billy Slick the goblin acts as a translator between Granny Slick and Captain Carrot. After the interview, Carrot asks Billy to congratulate his grandmother for having such an excellent grasp of Morporkian, and there's a burst of laughter from the cottage...
- Wheel of Time has the Seanchan Empress/Emperor's Voice, who the Empress/Emperor communicates with in a personalized sign language and the Voice then says what was just said to her.
- Star Wars Expanded Universe: In the book series, Jabba the Hutt is revealed to not need an interpreter. He just likes to keep one around as a status symbol, and because he won't condescend to speaking any language but Huttese, though he is able to. He never makes any pretense of needing a translator to understand Basic, though his translator does actually translate more exotic languages like Ubese for him. The only exception in the novels was when Prince Xizor, head of a criminal empire that could have wiped out Jabba's enterprises in a fit of boredom, demanded he speak Basic. Unsurprisingly, the Hutt complied.
Live Action TV
- Lost: Dogen, the leader of the people at the temple, knows English, but doesn't like speaking it, necessitating a translator. He eventually drops the act.
Hurley: Wait a second - you're not translating anything I say to him - which means you totally understand me, dude!
- This was done in The West Wing; they had to find someone who spoke an obscure language, so they found a Cook who spoke it and Portuguese and had someone translate the Portuguese, only to find out the guy spoke perfect English.
- Also occurred in a US-China summit. The Chinese Premier spoke perfect English, but all official meetings were conducted with a translator as per usual diplomatic protocol. Switching language for anything more than pleasantries could be interpreted an act of subservience, and would lead to a loss of diplomatic face. The real negotiations were all done in the backroom and in English.note
- On Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the investor from Macau pretended not to speak English, having his daughter or wife translate. He just likes messing with people, leading to a Crowning Moment of Funny.
Jack Rudolph: ...You speak English?Chinese Businessman: A few words.Jack Rudolph: How many?Chinese Businessman: All of them.
- In Stargate SG-1, when the Russian general was first introduced, he came with a Tactful Translator. When Daniel Jackson revealed he understood everything the general was saying, the General then revealed he was fluent in English anyway.
- Trying to bluff your way past a linguist fluent in 29 languages (and that's not counting his knowledge of Goa'uld and, later, Ancient) is not a good idea.
- Subverted in an episode of Yes, Minister. Bernard is organising a funeral where the Prime Minister will have to speak to the leaders of foreign nations. He has to quickly clarify that translators won't be needed when the Prime Minister meets the leaders of certain nations - the English speaking ones. He then has to clarify again that this does include America, "with a certain generosity of spirit."
- In Game of Thrones, a translator is used to translate Kraznys' Valyrian to the Westeros Common Tongue for Daenerys while they are negotiating a trade. The whole time, Kraznys is particularly vile and calls his guest a whore, among other unsavory things, behind a Tactful Translation. In the end, it is revealed that Daenerys' mother tongue is Valyrian. He ends up paying for his rudeness.
- In The Daily Show, when Jason Jones went to Iran, he hired a translator to take to journalist Maziar Bahari, who already spoke English fluently. However, whenever Bahari spoke English, Jason would pretend not to understand him and would ask the translator what he said, even though the translator actually spoke even worse English.
- An episode of The Good Wife has Diane click on a strange email link, resulting in the firm's computers being hacked, and the client files being held for ransom. When simply paying the ransom fails, Kalinda tracks down the blackmailers to a man in Russia. She connects to his computer and has one of the lawyers translate for her (his parents forced him to learn Russian). Eventually, when Kalinda gets him angry enough, he reveals that he understands English just fine, so the lawyers stops translating. Not unreasonable, as many Russian schools teach at least some English.
- In Daredevil, Wesley acts as a translator between the leaders of the gangs that work with Fisk. It turns out Madame Gao can speak English (she claims she can speak every language), but pretended not to as part of her Obfuscating Stupidity. Nobu, meanwhile, can speak English fluently, but not perfectly, making Wesley's translation non-vital, but not entirely redundant—mostly Nobu just takes issue with Wesley's Tactful Translation. And then it turns out Fisk can speak both Mandarin and Japanese, which was something else Wesley didn't know.
