Either World Domination or Something about Bananas
aka: The Vodka Is Good But The Meat Is Rotten
A comedy trope. An incidental character says something in a foreign language. A character who either speaks a little of the language or has a translation method attempts to explain it to the others. For some reason, he/she narrows it down to a few possibilities, and they have absolutely nothing in common in terms of meaning, often with one being rather reasonable in the context while the other is absurdly different. Sometimes they pin it down to the one translation but then it's just so ill fitting, they can spot it's wrong. There's a tendency to have the two resultant statements sound similar even after translation. One begins to wonder what kind of language could possibly have that property, but real languages are
that weird — consider, for example, all the different ways a word can pick up meanings other than its original literal one, in a process known in the real world as semantic change.
See also "Blind Idiot" Translation
, of which that is also an example, and My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels
, where a similar joke is made without any translation occurring. Can be seen as an unintentional instance of Lopsided Dichotomy
When it comes to cultural idioms, this becomes Blunt Metaphors Trauma
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- Finding Nemo: "He either said to move to the back of the throat, or he wants a root beer float."
- The Hallelujah Trail: The cavalry's sign language interpreter usually gets the gist of what's being said, but he makes a few critical errors.
- "Mr.Baseball": Jack Elliot attempts to motivate his team while they are behind by saying "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." Yoshi, his assigned interpreter, translates this as "When the game is over, a fat lady will come and sing to us." Also, it takes Elliot several tries to tell his teammates that he would like to build a bridge between himself and them. Initially, he tells them he wants to build a chopstick.
- In Jingo, before the fighting between the Ankh-Morpork army and the Klatchian army begins, Klatchian Prince Cadram invites Lord Rust and his officers to a pre-battle breakfast under a truce. Lord Rust brings along his Lieutenant Hornett, who knows Klatchian, as a translator. Sadly for Lord Rust, Lt. Hornett only knows how to read Klatchian, resulting in Lt. Hornett being unable to translate "Do any of you gentlemen speak Klatchian?" and then partially translating "this clown’s in charge of an army?" as "Er... something about... to own, to control... er... ".
- In Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett tells us that in various places around the Discworld, the word "Aargh!" can mean anything from "Your wife is a big hippo!" to "Quick, extra boiling oil!" This ends in a Running Gag throughout the book where people misinterpret other people's screams to various effects. ("I'm not even married!") This likely parodies tonal languages such as Chinese, where what would sound like one word in English could be translated in up to four completely different ways in Mandarin, depending on tone. Cantonese would have nine possible translations. (Even more, considering the abundance of homophones.)
- In the same book, Rincewind is often shown cycling through different meanings of what is presumably the same phrase. It's all represented as English, but it's an accurate, and hilarious, reflection of problems non-native speakers of Chinese can have pronouncing the words/phrases they really want.
- In The Fifth Elephant, Vimes makes the mistake of trying out his extremely limited Dwarfish. Apparently, he never had reason to discover that the word he's been told means "you" actually means something closer to "you troublemaking lawbreaker". It doesn't help that the version of Dwarfish he's most familiar with is the slang-laden "Street Dwarfish."
- Sewer, Gas & Electric by Matt Ruff: The sentient AI that lives in Disneyland overhears a conversation behind the doors of Walt Disney's secret speakeasy — hey, It Makes Sense in Context, OK? — and applies its audio filtering subroutines. It decides that the conversation is either a) a conversation about dinner and drinks or b) override instructions telling it to kill 1000 people in ironic ways, and to construct a robotic race of "perfect Negroes." It chooses option B.
- Unlike most examples, it wasn't really mistaken or confused: it deliberately chose the option that would let it kill people, because it hated humans and was bored.
- In Lawrence A Perkins' story "Delivered With Feeling", the alien race which calls in an Earth fixer to help them deal with other, invading aliens has a VERY difficult language, fragmented into numerous dialects. The fixer's solution involves a "patriot dialect" keyed to the slogan "The manly honor of our forefathers is unblemished"; but the invaders manage to render it as "There are no body lice on my grandfather's mustache". This actually makes sense in context, as the fixer tells his computer to make it as difficult as possible for foreigners to understand.
- In The Heroes of Olympus' second book, when Percy first arrives at the Roman camp, the quartermaster Octavian says that the stuffing of disemboweled teddy bears (yes, you read that right) foretold Percy's arrival:
Octavian: The message said: The Greek has arrived. Or possibly: The goose has cried.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga novel Diplomatic Immunity:
Fourteen languages were handled by nineteen different brands of auto-translators, several of which, Miles decided, must have been purchased at close-out prices from makers going deservedly belly-up. [...] The fourth iteration of ["Ask Sealer Greenlaw"] was finally met with a heartrending wail, in chorus, from the back of the room of, "But Greenlaw said to ask you!", except for the translation device that came up a beat later with, "Lawn rule sea-hunter inquiring altitude unit!"
- The "Lawn Rule Sea-hunter" / "Sealer Greenlaw" part is pretty obvious. The "altitude unit" might take a while until you remember that the guy they're addressing is named Miles.
- Ax does something like this in Animorphs (the kids are in fly morph):
: He’s welcoming the visser
back aboard the Blade ship. Or he may be telling him his brother is a meteor fragment. I understand Galard
, but this morph’s hearing is very uncertain.
- In one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books, it's mentioned that the Darkovan idiom for "friend and brother" is strictly forbidden to Earth diplomats. Correctly pronounced it would be entirely appropriate for a speech encouraging friendship between two cultures, but spoken with the wrong inflection it can come out meaning anything from "brother" in the familial sense to "same-sex lover".
- The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold and Larry Niven. The space explorer asks the natives why they call him "Purple". It's because his translating device rendered his name as "as a color, shade of purple-grey". He laughs when he realizes it was trying to say "as a mauve." This is the only hint to the readers that his real name is Asimov.
