Conveniently Precise Translation
There's a phrase that's important to the plot or arc (possibly Arc Words
). There will come a time the characters encounter the phrase in a foreign language. The foreign phrase will always be translated precisely
to the important phrase, even though linguistic quirks would make this unlikely.
However, in TV land, languages have exact 1:1 word/syntax relationships
and the translation, even if done by a third party who has never heard the Arc Words
, will always be exact.
An ancient inscription will always be rendered in complex long words with nuanced meanings, despite the fact that on-the-spot translation typically sounds more like a two year old trying to put together a sentence.
It gets even more amazing when ancient spells and prophecies rhyme
or are puns in English.
For a good real-world demonstration, see Lost In Translation
An exception occasionally pops up when the form of a word in another language (usually with declensions, like Latin) reveals information such as number or gender that would require additional words in English, allowing the translation to be more precise than one would expect.
See Either World Domination or Something about Bananas
for the most common subversion, and Lucky Translation
for a few real life
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Anime and Manga
- In a comic in French translated from Italian, Mickey and a professor can't understand a message left by an ancient civilization. But Dingo (Goofy), who like games, say it's just a rebus. The trope is then played for laughs when he say the rebus is "in Italian... for some reason", and translate it saying things like "that's a drawing meaning it's little, piccolo in Italian"...
- HP Lovecraft: That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die
- Which, though poetic, is odd when considering the original was supposedly written in Arabic. Given that the English translation of the book is said to have been contemporaneous to the King James Bible, one might attribute it to a poetic translator.
- Call of Cthulhu RPG makes a deliberate point of this: with each successive translation of the Necronomicon (or any other Tome of Eldritch Lore ), its in-game usefulness as a source of knowledge/power/danger decreases.
- One RPG sourcebook contains a chapter that attempts to explain things like this from an in universe perspective. Its Arabic version of the above quote also rhymes, and actually explains more than the English version.
- The Magician's Nephew: While exploring a dead world, the protagonists encounter a bell and hammer together with an alien inscription, which a magical Universal Translator conveniently renders for them as: “Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,/Strike the bell and bide the danger,/Or wonder, till it drives you mad,/What would have followed if you had.”
- Played with in The Book of the New Sun: Terminus Est, the name of an important execution sword, never receives a single official translation. It's rendered once as this is the line of division and once as this is the place of parting. Both translators ignore the most obvious choice:this is the end. The ambiguity is a possible reference to the catastrophic events that will violently reshape (but not end) the planet.
- J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is not a case of the trope, as his Constructed Languages and their texts are not literal 1:1 translations. There are other-language poems with their 'Westron'/English translation both given by Tolkien, who are visibly not 'identical' but treated like any real-world poetry translation to produce a text both meaningful and working within the respective aesthetical rules. Both instances/reminders in the narrative text as well as in additional texts provide more insight into both in-universe and the (pretend) 'Westron-to-English' language and translation issues and problems.
- An in-universe trope subversion showing an on-the-spot translation occurs in The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf translates the (punctuation-less) inscription on the door to Moria (Pedo mellon a minno) as "Speak, friend, and enter." which, while 1:1 correct, should have rather been rendered as "Say 'friend' and enter." To preserve the meaning: Saying aloud the Sindarin word 'friend' (mellon) is the password to open the door.
- This might have been a dialectal difference. The standard Sindarin for "say 'friend'" is apparently pedo vellon, with the object of the verb under lenition ("softening" of the initial consonant). Either this inscription is in a dialect that doesn't lenit m's (which is etymologically plausible), or mellon appears spelled as it had to be read to open the gate.
- All of the "English" names and dialogue in the books are actually in Westron or "Common Speech", translated by Tolkien for the reader. At one point Tolkien has to point out that an apparent pun in English (the close ties between the hobbit families Gamgee and Cotton) was not present in the "original" language.
- On the other hand, there's one that does slip through. Orthanc, the tower of Isengard, has a double meaning: it means "Mount Fang" in Sindarin, and "cunning mind" in the language of Rohan. Since Rohirric is a very conservative relative of the language that Westron (mostly) derives from, Tolkien uses slightly modernised Old English to "translate" it. And orthanc does indeed mean something very much like "cunning" in Old English. So the same word has the same meaning in two languages?