- The Chaser's War on Everything had a sketch where a man asked people for directions in English with an American accent and claimed not to understand their Australian accents and assumed they couldn't understand him either. Another guy then came over who would "translate" between the two people.
- In CSI Crime Scene Investigation, a murder of a deaf person leads the team to question the headmaster of a school for the deaf. They bring along an ASL interpreter only for the headmaster (who really doesn't like being condescended to) to get angry and claim she can lip read and speak English just fine.
- In an episode of Breaking Bad, Gus is acting as translator between the English-speaking Jesse and the Spanish-speaking cartel men. That is, until the chief chemist reveals that he can speak English when Jesse calls him an asshole. Jesse is unfazed and still intimidates the men into complying with his method of cooking Walt's meth.
- Zig-Zagged in a first-season episode of Madam Secretary when the (fictional) Iraqi prime minister pays a state visit. He uses a translator initially but then finds out that Secretary McCord speaks Arabic. She claims that his English is better than her Arabic, though later she seems to be able to understand him and one of his ministers perfectly when they start ranting at each other over a sectarian/political squabble.
Religion and Mythology
- Joseph in the book of Genesis: While there were probably many people for whom the translator proved indispensable, one case where he wasn't needed at all was when Joseph's own brothers showed up. He used the service anyway, as a means of hiding his identity.
- Taken to ridiculous extremes in Sam & Max: Freelance Police: Abe Lincoln Must Die! The buffonish president at the beginning of the game confuses Sam and Max for translators, and needs them for some diplomacy. The diplomat in question is Whizzer, who can't speak any language except English! But the president insists that he can't understand a word Whizzer says, forcing Sam to help (or, as it's Sam and Max we're talking about here, deliberately mistranslate entirely to achieve his own goals.)
- Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People includes a bizarre version of this. Strong Bad speaks English. Strong Mad, though hardly articulate, speaks English. Yet Strong Bad insists on using The Cheat, who doesn't speak English at all, to translate between them in Strong Badia the Free.
- Planescape: Torment allows you to possibly use this yourself. Dabus, the servants of The Lady of Pain, only communicate via Rebus, a symbolic "language" that consists of a series of pictures that appear above their heads. If the main character has high enough intelligence and wisdom scores, he can understand them. However, he can still ask Annah, Grace, or Dak'kon to translate for him. At one point, this can be used to reveal plot information: talking to Fell, the Dabus tattoo artist and having Dak'kon translate for you (provided you can understand Rebus already) will allow you to catch Dak'kon lying to you. Calling him on it reveals information about how he's connected to your past.
- Saints Row has Mr. Wong, who sits there speaking Chinese until his translator makes a mistake, after which he switches to speaking fluent English.
- Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney: Lamiroir pretends to need an interpreter even though she speaks English, as part of her "exotic singer" stage persona. She really does need his help for other languages, however.
- Later, Machi Tobaye plays with the trope. He does know English, much to the surprise of several characters (including Lamiroir), but not all that well.
- Early in Shizune's route of Katawa Shoujo, Hisao learns sign language, but is hesitant to tell Shizune or use it to talk to her until he is able to use it well. He has Misha translate, despite her being fully aware that he is learning sign language. Unbeknownst to him, Misha has already told Shizune that Hisao is learning sign language.
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, the narrator performs this service for the readers, translating Spanish words that don't need translation e.g. "señor", or in one panel translating "policía" as police ... and providing a separate footnote for each of the four times the word is spoken on that page.
- Kim Possible: The Japanese toy designer Nakasumi always communicates with Kim and Ron via his assistant, Miss Kyoko. It is eventually revealed that he speaks perfect English but just likes whispering into a pretty woman's ear.
- In Frisky Dingo, ancient Chinese sweatshop worker Old Spice is eventually revealed to speak English after entire episodes of only communicating in Chinese and having Xander Crews (who knew he spoke English) translate for him. This only came to light after Killface insulted Old Spice's "car" (Crews misheard Old Spice, who was actually talking about his wife) and Crews berated him. "What does it matter what I say about his bloody car?" "Well, he speaks English!" "...You speak English?" "Yes!"