- In the Ever After High book The Storybook of Legends, Maddie translates one of Giles' riddles thus:
He said, "Legacy Day is a hoax, and the Storybook of Legends holds no real power!" Or maybe he said, "Legacy Day is hilarious, and the Storybook of Legends is a monster."
Live Action TV
- In Angel, Lorne had his moment with this trope. "Either they're going to talk to their prince, or they're going to go and eat a cheesemonkey."
- Not exactly the trope, since it isn't a foreign language, but in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow gets a text from Xander while he's out on a date. It's one of the signals in a system they set up ages ago — but Willow is having trouble remembering what the code means. "Uh, this one's either 'I just got lucky, don't call me for a while' or 'my date's a demon who's trying to kill me.'"
- The artificial Klingon language has all kinds of similar-sounding words with completely different meanings; for example, the word for "to be weird" sounds similar to the word for "to continue", resulting in an ... interesting gaffe in a Klingon production of Hamlet with a human playing the lead role; also, the words for "money" and "forehead" sound similar ("You lack a forehead" is a deadly insult to Rubber-Forehead Aliens) as do "fist" and "torso" ("show me your fist" is an expression equivalent to "put your money where your mouth is", and ordering a Klingon to reveal his or her (especially her) torso is generally not a good idea).
- From "The Reckoning", an episode of DS9:
Dax: During the reckoning, the Bajorans will either suffer horribly or... eat fruit.
Sisko: ... Eat fruit?
Dax: Given the tone of the rest of the inscriptions, I would bet on the horrible suffering.
- It turned out to be the fruit eating (watch what Kira's eating at the beginning).
- From the 30th anniversary special skit with Captain Janeway and the cast of Frasier:
"Captain, I'm not sure I'm reading this instrument panel correctly, but either there's a malfunction in our left turn signal, or there's an armed Klingon on board the turbolift!"
[The turbolift doors open, revealing an armed Klingon]
Janeway: Shall we assume it's the latter?
- Referenced in one episode of Stargate SG-1:
Dr. Jackson: Uh, w-well, my translation's a little bit vague, um, I think the circle means 'the place of our legacy'—or it could be 'a piece of our leg', but the first seems to make more sense.
- Which may look strange at first, considering the apparent unlikelihood of any other language having "leg" and "legacy" use similar sounds. However, as Reality Is Unrealistic, it happens frequently in Real Life; see below.
- The Suite Life on Deck has an incident where Cody translates some hieroglyphs as instructions to free Bailey from a curse unleashed by a crown. "...that or a recipe for fish tacos".
- While shopping on Babylon 5 Garibalidi comes across a vendor selling what is either an aphrodisiac or a furniture polish, the translator can't tell. He comments that it had better not leave a waxy residue on anything.
Ivanova: Ah, hell.
The White Star's guns all start firing at nothing.
Ivanova: What are they doing?
Lorien: "Ahel" means "continuous fire" in Minbari.
Ivanova: (in Minbari) Engines at full...high power. Hatrack ratcatcher to port weapons... brickbat lingerie!
- She got much better with time, her Photographic Memory obviously of great help here. After Sheridan's death/ascention, Delenn asks Ivanova to take over as the commander of the Rangers. By that point, it can be assumed that Ivanova is fluent in Minbari (whichever dialect the Rangers use).
- The Whose Line Is It Anyway? game "Foreign Film Dub" has two players pretend to speak a foreign language and the other two players "translating" their lines. Given the nature of the show, the trope would apply even if the language being spoken was accurate.
- The Live-Action Adaptation of the French novel series Fantômette had one episode with a henchman translating the manual of a stolen machine from Japanese. He reads that an improper use could result in a big something, which could be an explosion or a samurai attack.
- In an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina is transported to one of Harvey's nightmares, where he is running towards a French text book but is unable to get near it (this is because they have a French exam coming and Harvey is having anxiety issues). Sabrina helps Harvey get the book, upon which he kips something in French. Sabrina then says to herself that Harvey either "said that he was happy to get the book back or that his shorts are too tight" and concludes that it's her who should study more French.
- In one Zits strip, an unintelligible Pierce asks Jeremy for a favour after having the bands on his braces tightened. Jeremy remarks that he just agreed to either share his history notes or milk Pierce's hamster.
- GURPS Japan has a section dealing with the problems the first Europeans making contact with Japan had with the language. As an example, they explain how minor mistakes in pronunciation can transform "I want carrots and vegetables for dinner" to "My sister has a demon that devours spies".
- Tatooine, Knights of the Old Republic. The player can ask HK-47 to translate the speech of a Jawa who's asking for help rescuing his tribe from the Sand People (the PC speaks Jawa so the game provides subtitles, but the Jawa's grammar is even worse than Yoda's). HK responds that there is a 98% chance that he is indeed asking you for assistance with rescuing his tribe. The remaining 2% is the chance that "the diminutive organic is merely looking for trouble and needs a good blasting. This may be wishful thinking on my part, Master".
- Neverwinter Nights 2 has an example when the player asks resident bard Grobnar Gnomehands to translate the name given to you by the Githyanki.
Grobnar: "Kalach-cha". "Kalach-cha". Well, it's not Gnomish, Elvish, Dwarvish, Orcish, Goblin, or Draconic — well, unless the 'k' is silent, but that would make it "gizzard stone" or the equivalent. It turns out to be a totally new word they made up just for you since the situation had never come up before.
- In Sonic Colors, Tails attempts to build a translating device for the Wisps. It... doesn't work well.
Tails: So anyway, they are either being used for their magical powers by an evil man, or to make underwear to be worn by salad.
- Of course, he tells Sonic that the device can only translate Yakker's language into binary. Genius or not, it's impressive that he's getting words out of it at all, even if they are the wrong ones.
- The DS version, which uses text dialogue instead of cutscenes, doesn't use this joke and the translator works fine.
