Even the Subtitler Is Stumped
"A PERSONAL NOTE FROM THE CAPTION WRITER: If you have any idea what the Swedish Chef is saying, then you are waaaaay ahead of me."
A common gag about The Unintelligible
or people Speaking Simlish
(or foreign languages presented
as such) is that eventually even the guy writing the subtitles/closed captions gives up and types "???" or something similar.
In Real Life
, closed captions of live television do occasionally result in typos or glitched text, but if the typist can't catch up they tend to just stop and pick up at the next sentence. More rarely, if the subtitler really doesn't understand, or it's obvious that character isn't meant
to be understood, they'll type something along the lines of [UNINTELLIGIBLE], [CROSSTALK] or [PH] (for 'phonetic'). A Gag Sub
or Fan Sub
, though, tends to be a bit less formal about this kind of thing.
A subtrope of Fun with Subtitles
Before you start entry pimping, please make sure that your examples actually qualify for this trope. Cases of accidentally misheard/mistyped words don't count — it has to be done on purpose.
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- An ad for the PSP version of Rock Band, translating British slang for American viewers, which ends with "????".
- This is also used for several commercials that involve the memetically unintelligible Ozzy Osbourne.
Anime & Manga
- Scott Pilgrim often has expository subtitles for characters, but not even the subtitles know Ramona's age, or much else about her or about other mysterious characters. On one occasion when random background characters are talking, one girl is given a name and the other is labeled, "I don't know this girl". This might indicate that the subtitles are from Scott's point of view.
- And then again, Scott learns that Knives Chau had turned 18 from the subtitles.
- In Turnabout Storm, the local mailmare of Ponyville constantly changes her name between Derpy Hooves, Ditzy Doo and Bright Eyes, berating Twilight every time she "gets it wrong". The dialogue box continuously switches the names around and tries to keep up, but by the end of the conversation it's so confused that it simply resorts to ???.
- The "English English" sequence between Austin Powers and his father during Austin Powers in Goldmember, which starts of as (subtitled) cockney but devolves into gibberish. Also brings a touch of Something Something Leonard Bernstein by ending with "shat on a turtle!".
- Brad Pitt's character in Snatch is deliberately unintelligible as a response to complaints about hard-to-understand British actors in the director's previous film. Certainly his subtitles have gaps. The DVD commentary reveals that Pitt came up with the gibberish on his own and even he has no idea what he's supposed to be saying. There is an option on the DVD to turn on "Pikey Subtitles," which explain what his and other Pikey characters are saying, but at one point even they are stumped, and resort to the aforementioned "???"
- In the Soviet movie The Diamond Arm, the foreign smugglers speak nonsensical gibberish dubbed into Russian in the background. Eventually they get into a heated debate, obviously starting to call each other names, and the translator says in a deadpan voice, "What follows is untranslatable wordplay using local idiomatic expressions."
- Played With in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. When Ethan wakes up in a Russian hospital, he tries to listen to a local news report on television. The subtitles show up... in Cyrillic. They slowly shift to English as Ethan regains his faculties.
- Even a book did this! The Daily Show's America (The Book) gave us a frustrated translator trying to tell us what all of the Australian slang in Waltzing Matilda meant, ending with "English-speaking country, my ass".
- The only translator's note in the French edition of Good Omens occurs on page 401 out of 466. It reads "Ici, le traducteur rend les armes et se borne à signaler qu'en argot américain, le mot faggot désigne un homosexuel", or "Here, the translator surrenders and will merely point out that faggot is an American slang word for homosexual". This is the scene where the American soldier misunderstands Newt's demand for faggots, as in bundles of wood, to burn.
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is such a nightmarish book to translate that in one Spanish edition there is a massive footnote by the translator in the very first page saying something along the lines of "you know, Lewis Carroll wrote an unending roller coaster of linguistic puns and multiple meanings, so whole paragraphs have been made up to make any sense in Spanish."
- In the Ciaphas Cain novel Duty Calls, Amberley - who frequently explains odd terms in the footnotes, often snarkily - openly admits that she has no idea what some of her assistant Zemelda's slang means.
- The Finnish translation of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather adds a footnote where the translator concedes defeat regarding a "anthill inside" sticker on a computer.
- In Dave Barry Slept Here, a third of the words in Washington's famous presidential addresses are replaced by "[something]" (or, in one case, "[machines? birds?]") due to the fact that microphones didn't exist back then.
Live Action TV
- The Eddie Murphy skit "Buckwheat Sings" - or rather, "Buh-weet Sings" - from Saturday Night Live. He sings "Three Times a Lady", which the captions identify as "Fee Tines a Mady", then "Lookin' for Love" ("Wookin' pa Nub"). But when he starts singing "Bette Davis Eyes," the caption just says, "?????" because he's so unintelligible.