- In The Wild Thornberrys, Nigel hires a helicopter pilot to help him film from the volcanoes in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Assuming the pilot only speaks Russian, he attempts to communicate with him in the same language, but it goes dangerously wrong. When Nigel forgets the language all of a sudden in the end, he thanks him in English, only to reveal that he spoke it all along. The pilot, on the other hand, thought he was Swedish going by his accent.
- In American Dad!, most of the humor with Toshi comes from what everyone thinks he's saying in Japanese, which is at odds at the various disparaging remarks and death threats he's actually throwing at people. It's later revealed he actually understands English perfectly fine, but refuses to speak anything other than Japanese out of nationalistic pride, forcing his sister to step in and translate for him on occasion.
- Happens in an episode of South Park were the school principal asked Kyle if he could translate some Hebrew visitors... Who happened to speak in perfect English, parodied further since the Principal Victoria and Mr. Mackey still didn't understand what they were saying and needed Kyle's translation anyway, which simply consisted on repeating whatever they said.
- Fidel Castro is fully conversant in English but always has a translator present in his interviews.
- The inversion is fairly common in actual diplomacy. Not speaking a foreigner's language, even if you know it, is often a point of pride for state leaders, and as a result end up using translators even though they're not actually required. For instance, Angela Merkel certainly speaks English, but when she holds a press conference with Barack Obama or David Cameron, you can be damn sure that she will have a translator and speak in German. In private, this trope is played straight.
- Once invoked by then-French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at one meeting of The European Union Council of Ministers sometime in late 2008: after calling the meeting to ordernote , he basically said, "OK, everybody here speaks English. Take off those silly headphones and let's get to business."
- This can also be for reasons of accuracy and media. For instance, German TV will likely show parts of their head of state's visit to the US, and they don't want to have to translate back for the German public. Also, translators, being well-trained, may be able to translate faster and more accurately than a politician who speaks a second language.
- Also, statements at a press conference are official statements where every nuance can turn out to be important and the subject of thorough interpretation in the media and elsewhere, so unless politicians are very competent and confident expressing themselves in a second language, it is simply common sense to use a translator. A welcome side-effect is that having the question translated first gives a person more time to consider the answer.
- It also avoids becoming a laughing stock by accidentally declaring yourself a jelly doughnut, or the press falsely declaring you had done so as happened in that case.
- Spain has three languages spoken in some regions (as well as Spanish in the whole country, of course). Figureheads and important people of those regions will use their regional languages as much as possible, even though they know Spanish.
- However, this extends to things such as restaurants having nearly a dozen dialects in their menus, because Spanish isn't agreed upon by everyone, and some would say was forced on them. Notably, some Catalans want to secede due to legitimate cultural differences, showing that this goes beyond trivial or unnecessary.
- Shown in The Special Relationship biopic, Michael Sheen's Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister. His advisor tells him that the French President Jacques Chirac is on the line to congratulate him. Even though Chirac knows English, the advisor tells Blair that he'll probably speak French as a political statement. In response, Blair, who knows French, replies in English.
- As mentioned in The West Wing example above, this is also done for the benefit of political sovereignty; while the representatives of two nations with different official languages might speak each other's language perfectly well, it can seem like an act of subservience for one party to use the other party's native tongue, so sticking to their official languages keeps things neutral.
- Especially for diplomatic and political situations, even if someone is otherwise fluent in a language, it is easy to fall behind in the 2nd language, and misunderstand a metaphor or expression. At this level, such a misunderstanding can have serious political or diplomatic consequences. High-level translators are less likely to make these mistakes, and also function as a "buffer" — if a misunderstanding does occur, it is their fault, not the diplomat's, so they are protected from direct embarrassment.
- Mexican politicians averts the trope : By custom in Mexican diplomacy, Mexican politicians are expected to speak English and use it when they travel to the U.S. or Canada for diplomatic reasons. While they could use translators, they normally use them when they need to correct their English or when that politician doesn't really speak English. Taken into account the historical grudges Mexico has against the U.S., this is mainly used as a way to show they're able to speak as equals with Americans and Canadians. This trope is still played straight when Mexican politicians has to speak with their British, Irish and Scottish peers, and just because by those countries' protocols they are ordered to do so, especially when speaking with the English royalty.
- Like the diplomatic examples, translators are often used by people appearing in judicial courts or other official settings. They may be fluent enough to get by day-to-day usage in their non-native language, but worry that it's not enough for legal or other specialised usage.