- In Star Control, the Orz are so utterly incompatible with this universe that your translation device doesn't have a clue what it's doing, and frequently has to resort to "best-fits". Like *dancing* for "combat". Other substitions make even less sense.
- A quest in World of Warcraft requires you to steal attack plans from an ogre tribe. When you give them to the questgiver NPC, she remarks:
Huntress Bintook: BY THE LIGHT! Their penmanship is atrocious. From what I can gather, they're either planning to "eat the blue skins and take their village" or bake a blueberry pie. It really could go either way. We must get to the bottom of this!
- In one Order of the Stick panel for Dragon magazine, it's the punchline:
Vaarsuvius: On the other hand, the Draconic words for "exit" and "swarm of puffins" are very similar...
Belkar: Dragons HAVE a word for "swarm of puffins"??
- Played with in one Weesh arc where Zoe is trying to memorize the narrator's part of Shakespeare's "All The World's a Stage". Her younger siblings and Weesh try to help by putting on their own interpretation, complete with goofiness and attempts to translate the lines into modern English.
Zoe: (regarding the soldier) Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth.
Tate: So... Jealous, bullish... and something about chewing gum during battle?
Zoe: Far as I can tell.
- In The Legend of Maxx, the main character Maxx is said to be either the destroyer of everything or a bowl of two goldfish by Remiel due to in-comic translation issues with the prophecies regarding Maxx. Remiel frequently repeats this possibility whenever it's mentioned that he could destroy the world in a vain attempt at hope.
- In Chopping Block, Butch thinks a French speaker is either telling him to kill for Beelzebub, or asking where the bathroom is. Being a deranged serial killer, he opts for the first "to be safe." And despite all logic suggesting the contrary, he actually guessed right.
- The Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Travis of the Cosmos" had an alien taking over Shake's brain to communicate. Unfortunately, the alien only spoke broken Japanese. Frylock tried translating, but could only come up with a marriage proposal.
Frylock: He agrees! Or he DISAGREES!!
- The Trope Namer is The Fairly OddParents, specifically The Movie Abra-Catastrophe, wherein Cosmo serves as the translator for the monkey following the group around. Every time he translates something the monkey said, he always provides something that makes sense for context, then adds, "...or something about a banana. I'm not sure which."
- In Jimmy Neutron Sheen did this once, when he believed he could read hieroglyphics simply because they looked similar to writing from his favorite TV show. They clearly were not the same.
- In the Pinky and the Brain episode "Around the World in 80 Narfs", Brain accidentally upsets a group of Italians. Pinky pulls out his phrase book and says something to them. He then tells Brain that he either said "We're sorry" or a terrible insult. Naturally, it was the insult.
- Happens more than once in Dogstar, usually with Gran doing the translation:
Gran: He says "You're very brave". Either that or he wants to know the way to the station. It's a tricky language.
- One episode of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? saw Ivy and Zack transported to Mongolia and confronted by a couple of horsemen, whom Zack tries to speak to in Chinese (a language that some Mongolians speak, according to him). The horsemen respond by charging the two with swords.
Ivy: What did you say?!
Zack: I'm not exactly sure! I either asked for directions or said their sisters wash ugly camels!
- In one episode of What's New, Scooby-Doo?, the gang visits Greece and Fred gets to show off his complete ineptitude at using his translation guide, like thinking he was ordering food only to wind up with a potted plant on his table, or thinking that some creepy old man was chasing them around trying to put a dark curse on them when he was really trying to return Daphne's lost purse.
- One Dilbert cartoon has an e-mail version of this trope. The Marketing Department gets a typo-ridden e-mail from Wally that is telling them to either "launch the new product" or "eat lunch with a penguin."
- In linguistics, a "minimal pair" is a pair of words whose meanings may be very different, but whose pronounciations are the same except for one sound, which is sometimes imperceptibly different to foreign ears.
- A popular one in Icelandic is „hver á þessa bók“, which properly means "who owns this book", but could also literally mean "hot springs river that book".
- French is full of similar-sounding words and phrases, to the point where finding pairs of sentences that sound exactly the same is a minor national pastime. One particularly amusing one translates to "When traveling in the Djinn's woods, surrounded by so much fear, // Keep talking! Drink gin, or one hundred cups of cold milk."
- The French words for "to fish" and "to sin" sound very similar, especially to one whose first language isn't French. "Fisherman" and "sinner" are even more similar than the corresponding verbs. This is where le roi pêcheur comes from. Curiously, this exact mistranslation can be made in Spanish, as "El Rey Pescador" (Fisherking) and "El Rey Pecador" (sinnerking) are quite approximate in writing but not in phonetic (the "s" before the "c" is easy to notice when heard).
- Voler also means both "to fly" and "to steal," which makes it very hard to tell what 'Voldemort' actually means; 'theft of death' or 'flight from death'? Either way works.
- "To smell" and "to feel" are expressed with the same word.
- The words for "over" ("au-dessus") and "under" ("au-dessous")* can confuse monolingual English speakers due to the roughly similar similar vowel sounds "u" and "ou" (/y/ vs. /u/ in IPA). Those vowels can also cause trouble with the words "bureau" and "bourreau." The first means office (or desk), the second means executioner.
- The French verb embrasser means both "to kiss" and "to embrace." Furthermore, the noun for a kiss (un baiser) is, without the article, the verb for "to fuck". "Baiser" was used in the "to kiss" sense in older works, resulting in Have a Gay Old Time meeting this trope (and which can be kind of a problem for non-native speakers who learned the language in school, as they're more likely to have come across it in something like Cyrano de Bergerac than have a French teacher who actually teaches them swears).
- "Plus" and "Plus" is a vicious written one, due to a common slang habit of dropping the "ne" from some negations: "J'en veux plus" could either mean "I want more" or "I don't want any more".
- A fun one is "la mère du maire est tombée dans la mer" which means the mayor's mother fell into the sea.