- In another sketch, a TV translator working live for a Gorbachev speech gets confused, mixed up, and discombobulated, with humorous results. He finally pretends that Gorbachev is saying that he's so ticked at the translator that he's going to switch into unintelligible nonsense. Better yet, the sketch is partly a jab at the then-fledgling Fox network.
- There's a twist on this in a episode of 30 Rock where Liz is speaking German to some Germans (with normal subtitles) and then the Germans speak too fast for her to understand. The subs say "We acquire to... ... ... ...hubcap... ... ... ... ??????"
- There was also the episode where Jack demonstrated how handsome people think they can speak French, but actually can't. He says something in French which gets translated to random letters in the subtitles. It's just French-sounding gibberish.
- One line of the Gag Sub for the Jet Jaguar Song is written as YAHMMMAAHOAAHOAAAUGH!
- Viva La Bam - Whenever Don Vito freaks out he talks too fast, making subtitles which often degenerate into question marks necessary.
- In the Royal Pains episode "TB Or Not TB," Evan tries to interpret for an Italian girl with his rudimentary Berlitz-course Italian. The subtitles for his speech are ungrammatical and in a wobbly font; the subtitles for her speech start off legible, and then degenerate into "Etc.... Etc.... Etc...." as she speaks too fast for him.
- There's a scene in Scrubs when Dr. Cox is talking to his young son Jack. He points out that as Jack is getting older, his baby talk is getting more and more comprehensible. Jack then says something subtitled as "I like pizza... ??????... lightning!"
- One episode of MythBusters had Adam talking with an exaggerated French accent and accompanying subtitles. Eventually, the subtitles state "...I think I'm losing my marbles" and start flashing "?????". (The episode is Steam Machine Gun)
- The reality show Solitary used this one. One challenge involved wearing a ball gag for as long as possible. Subtitles were used to translate the mumbling, but at one point, it turned into "???"
- This is played with in Father Ted, where a woman is singing on TV, accompanied by another woman who is signing the song lyrics. When the singer gets to the line "Women rule the land of T?na n?", the woman signing simply shrugs and gives up.
- An episode of The Amazing Race put up "???????" while showing one-time Big Brother winner Jordan Lloyd talking while eating a baguette.
- Smallville's closed captions have "She speaks unintelligibly" when Zatanna uses her Magical Incantations. Which is a shame, because it sounds like the writers and actress went to a bit of effort to actually do the "backwards speech" thing.
- At least a few times on The Osbournes, the closed caption would simply say "Ozzy mumbling".
- Horrible Histories: "The News in Tudor Criminal Slang" begins with a translator accurately translating the slang, gradually getting confused, and finally giving up.
- The D Generation did a sketch that parodied the band Australian Crawl and and frontman James Reyne's famously unintelligible delivery. Subtitles on the screen translated the lyrics; starting off accurately but eventually degenerating into things like "Someting about a rash... Something about leather goods?...".
- "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Smells Like Nirvana" (pictured above), which is all about how nobody can suss out what Kurt Cobain is singing: "It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss???/with all these marbles in my mouth." What makes the joke even funnier is that these are the official lyrics, question marks included.
- In the video for The D Generation's "Five in a Row", they ran sign language translation for a parody of James Reyne that featured the translator giving up and signing, "I can't understand him either".
Stand Up Comedy
- Michael McIntyre once claimed to have seen a nature documentary in which David Attenborough found and named a new species of fish. The problem was that, since it was a late-night repeat, the show was being translated into sign language by an interpreter, who apparently hadn't been prepared for this. When the newly-discovered fish was revealed and dubbed, the guy in the corner panicked, and resorted to miming the fish.
- Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has a bit in one of his routines in which his puppet Peanut claims to have deliberately rattled off a string of nonsense words, and then pretended to talk without actually saying anything, in order to confuse a group of deaf people watching the show with the help of a sign language interpreter.
- The comedian Marcus had a joke about how no one can understand Sylvester Stallone when he breaks down. His best example came from the end of Rambo. The subtitles? "Hell if I know. You're on your own, big guy."
- Kingdom Hearts: When Sora and company run into Tarzan, he uses a gorilla word —"Eh oo, oo-oo ah"—that gets captioned as *&&X%. Apparently that's gorilla for "heart" and not a shout out to the song "Witch Doctor".
- In Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, if someone speaks in a language your character doesn't understand, the subtitles appear as "Speaks a foreign language".