- This is averted in Eragon. Brom translates a poem from the Ancient Language (Elvish) for Eragon, which sounds pretty but has no real rhyme or meter, and Brom says himself that he can't translate it perfectly. And therefore makes perfect sense. Again averted in the sequel, Eldest, when Eragon composes a poem in the Ancient Language. The reader is shown a translation of it, and it doesn't rhyme either. This allows the author to provide incredibly beautiful, classic poems without having to write overwhelmingly moving poems from scratch.
- The novel Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Blinking Eye features a prophecy written by a Spanish-speaking woman, in Spanish, which is then translated into English. Amazingly, it was written so precisely that it rhymes perfectly in English, and although it becomes a plot point that they aren't sure whether a line ought to read "big headed man" (as in, a man with a physically large head) or "big-headed man" (as in, a man who thinks a lot of himself), this is possibly an artifact of the English translation, and no such confusion may have existed in the original wording. The Spanish word cabezón could have both meanings.
- In the first Artemis Fowl book, Artemis is able to write a computer program that is able to decipher a written language that predates Egyptian hieroglyphics, and then translate it into English in perfect meter and rhyme. All this without actually having any knowledge of other languages himself. Sure he's supposed to be a genius, but...
- A poem in the twelfth Deverry book includes a note that it rhymes in Deverrian, but not English.
- Averted in the Star Wars novel Traitor: Nom Anor (A Yuuzhan Vong who speaks Basic, i.e. English), while listening to an excruciatingly boring shaper's drone, muses (apparently in Basic) that "maybe that's why we call them drones". He decides not to share this with anyone, because it's only a joke in Basic. (And a really weak one at that.)
- The Yuuzhan Vong language in general averts this one; based on the word-for-word translations seen, it's very rich is poetic and religious imagery, so that even everyday terms tend towards the highly involved and metaphorical when translated directly.
- Possibly subverted in A Song of Ice and Fire where everyone is concerned about the prophesied "Prince that was Promised." However, the prophesy in question was written in ancient Valyrian and one character points out a quirk of the Valyrian language: all words in High Valyrian are gender neutral, so the Promised One might not be a prince but a princess. Whether the character's theory is correct or not remains to be seen, but the evidence seems to be in favor so far.
- A plot point in Empire from the Ashes rests on the language of the Fourth Imperium of Man having terms equivalent in nuance to the English terms 'Imperium' and 'Empire'. Note that the Fourth Imperium predates civilization on Earth by millennia. To be fair, the book at least is nice to specify that the language of the Fourth Imperium had equivalent terms, rather than just acting as if the English translation was proof enough.
- Generally played straight in Speaker for the Dead, in which translations between English and Portuguese and the alien languages of the pequeninos tend to be incredibly precise and elegant. Possibly justified as the translator is usually a "piggy," and they are canonically better than humans at learning new languages. There is one important aversion: at one point, Ender asks a male piggy to translate a statement in which he commands a female piggy and refers to her asking him for a favor. It is explained to him that the syntax to express this does not exist in their language; a female can command a male and a male can petition a female, but never the other way around.
- The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley contains an aversion. The remnants of humanity have been receiving technical knowledge from a mysterious extra-solar source, and finally a message arrives which seems to be demanding payment. We see a "probability weighted" translation. It begins FOR (A PERIOD OF TIME: CONJECTURE: 400 EARTH YEARS?) DATA HAS BEEN SENT. NEW SUBSCRIBERS (22%) ARE GIVEN A (UNTRANSLATABLE) TO ADJUST and ends SEVERE PENALTIES, SEVERE PENALTIES (97%)
Live Action TV
- There's a moment in Metal Gear Solid 4 where Snake reads out the slogan of the French PMC "Pieuvre Armament" as "Arms of the octopus. Arms for your war." This is a reasonably okay slogan for a PMC named after an octopus, until you realise the slogan was originally in French, and he was translating from that - the appendages/weapons double meaning for the word 'arms' doesn't exist in the original slogan, which uses the words 'tentacles' and 'armaments'. With the wordplay gone, the supposedly catchy slogan loses a lot of advertising power.
- Unless the founders intended it as a Bilingual Bonus.
- In the original Metal Gear Solid, Psycho Mantis's Interface Screw works in both English and Japanese, but only because Japanese borrows the word "video" from English. In English, it relies on the similarity between VIDEO and HIDEO; in Japanese, it's ビデオ and ヒデオnote .
- In the Zeitgeist movie, which contains many research errors, one theory brought forth is that Jesus Christ is a ripoff from earlier sun gods. See, he's the son of God, which sounds similar to sun, get it?