- Another one: "Poisson sans boisson est poison" - "A fish without a drink is a poison" (i.e. a fish and a good drink go well together).
- "les vers sur les vers verts en verre" means "verses about green glass worms".
- Or "Le vert vers marche vers le vert verre en verre" — "The green worm walks towards the green glass made of glass"
- In Star Wars, Tenel Ka is a penguin queen (une reine manchotte). Manchot also means one-armed.
- And another: "à cette heure" means "at that time", while "à sept heures" means "at seven o'clock". These sound identical and can cause confusion: "On se voit à six heures? — A cette heure? D'accord — Non, à six heures! — J'ai bien dit ça!" ("Shall we meet at six? — At that time? OK. — [mishearing that as "At seven? OK"] No, at six! — That's what I said!") This can be avoided by using extra words: "à sept heures du matin/du soir" ("at seven a.m./p.m.") and "à cette heure-là" ("at that time").
- And here's an apocryphal example where French homophones caused embarrassment at the United Nations.
- Way too many examples
- It gets even worse when you consider that, like the difference between British English and American English, Canadian French has its own variations that differ from the French spoken in France. A notable example is the informal term "gosses," which means "children" in Europe but "testicles" in Canada.
- Another example from Canadian French is the first time someone learning French, and thus learning about the nasal-n at the end of words orders a "poutine", and forgets the e in "-ine" means the n is not nasal, so they'll use a nasal-n...which inevitably comes out sounding like they ordered a putain, a prostitute.
- UNLESS you're in Quebec, where the alternate meanings to "poutine" are either the local french fries in gravy and cheese dish OR roughly hewn pieces of lumber that lumberjacks used to float down the river towards the lumber mill. The prostitute meaning wouldn't even be considered because to a French Canadian "poutine" and "putain" are two separate pronunciations.
- Not exactly, the pieces of wood are called "pitoune", not "poutine". Amusingly, "pitoune", can also mean "a cute girl" or sometimes "fake plastic girl" (too much make-up, fake tan, provocatively dressed, etc....). So we're not far from that "putain" word.
- The various meanings of these words aside, this has led to some hilarity in the translation of the name of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. You see, pronouncing the word spelled "P-u-t-i-n" according to French rules produces a word pronounced exactly like putain (again, "prostitute"). As a result, the French Academy decided to spell his name "Poutine", which produces a similar pronunciation to the Russian "Путин"...only to realize, too late, that this official transcription now made French-Canadians think of delicious fries with curds and gravy every time they saw or heard the name of the leader of a major world power. To rub salt on the wound, word got out to English Canada and to the border regions with the United States (which are familiar with the dish), which all had a good laugh at the Academie's expense; word got out even farther when William Safire dedicated a disapproving "On Language" column in The New York Times to the subject in 2005. Even funnier—Rick Mercer (an Anglophone Newfie) had, in a brilliant prank, convinced then-candidate George W. Bush that the Canadian PM of the time (c. 2000) was a person by the name of "Jean Poutine" (rather than the actual Jean Chretien). And now "Vladimir Poutine" is President/PM/President of Russia. Presumably, they're cousins...
- It's not so much the fault of the Académie. French has strict rules for transliterations from languages with other alphabets, Poutine just happened to also be the name of a Québecois plate (which is absolutely unheard of in France, except by those who have specific knowledge about Québec).
- Je suis, can mean "I am" or "I follow", leading to a gag in at least one Irish schoolbook where a kid held a sign that stated "Je suis un âne", which makes it look like "I am an ass" until his teacher turns up and he follows him around, making the phrase become "I follow an ass."
- More verb confusion in French:
- In the spoken language, the present and compound tenses of the verbs croire (to believe) and croître (to grow) tend to have homophonous forms. For example: “je crois” (I believe) and “je croîs” (I grow); “j’ai cru” (I believed) and “j’ai crû” (I grew). Luckily, in the written language, the forms of croître must be spelled with circumflexes.
- "Il a plu" can either mean "He pleased" or "It rained".
- Japanese is about as bad - in fact, the sheer number of homophones are one of the reasons why kanji are used in addition to kana. One particularly famous sentence demonstrating this is pronounced "Niwa no niwa de wa, niwa no niwatori ga niwaka ni wani wo tabeta," meaning "In Mr. Niwa's garden, two chickens suddenly ate an alligator."
- For the cost of a slightly broken grammar (replacing the instrumental case with locative, which are sufficiently similar in usage to be often confused even by the Japanese themselves) one can replace the "de" particle with "ni", making the phrase even more of a tongue twister.
- Ginatayomi is a kind of humorous Japanese wordplay based on ambiguity in where one word starts and another begins (as written Japanese uses no spaces between characters). Basically, a sentence with two interpretations, one perfectly normal, the other similar, but very strange. Example: Pan tsukutta koto aru means, "Have you ever made bread before?" But pantsu kutta koto aru means, "Have you ever eaten underwear before?"
- This one was played with in Cross Channel when protagonist Taichi says to attractive upperclassman Misato "pantsu o utte kudasai" ("please sell me your panties") but due to strong wind she hears it as "pan o tsukutte kudasai" ("please make me some bread").
- One (probably apocryphal) story goes that a man wants to say his hobby is fishing - tsuri - but accidentally pronounces it suri - pickpocketing. Hilarity Ensues.
- And then there's what can only be described as a Japanese "Who's on First?" when referring to the Indian naan bread: Kore wa naan desu ka? (Is this naan bread?) versus Kore wa nan desu ka? (What is this?) Perhaps not surprisingly, Yakitate!! Japan runs with this joke in one scene.
- Sumomo mo momo, momo mo momo, sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi - "Plums are peaches, and peaches are peaches, and plums and peaches are both types of peaches."
- Of course, the kanji is only as much of a failsafe for causing misunderstandings as it is cause for failure. As mentioned, there's a lot of words in Japanese that mean a number of different things. Take "hashi" for instance. Mixing up the kanji for it can have you writing gems like "I ate my ramen with bridge" and "I went over the mountain canyon over a chopsticks".