- This trope hit Sergio Aragonés at least once. Aragonés had been booked for a convention in Texas, but the con staff took the running gags of Aragonés' inability to speak English from his comics (especially Groo the Wanderer) as the truth. They hired an interpreter to translate for Aragonés without realizing that he spoke very good English. However, Aragonés felt bad about the interpreter going home unpaid, and so he played along, letting the translator field questions, interpreting them into Spanish for Aragonés, who would reply in Spanish for the translator to relay to the congoers.
- Subverted in the Chinese-US negotiations after the Hainan aircraft collision in 2000. The negotations and all diplomatic drafts were done in English rather than Chinese. One reason for this was that the solution to this crisis was the "Letter of the Two Sorries". Using English allows the US say it was "very sorry" but to claim that this was not an apology and to allow the Chinese to claim that it was. Chinese is much more precise and would not allow for this sort of ambiguity.
- Supposedly happened in the Scottish town of Stornoway. A member of the town's Pakistani community was a witness in a court case, and he insisted he only spoke Punjabi. A translator was found from the community, but he said he only spoke Punjabi and Scots Gaelic. So another translator had to be found who could translate from Gaelic to English. The story goes that it later transpired that all three men spoke all three languages, but objected to the case and wanted to wind the court up.
- Invoked during the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the UN Security Council: "Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium — and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no—don't wait for the translation—yes or no?"
- Princess Ruth Keelikolani of Hawai'i, who studied English in her youth, but as a protest to US hegemony over the islands refused to either speak or listen to English, communicating only in Hawai'ian for the rest of her life.
- Happens in Canadian jurisdictions, frequently by Quebec politicians (usually separatists) who insist on talking only in French even if fluent in English, and by various First Nations people and Inuit who make a point of speaking only in their native language and demanding translation at meetings. In the latter case, in meetings amongst themselves, almost universally the language spoken is English (except possibly for elders).
- Apparently taken to extremes in the former Yugoslavia at least once: Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are highly mutually intelligible, falling under what used to be called Serbo-Croatian with different dialects. In Bosnia, it is reported that one court trial ended up requiring an interpreter for "Bosnian to Croatian" for a trial held in a Croat-majority district. Note: This is like requesting an interpreter for "English to Australian."
- On a related note, even fluently bilingual people are often advised by their lawyers to request a translator for court appearances, on the grounds that one's ability to speak a second language can deteriorate under stress.
- German band Rammstein did an interview for an American radio show once through a translator. When asked about the meaning behind one of their songs, they gave a long reply in German, which the translator struggled to find an appropriate English equivalent for. One of the band members gave a much shorter answer in English himself. The next time one of the band members was interviewed on that show, it was in English without a translator.
- A lot of senior Polish military officers during World War II previously served in German or Austrian armed forces during World War I and spoke German fluently. However, in German captivity, many insisted on having translators. One example of this is Admiral Jozef Unrug, who was a high ranking German navy officer during World War I and actually spoke Polish poorly when he was called upon to head the navy of reborn Poland. He never spoke a word of German in captivity, even when the Germans brought his old friends and colleagues from his days in German navy in attempt to gain his cooperation.
- Averted in the 18th and 19th century, when French was the international language of diplomacy. This extended so far that e. g. the Prussian king, foreign minister and other diplomats would communicate amongst each other in French dispatches and memorandums even though German was everybody's first language, in order to remain exact within the language in which the resulting communications to foreign governments, treaties etc. would be written. As military officers then were also frequently expected to do double duty as diplomatic representatives, French was then also the first and often only foreign language an officer would learn. Which was e. g. why during the Waterloo campaign Blücher's and Wellington's high commands communicated in French with each other (Blücher's chief of staff knew a little English, having served in Canada during the American War of Independence).
- In late 19th and early 20th centuries, many military officers were multilingual and could carry on Bilingual Dialogue. In some cases, however, this was abused as a point of insult. For example, in 1940, the British and French high commands were not especially cordial with each other, despite being allies. French General Gamelin, the supreme commander of the allied ground forces in France, had habit of holding joint meetings speaking only in French that was spoken so rapidly and peremptorily that even the bilingual British generals had trouble understanding.