- Interestingly, the game has the relevant subtitles, it's just that it will only play them for the character who speaks that language. Each of the three Mercs has a different second language that allows them to understand the pre-briefing conversations with one of the three non-American contacts.
- They're also linguistically correct, so a player who speaks Chinese, Korean or Russian might not need them.
- In Tales of Destiny fan subbing of the body switching skit, the trope was invoked in the middle of the skit when everybody started to talk at the same time.
- In Itadaki Street (the one released internationally) Donkey and Diddy Kong speak in monkey noises translated in parentheses. Except their "promotion song", which is a long string of monkey noises, translated as the same string of monkey noises.
- In Silent Hill 4, if Elaine's injuries get very grave, her mumblings are subtitled as random symbols.
- In Uncharted 2, we have Tenzin, whose dialogue is composed of and subtitled with [speaking Tibetan]. No translation for you because Nate doesn't speak a word of Tibetan - though a player who does will be pleasantly surprised.
- In Borderlands 2, Jimbo Hodunk, if spoken to, will just mumble incoherent things, which is subtitled [Coot rambling]. His son Tector understands him just fine, though, and will translate if Jimbo's actually saying something important.
- Also the Bane SMG, screams [Annoying sounds] though it seems more like a continuous shout of "YEAHYEAHEYEAH...".
- In Max Payne 3, which is set in Brazil, whenever anyone speaks Portuguese, the subtitles simply show the untranslated Portuguese text. This is done deliberately so that the player shares Max's confusion of being in a foreign land and not knowing the language.
- In Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, several aliens speak in unintelligible alien languages but with comprehensible subtitles, with the explicit statement that your character is multi-lingual and can understand them. The exception is the service droid T3-N4, who communicates with beeps and whistles... and his subtitles spell out the beeps and whistles without translating. You can usually deduce what the droid said based on your available responses, and sometimes it will be translated by a different character.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic abandons this for translated droid beeping and whistling, but the translations tend to use fairly odd syntax.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, ED-E the eyebot communicates through beeping, particularly in the Lonesome Road DLC where he plays an important part. The subtitles often add context to his noise, such as "sneaky beeping" or "sad whine". The Courier is able to understand this perfectly, somehow.
- ED-E's ending narration is also in beeping, and subtitled the same — but only if you have the subtitles on, otherwise you'll have no idea what he's saying.
- During one quest, you can use skill checks on a cook to diagnose latent trauma from family troubles. He goes into a rant so bizarre that even the game can't tell if you succeeded in the check, merely offering a [?] until he finally breaks down.
- Ico: Both Ico and Yorda speak in some sort of Con Lang, but only Ico's dialogue has proper subtitles. Yorda's speech is rendered into what looks like hieroglyphs to emphasize that whatever language she's speaking, it's completely alien to Ico. (In non-NTSC versions of the game, Yorda's speech is rendered in English subtitles in New Game+.)
- In Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time, when the game introduces Caveman Cooper, he tries to introduce himself only for his real name to come up in complete gibberish in the subtitles, even though the rest of his speech is translated perfectly fine.
- In Rhythm Heaven Fever, one of the minigames, Donk-Donk, was so weird that the English releases didn't bother to explain what was going on, instead opting to tell the player to do "that thing we do". And can you really blame them?
- With the subtitles turned on in Octo Dad, the eponymous character's "speech" is rendered as things like "concerned blurbling".
- The opening to the Lazer Collection Five. A transcript is below, though it's better you experience it yourself here:
: ''In the world of Abrupt Comedy, THERE'S ONLY ONE COLLECTION YOU NEED! It's the greatest collection around, it's got RRRR
(Incomprehensible noises. Subtitles just say: ...um.) It's the thing with the place and the guys in the side (Subtitles add: Wait what) and the things with all of the monsters (Subtitles add: ...?) And the (More incomprehensible noises. Subtitles: Dude, come on. Whatever bro.) I WANNA RIDE IN AN AIRPLANE!
- Played with in this video. The subtitler first replaces a chunk of the song with "words words words words words words words words, more words" out of sheer laziness, then gives up completely.
- SonnyBone's Fun With Ahmed series.
- That Guy with the Glasses's Colbert Report theme lyrics video.
- The Linkara / Spoony joint-spoofing of the Warrior comics gets in on this during the Ultimate Warrior's rants (both the real ones and Spoony's impression of him).
- The Rap Critic and Todd in the Shadows both do this. Todd will often only put subtitles to invoke this trope, while Rap Critic will already have subtitles.
- In Chester A. Bum's silent review of The Artist, the cations read (something about a platypus), and later, (he literally said nothing during that).