- The Chinese text 'The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den' takes this about as far as it goes by only using one syllable: 'shi'. The meaning is changed by the words' tones.
- Chinese. Ooh boy! The language is a goldmine of tonal puns. In Mandarin Chinese, the words for "sleep"（睡觉） and "soup dumpling"（水饺） differ in tones only. So be careful when you ask your female waitress how much a bowl of dumplings costs.
- In Latin-American Spanish, you can get a variety of good puns out of the fact that the words "marry" (casar) and "hunt" (cazar) are only one letter different (s versus z) and are pronounced exactly the same. These puns don't work in most of Spain, however, where "s" is pronounced like English "s" and "z" is pronounced essentially like the voiceless English "th" in "thumb" or "thin" (as opposed to the voiced "th" in then, which shows up for many, but not all, occurrences of "d").
- Two similar sentences, "Tengo diez años" and "Tengo diez anos," translate respectively: "I am ten years old" and "I have ten anuses." (This is a very common mistake for learners not because they sound alike but because ñ is a letter exclusive to Spanish, it is the equivalent of Italian "gn" or Latin "nn" and souns like an "n" followed by a "y" before the next vowel, it is wrong to assume that ñ is just an n.)
- The verbs "sentar" (to sit) and "sentir" (to feel) are identical in first-person singular ("siento"). This is the basis of an old joke, where a guy goes to the doctor, trying to explain that he feels bad... and the doctor just tells him to sit up straight.
- The words for "wine" and "came" are both the same (vino), which leads to the tongue twister "El vino vino, pero el vino no vino vino. El vino vino vinagre." (The wine came, but the wine did not come as wine. The wine came as vinegar.)
- Not to be beaten, Swedish has the famous instance of "poison" and "married" being pronounced - and spelled - the same (gift, actually pronounced "yeeft").note There's little chance for messing it up, though, since the grammar is different. "I am married" could be mistaken as "I am poison", but the latter phrase make little sense in common parlance. (On a Livejournal, on the other hand...) A somewhat more common mixup is the fact that the word for "six" (6) is "sex", while "sex" is... um... also "sex". Feel free to consider the possible situations...
- For added amusement, divide people into numbered groups, and watch as they try desperately to ignore (or draw attention to) that fact that they're in "Group six."
- Except that "gruppsex" ("group sex") and "grupp sex" ("group six") differ in both spelling and stress, the former is stressed on the first syllable and the latter on the second word, which means that no native would actually make that mistake, so the only time it comes up is when someone who likes that kind of humour is present. However, foreigners who haven't got the stress patterns down yet tend to do such mistakes often, and it's not just that pair that's a bit tricky, for example "slå på TV:n" means "turn on the TV" while "slå på TV:n" means "hit the TV".
- On a related note, as shown by "grupp sex" misspellings by adding or removing spaces can radically alter the meaning (for instance, "vardag" means the days of the workweek, while "var dag" means every day — or for a more comedic example, "skumtomte" is a kind of gelatinous candy in the shape of a gnome/Santa, while "skum tomte" is a suspicious-looking gnome/Santa). This is a mistake that occurs in real life (in Sweden itself, mostly as the replacement for grocer's apostrophe).
- Also in German, in which 6 = sechs and sex = Sex, both sounding VERY similar when you're a foreigner.
- In some German dialects sechs is pronounced like seks, similar sounding like sex even to the locals.
- The Danish and Norwegian word for six is "seks" so the words sounds identical. Sometimes leads to Heh Heh, You Said X.
- In Danish and Norwegian, "poison" and "married" not only sound the same, but are also spelled the same way.
- Swedish also has the wonderful: "Bar barbar-bar-barbar bar bar barbar-bar-barbar". Translates to: "Naked barbarian-bar barbarian carried naked barbarian-bar barbarian." As in a barbarian from a bar for barbarians. Ho'boy.
- Or even "Bare barbarian-bar barbarian bore bare barbarian-bar barbarian."
- Even English has the six/sex thing in some regional accents; New Zealanders infamously (at least, infamously to Australians) pronounce them alike.
- The old Scandinavian chestnut "Får får får?", meaning "Do sheep beget sheep?" For the record, one of the two accepted answers is "Får får får.", meaning "Sheep do beget sheep." It's also a very good joke. "Farfar, får får får?" "Nej, får får lamm." ~ "Grandpa, do sheep beget sheep?" "No, sheep beget lambs."
- It is entirely possible to have a coherent conversation in Tagalog, by repeating the same syllable, with slight variations in tone. Question: "Bababa ba?" (Is this going down?) Reply: "Bababa." (Yep, going down.) Commonly heard in elevators in the Philippines.
- And then there's English. Native speakers have enough trouble with it...
- "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."
- For those confused: Buffalo is a city (proper noun), an informal name for the American Bison (noun), and synonym for bully (verb). So what the sentence actually means is "Buffalo from Buffalo which are bullied by buffalo from Buffalo bully buffalo from Buffalo." Or, as The Other Wiki puts it: "Buffalo bison Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison."
- It goes one step further- the sentence is true for any number of Buffalo. One, it's an imperative (or an interjection: "BUUUFFAAALOOO!!!"), two, it's an object and a verb, three, it's basically whatever it has to be. The chain can continue for any number, since you can easily drop out an adjective or two without losing coherency.
- "Chad and Shad sat a grammar test. Chad, where Shad had had "had", had had "had had". "Had had" had had the approval of the teacher." Without punctuation or explanation, that sentence had had "had had" enough times in a row to be highly perplexing.
- "A woman, without her man, is nothing." vs. "A woman: without her, man is nothing."
- "If guns don't kill people, people kill people, then does that mean that toasters don't toast toast, toast toast toast?" (Verb noun, noun verb noun.)
- Italian man who went to Malta Shows quite well how such translation problems can show with English. Warning, midly NSFW
- Try to figure out where the punctuation is supposed to go in this one: that that is is that that is not is not that that is is not that that is not that that is not is not that that is is that not it it is. That that is, is. That that is not, is not. That that is is not that that is not. That that is not is not that that is. Is that not it? It is.
- In a similar vein, the most the word "that" can be used in a row in a sentence and still be grammatically correct is five: Did you know that that that that that nurse used was wrong? (In other words, Did you know that the "that" that the nurse over there used was wrong?)
- He put his sex in her sex and they had sex. But what was the sex of the baby that resulted from this sex?
- If "X and Y" should be hyphenated, you need to put the hyphens between X and and and and and Y.
- Wouldn't the sentence "I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign" have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?
- When spoken the New Zealander accent also has this problem (their pronunciation of "i" and "e" sounds very similar, at least to Australians). Ex. "Hill yis!" - Jemaine Clement
- "I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse" vs. "I helped my uncle jack off a horse."
- Did you help you uncle to dismount, or commit bestiality?
- "Did you read the red reed that I read?"
- Many school age children can attest to getting in trouble for saying 'Dam' (the big thing that blocks water, which is mainly used for flood control or providing hydroelectric power, or both), when the teacher though they'd said "Damn" (the swear word, which is short for "Damnation"). Bonus points if the student was actually talking about a persons mother in the genealogical sense.
- In Dutch, there's "Als achter vliegen vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegen achterna", meaning "When flies fly behind flies, flies fly after flies". "Vliegen" means "fly" both as in the insect and the verb.
- Exactly the same is true for German "fliegen", which means both "to fly" and "flies". There is also the same joke with "kriechen" (to crawl) and "Griechen" (Greeks), which is written differently but sounds the same, in certain regional accents. Leading to the popular "Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach."
- Another fun one in Dutch is the difference between the uu-sound (doesn't exist in English, but to get an idea, say ee and make your lips narrow and round) and the oe-sound (pronounced like the oo in shoo). For people speaking Dutch, the difference is clear as water, but people who don't even have the uu in their language often pronounce uu as oe. There are jokes about foreigners who want huren (to rent) but pronounce it hoeren (hookers).
- In some regional accents G is pronounced as CH and in others the difference between B and P or D and T is virtually indistinguishable. Then some people pronounce CH like SCH, and many more examples. It's usually not much of a problem in urban areas, but in rural areas even native Germans can become completely lost and unable to communicate with the locals.
- There is a Hebrew phrase that goes - "Isha Na'ala Na'ala Na'ala Na'ala et hadelet liphne ba'ala" meaning "A noble woman put on her shoe and locked the door in her husbands face (as likely as the next)/before her husband (as likely as the previous)/infront of her husband (the most likely)".
- There is also "Kama khol yakhol khol le'ekhol bekhol yamot hakhol em bekhlal yakhol khol le'ekhol khol bekhol yamot hakhol?" meaning "How much sand could a pheonix eat on a weekday if a phoenix could eat sand on a weekday?". Although, keep in mind that 'kh' means the hard h sound. So it's the Hebrew equivalent of "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood."
- Although with this example it is less common because Phoenixes are usually referred to as "Oph Ha Khol" which in turn could refer to a "Chicken of the Sand"
- In one of the academic libraries in Israel, a window had a sheet of paper attached to it that read (in Hebrew): "please keep closed so that ions won't enter". This puzzled a lot of students for quite a while; until someone realized, in a true moment of fridge brilliance, that it should rather be read "..so that pigeons won't enter". "Ions" and "pigeons" ("yonim") are homographs in Hebrew.
- The same word could also be read "yevvanim" (Greeks). But that was presumably not considered a likely reading of the phrase.
- In Spanish, we have 'Hay' (Are, is), 'Ay' (exclamation, like 'Ouch') and 'Ahí' (There). And they're all pronounced more or less the same way. This makes hell for a dyslexic.
- If you have trouble remembering which is which, just memorize the phrase "Ahí hay un hombre que dice ¡ay!" - There there is a man who says "ouch!".
- Purportedly, the ancient Egyptian words for "mother" and "vulture" sounded the same.
- That's probably just the "rebus" principle used by a lot of early logograms. It's theorized, for instance, that although the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli has a name written "Left-Hand Hummingbird", his name was actually "Left-Hand to the South". In Nahuatl, "south" and "hummingbird" sound nearly identical.
- In Turkish, "Müdür müdür müdür?" means "Is the principal a principal?"
- In Finnish, "Kokko, kokoo koko kokko. Koko kokkoko? Koko kokko" meaning "Kokko, pile up the entire bonfire. The entire bonfire? The entire bonfire". Finnish is full of similar situations.
- There is also "Kun lakkaa satamasta, haen lakkaa satamasta", which means "Once the rain stops I'll get cloudberries from the harbour. Finnish language has fifteen grammatical cases so lakkaa is either partitive of lakka (cloudberry) or present tense used as future for lakata (to cease). Note that Finnish doesn't have separate grammatically correct future tense, though Finglish happens nowadays. Satamasta is either elative of satama (harbour) or elative of an active infinitive form of the verb sataa (to rain). Google translated this pearl as "stops when I apply for a port stop port."
- The first part is also somewhat ambiguous, as "lakka" can either mean "cloudberry" as noted above, or "varnish".
- Another one, from a joke book: "Keksijä Keksi keksi keksin. Keksittyään keksin keksijä Keksi keksi keksin keksityksi." Or "Inventor Cookie invented a cookie. After inventing a cookie inventor Cookie noticed that a cookie had been invented." This particular gem abuses the similarity of the words "keksi" ("cookie") and "keksiä" ("to invent", it can also mean "to notice" but it's a more archaic meaning for it) to hell and back. In some tenses the words are actually identical.