- In the Bowser's Kingdom series of Flash cartoons, every character has subtitles (except in a couple of the videos). When a character called The Inaudible Thwomp speaks, the subtitles will eventually degrade into "???". Here is an example from Episode 7:
Inaudible Thwomp: Alright you better listen up because I'm gonna sing the National Anthem alright you people better listen up alright. Oh say can you see by the dawns early light what so proudly we hail ??? Stars? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? Stripes rockets red glare? ??? ???
— Paul Hammerbro throws a hammer at him.
- My Way Entertainment, during their Bleach parody. Ichigo's dad says, "Welcome to the world of motherfucking midgets and...(gibberish)", while the subtitles simply show a string of question marks.
- This parody of the Death Note opening, near the end. (WARNING: Contains racially sensitive language!)
- Muppet Viral Videos: The Swedish Chef makes popcorn shrimp. Hilarity Ensues. Make sure to turn on the Closed Captions, but even the caption writer admits to not understanding the Swedish Chef.
- The ending of episode four of Water Human features a Skype conversation between the authors and one of the fans. In the English subtitles on YouTube, it's mostly question marks.
- Yu-Gi-Oh the Other Abridged Series subtitles the opening and closing themes. It's... interesting.
- Speaking of Abridged Series, Ev Abridged gives us this in their second installment: 
- At one point in The Nipple Song, the "subtitler" gives up because the singer is going too fast.
- Arlo P. Arlo from What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?? describes his family's Christmas traditions.
- Pilipinos Do Hab Souls. Presumably, the subtitles are there so viewers can understand the comedian... except the subtitles have the same accent. Rule of Funny, of course.
- Used hilariously here.
- This Tourettes Guy video. (2:00 if time doesn't jump)
- This trope occurs when a Predator tries to sing.
- In a YouTube video of Leslie Uggams losing the lyrics of June Is Busting Out All Over, subtitles go into #&$&# at one point.
- Pick one of raocow's gameplay videos. Any of them. Prepare for hilarity to ensue.
- Rhett & Link have a skit where they act out a scene, have YouTube close-caption it, act out the scene again with YouTube's new dialogue, Have YouTube close-caption it again, and perform the scene a third time with the double-mutated dialogue, which is by now complete and total gibberish. Presenting: Caption FAIL.
- YouTube can sometimes even be meta about it where all that would show in some scenes is "uh...".
- The Misheard Lyrics videos on YouTube are the deliberate version of this trope. Especially hilarious versions of this are the ones made out of songs by Sean Paul, especially for his song Temperature, where the subtitles never make any sense at all.
- In Nintendo Gamer's Iwata Asks... an internet fanboy, after a particularly unintelligible rant we get this:
IWATA: I apologise, but my English is not very good. I am struggling to understand much of what you are saying. Perhaps my translator can help. [Looks at translator]
TRANSLATOR: [Shakes head]
- PeanutButterGamer , during the SkiFree section of his "Top Ten Jerks in Video Games" video, he starts to sing his "I Like to Ski" song, which eventually devolves into unintelligible gibberish right before he's killed.
PBG: (Singing) I like to ski! I like to ski! I can ski free! I can ski free! I am going down the snow! I do not know which way I go. ????????? GO! I like to ski! *yeti'd*
- Happens in this Kud video called "Mijn elleboog" ("My elbow") about a man trying to touch his chin with his elbow.
- Used as an in-universe gag in Horton Hears a Who!. The mayor is embarrassed about what he wants to say to the people in a meeting, and is speaking in mumbles unintelligibly, trying to dodge the point. The secretary taking notes on this meeting transcribes his mumbling as small, illegible gibberish.
- In an episode of Family Guy, Peter and his Irish dad had a Drinking Contest and spoke "drunk" to each other. It sounded like incoherent gibberish, but according to the subtitles, they were actually having an uncharacteristically intelligent argument... until the end, when Peter's dad rambled off a couple lines of untranslatable nonsense right before passing out.
- In one of the 1960s Popeye cartoons, Popeye goes to rescue Olive from a pyramid, encounters the natives, who speak absolute gibberish (even by his standards), and proclaims, "What this conversation needs is some subtitles." Said subtitles then promptly appear, but Popeye must read them out loud to understand them.
- A MAD short did a parody of Toy Story 3. At one point, Buzz realizes he can speak Spanish and the subtitles change from English subtitles for when he speaks Spanish and Spanish subtitles for when he speaks English. Then he says "I can haz Spanish" and the subtitles are pretty much rendered as "?????".
- Phineas and Ferb' has a subtitle-free variant in an episode in which Ferb translates his grandfather's bizarre British slang. After a particularly odd statement, he simply says, "I have no idea."