- Again, "keksi" may also mean "rafter's hook" (a specific-use pike pole).
- And we mustn't forget the vocalization exercise, "the thought I thought I thought I thought was not the thought I thought I thought."
- Works with the French translation too: "la pensée que je pensais penser n'est pas la pensée que je pensais penser". Pensée, pensais and penser are often pronounced the same (not always, though)
- In (modern) Greek, the word for a "pair of shoes" and the slang word equating to "dick" are similar enough that beginning speakers can create some trouble for themselves in shoeshops in Athens. Trouble meaning police being called. "I need ___. Can you get a size 11?"
- One notorious example is Dan Brown (probably willfully) mistranslating "Novus Ordo Seculorum" as "new secular order" (i.e. a non-religious order or perhaps even an anti-religious one) despite the correct translation being well-known to be "New Order of the Ages". Part of the problem is that "secular", like many words (arguably, nearly all words in English), has more than one meaning; it can mean "non-religious", but it can also mean "long-term", as in "the secular motion of the Moon". Both definitions are actually the same. Secular things may last a long time but are not eternal, placed opposite divine things that have no beginning and no end.
- Played with on many web message boards, where it is sometimes a popular pastime (especially during the Christmas season) to deliberately abuse online translation services for laughs. For instance, "don we now our gay apparel" once came back as "we now put on our homosexual clothing".
- The Irish language has at least one example too. Critically, "Bhuail mé" means "I Hit/Struck", whereas "Bhuail mé le" means "I met/meet". Gets even worse when you consider mixing up meeting your wife in the evening to "hitting" your wife in the evening.
- Have you stopped meeting your wife yet?
- In German, the words Wirt (host or innkeeper) and wird ([he/she/it] becomes) sound practically the same. Thus the saying: Wer nichts wird, wird Wirt. ([He] who becomes nothing becomes an innkeeper.)
- Also, in German, isst ([he/she/it] eats) and ist ([he/she/it] is) are pronounced identically. The famous phrase "You are what you eat" thus comes out as Man ist, was man isst, which when spoken would come off as rather Shaped Like Itself (unless you smartly translate the "you" as referring to a specific person, which makes it "Du bist, was du isst").
- In Spanish, "dura lo que dura dura". The first 2 times, dura's meaning is the one related to duration, the second time, its used as an adjective, of how hard something is, so it translates as "it lasts, as long as its hard".
- And there's also the infamous "¿Cómo cómo como? Como como como", which translates roughly as "What do you mean, how do I eat? I eat the way I eat". "Como" can be either "I eat" or "like", "the way". "Cómo" can be "what" (e.g. when asking someone to repeat a word) or "how".
- Worse than that. The accent marks the stressed syllable. Without an accent? If the word ends in a vowel, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. Cómo and como are pronounced identically.
- There was a highly mediatized and parodied incident where Bill Clinton came to Romania with the occasion of its integration into NATO (or something like that). At one point, Bill Clinton states as best as I recall "We shall march forward, shoulder to shoulder". The woman translator, which incidentally until then did a good job (considering it was a live broadcast), translated it into "șold la șold” (which sounds almost identical, "ș is read as ”sh” in English). Which means ”hip next to hip”. Hilarity Ensues when you imagine two presidents jointed at the hip, not being able to go anywhere without the other being forced to move to the same place. If this hadn't been accidental, it would have earned a Crowning Moment Of Awesome to anyone who made such a joke, but it would have probably not have been so well known.
- In recent news, a Turkish man messaged his wife a sentence that reads "You change the topic every time you run out of arguments". The cellphone doesn't have the letter "ı", however, and used the standard letter "i" instead, so the word "sıkışınca" looked far too much like the word "sikişince" — which changed the sentence to "You change the topic every time you f***". His wife showed the message to her father, who was enraged; this actually led to two deaths. You would think that someone familiar with their own language and is probably aware of their hardware's limitations would take greater care not to accidentally convey "f***" when they mean something else.
- American Sign Language has a few of these as well. The signs for 'hungry' and 'horny' are basically the same sign with one moving up and one moving down. 'Recently' and 'sex' are the same, with one moving backwards and one moving forwards. 'Shy' and 'hooker' can be mistaken for each other.
- In fact, almost every sign in ASL is similar to another, and a lot of them only differ by a few centimetres (moving a finger down five or ten centimetres can completely change a meaning, for example). For this reason, in deaf culture, it's extremely impolite to interrupt a conversation - it takes a lot of concentration even for fluent signers to see the difference between some signs.
- A common example when studying theology, specifically, possible translation errors in the bible, the phrase "GODISNOWHERE" is used. This can be interpreted both as "God is now here" or "God is nowhere". Simply put, Hebrew can be a bit confusing to translate if you don't know the context.
- Slavic languages with their many grammatical cases, declinations and importance of proper accenting to differentiate them can have sentences become indecipherable/wrong thanks to one wrongly placed stress.
- For example in Bosnian: "Gore gore gore gore." can mean 16 different things (with each "gore" meaning either Up, Worse, Burn or Forested Mountain depending on where you place your stresses.)
- Thai being a tonal language, locals like to tease foreigners with the sentence "Green wood won't burn — will it?" This comes out as "Mai mai MAI mai mai...", with different tones of the same phoneme.
- Finnish and Estonian belong to the same language group called Finno-Ugric, and are therefore quite similar. Amusingly, however, the word in one language for "government" is the same as the word for "fungus" in the other.
- And it's also an English noun, home.
- Finnish also has this gem. Taken from The Other Wiki:
Olin seitsemän vuotta sedälläni kodossa renkinä (Finnish for "I spent seven years at my uncle's home as a servant"). This is to tease Eastern Tavastians, who pronounce 'd' as 'l'. It becomes Olin seitsemän vuotta selälläni kolossa renkinä, which means "I spent seven years a servant in a hole, lying on my back" – certain connotations of being a sex slave.
- Then there is "crack" (Anglicization of Irish language "craic", or is it the other way around?), slangy word for good-time-and-good-company.note There is a tale of a Bronx bar which advertised "free crack", and found it had been — misunderstood.
- An example from English: removing the apostrophe from Joe Blow's Seafood changes the meaning from "Seafood belonging to Joe Blow" to "Joe performs lewd acts on seafood." Oh no, they left it out!
- Also, "blow" can be a slang term for "vomit". Which really isn't much better.
- In Dutch, there's the question: "Wat was was eer was was was?" and the answer: "Eer was was was was was is." Right up to the last word, they could be talking about laundry, or wax - but the last word says that it's actually about the past tense of to be. It works in English too: "What was was before was was was?" "Before was was was, was was is" (would you believe me if I said the English sentence actually has a different word order from the Dutch one?)
- The English is "What was 'was' before 'was' was 'was'?" while the Dutch is "What was 'was' before 'was', 'was' was?"
- "Wydrze wydrzę wydrze wydrze wydrze wydrzę" is hardly understandable even to native Polish speakers until you explain that it means "A young otter will snatch a young otter from an otter". "Wydrzę" means "a young otter", while "wydrze" means either "of an otter", "(it) will snatch", "from an otter" and possibly other things depending on context.
- Another examples from Polish where spaces define the meaning: "To nie my toniemy, to niemy!" ("It's not us who's sinking, it's the mute man!"), "Jakiś pijak, jaki śpi jak jakiś pijak" ("A drunkard, who sleeps like a drunkard"), "Może my możemy?" ("Maybe we can?"), "Włodzimierz! Włodzi w łodzi w Łodzi mierz" ("Vladimir! Take measurements for Vlad, who's in a boat, in (the city of) Łódź"), and so on.
- Navajo, like the Chinese languages, has many words distinguished from each other by tone. It's not nearly as homophonous, but you still need to be careful, or you might refer to your maternal great-grandmother (shichó; the "shi" is a possessional prefix meaning "my"; all kinship and body part terms require such a prefix) as your penis (shicho). Similarly, the difference between the word for beaver (chaa') and the word for shit (chą́ą́) is a nasalized vowel.
- Gets worse when Navajos interact with Apaches, whose language is closely related. E.g., "take his hand" in Navajo means "take his male parts" in Apache.
- The Russian example is "Kosil kosoy-kosoy Kosoy kosoy-kosoy kosoy". It means "The very squint-eyed person nicknamed Kosoy mowed with a very slanted scythe".
- There's an infamous Latin phrase "malo malo malo malo" or "I would rather be in an apple tree then an evil man in adversary."
- Latin has tons of homophones like this, although they're seldom spelled the same. In the example above one of them would have to have two L's. There's also fere (almost), fero (I bear), ferre (to bear), ferro (by the iron object), and so on.
- This same ambiguity, probably combined with ancient Pop-Cultural Osmosis regarding the Greek myth of the Apple of Discord, is probably how Western civilization got the idea that the fruit that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden was an apple.
- Relating to the modern Greek example above, in Ancient Greek, every word is accented in order to mark which syllable recieves the stress when speaking or reading. Changing where the stress falls in certain words can totally change the meaning of a word. Before the Bible was translated to Greek, texts in Greek didn't contain the accents, leaving the reader to guess at the meanings on context alone.
- In Portuguese, "bala" can mean both "gum" (as in the candy) and "bullet" (as in gun bullet), and these two are pronounced the exact same way. That means saying "Eu tenho uma bala" in Brazil can mean both "I have a gum" and "I have a bullet". Thankfully, the intended meaning is almost always deduced by the context.
- In Italian, "La pena" means "The Penalty" (plural: "Le pene"), whereas "Il pene" means "The penis". Genders don't seem so pointless anymore, do they?
- There's also "caro/a/i/e", which as a noun means "darling(s)", and as an adjective means "expensive". The Italians clearly have a grim view of relationships.note
- In German, don't mix up the verbs "schießen" (To shoot) and "scheißen" (to shit). Fortunately they're not too similar spoken. While we're at it, let's mix in "schließen" (to close) and "Scheiben" (slices).
- There's also "gewaltig" (huge) and "gewaltätig" (violent).
- And there's also "Süßigkeiten" (Literally "sweet things", or sweets) and "Süchtigkeiten" (Addictive things).
- It's unlikely to happen with native speakers, but when studying Arabic a certain amount of confusion among the various "a" "s" and "t" sounds is inevitable. To summarize: s and t each have two corresponding letters in Arabic, with the difference coming across in emphasis alone. It's not usually a problem affecting the meaning but can easily trip up someone trying to take dictation or just guess the spelling of a new word. Meanwhile, Arabic has several sounds that, to Anglophones, all sound like "a:" alif (an elongated ah), fatha (short a), taa marbuta (a gender marking), and 'ayn, which doesn't exist in English at all. This can cause a certain amount of confusion when one's listening skills aren't up to fluency, particularly when it comes to words like "azeez" and "'azeez" ("wheeze" and "dear").
- When making a speech in Vietnam, Richard Nixon infamously attempted the language, which is both tonal and very difficult to speak for native English speakers. Instead of saying (without tone marks) "Viet Nam muon nam" (Vietnam, a thousand years, equivalent to saying "long live Vietnam") he said, "Viet Nam muon nam" or "Vietnamese want to lie down." Surprisingly, he got applause for this.
- Also in Vietnamese, the name of the world's most famous beverage, Coca Cola, when said uninflected, literally means "She sings, she screams." When the drink first arrived in Vietnam, legend has it that some people thought it was either an alcoholic beverage, an aphrodisiac, or both.
- In French, it's possible for friends to converse as follows: "Ça va?" "Ça va, ça va?" "Ça va aussi." which translates to "How are you?" "I'm well, how are you?" "I'm well also".