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Reality Has no Subtitles

"For those of you who don't speak French, he just said (beat) something in French."
Horrible Histories' take on William I's coronation speech.

At any point when a foreign language is spoken, no captions are given. So, it's untranslated and - when you don't speak the lingo - you have to take a stab at the definition from the context, body language, some really not-so-vivid hand dancing, or the responses of other characters with better experience in the matter.

When subtitles are given, they're in the foreign language (when you put subtitles on - cheers, that helps). This also includes instances when someone is so drunk or crazy (or an Ewok) that you need subtitles to understand the sounds they're making and, of course, when a foreigner curses (and such) in their native tongue.

Basically, if something should be subtitled for the audience to be reasonably expected to understand it, but it isn't. As such, single, recognisable phrases such as those that are common in Poirot Speak — 'Bonjour', 'Gracias' etc — don't count.

This may be used to make a point of the Language Barrier — our viewpoint character can't understand what's being said, so neither can we, forcing us to empathise with their confusion or isolation. If this is the case, a bit of Translation Convention may come into play, with languages the character does understand being subtitled.

Compare Fun with Subtitles. This is related to Bilingual Bonus and Viewers Are Geniuses. Compare and contrast Even the Subtitler Is Stumped, when subtitles are attempted but impossible due to comic unintelligibility.


Examples:

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    Advertising 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Suisei no Gargantia, Ledo and the people of Gargantia don't understand each other at first, until Chamber learns enough of the native language to act as interpreter. This manifests as "Reality Has Subtitles" by virtue of Chamber's translations appearing as text on Ledo's Heads-Up Display.

    Comic books 
  • Used in early issues of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book, where Chinese people were given dialog in Chinese with no translation for this reason.
  • In a How To Get Fired comic strip about Doctors, the man who always gets fired is the only one with a speech bubble in actual words, saying "improve our handwriting?", as all the other Doctors' speech bubbles are illegible scribbles.

    Film 
  • In Mr Beans Holiday, that French kid and the man's short film. Anything that Mr Bean can't understand is untranslated, but thankfully rather irrelevant to the story.
  • Half of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, i.e. whenever Cristina and/or Vicky are around the Spanish who don't speak English.
  • In The Guns of Navarone:
    • Captain Mallory talks on the phone with the Nazi guard commander while pretending to be a Nazi sentry. The entire dialogue between them is in German with no translation (but from their facial expressions and intonations you can generally figure out what they're saying).
    • When the Nazi E-boat stops the fishing boat the protagonists are on, Captain Mallory pretends to be the skipper and speaks in Greek to both the E-boat captain and his own crew. Again, he uses gestures and facial expressions to make his meaning clear to the audience.
  • The Matrix Reloaded
    • While the Merovingian is giving his speech about how French is his favorite language, he speaks a long phrase in French (which is actually a string of curse words) with no translation.
    • After Persephone helps Neo, Morpheus and Trinity rescue the Keymaker, the Merovingian shows up and curses her in French for betraying him.
  • Trainspotting has both the foreign slang and the incomprehensibility.
  • Lost in Translation is heavy handed in this, but it works for the movie's story. When two Americans are stuck in Japan for different reasons, and can't speak the native language, they start to feel very isolated, especially in a culture so foreign to the West. Having characters speak in Japanese without offering any subtitles emphasizes the isolation both of them feel, and how alien it could be in that world without anyone around to communicate with.
  • It is famously used in The Third Man to emphasize how totally out of his area the American main character is when he visits Vienna.
  • Bon Cop, Bad Cop could walk this line, depending on the version you're watching. (The film is 'bilingual', dealing with a Quebec cop and an Ontario cop.) For the English version, though, the scene with the French coroner is untranslated and passes by quickly. The French cop later admits he didn't understand what was said, either.
  • Star Wars:
    • The Ewoks in Return of the Jedi are incomprehensible to all but some of the characters who share the screen with them.
    • Done to quite an irritating extent in The Star Wars Holiday Special, where the first chunk of the special is a family of Wookies speaking to each other without subtitles nor with an outside English-speaking character to react to them.
    • In The Phantom Menace, whatever young Anakin says to the Hutts is untranslated.
    • In A New Hope the Sandpeople have their own language, too.
    • Throughout the franchise, Chewbacca and R2-D2 are comprehensible mainly to only their counterparts, Han Solo and C-3PO.
  • In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Ghost Dog's best friend is a French-speaking ice cream seller who isn't subbed because Ghost Dog doesn't understand the language.
  • For The Passion of the Christ, the original plan was to have no subtitles during the whole film. Remember, the entire film is in Aramaic and Latin. This idea was scrapped.
  • In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar signs that Will should ask Caroline out to dinner. This is left untranslated as Caroline can't understand the signs used.
  • In the 1982 film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Edward James Olmos plays the title character and speaks in untranslated Spanish throughout the film. This was done at Olmos's suggestion to emphasize the isolation Cortez felt as a Mexican outlaw in south Texas during the early 20th century.
  • In The Hobbit Elvish speech is subtitled in all instances but one: when the dwarves arrive in Rivendell, Elrond (after speaking with Gandalf) looks at them and says something in Elvish. The dwarves (who don't speak Elvish, as Elves VS Dwarves is in full effect) bristle and ask if he offers them insults, but Gandalf quickly intervenes and says he's offering them supper. Of course, Elrond speaks the Common Speech just fine, so he's probably just messing with them.
  • The Peacemaker has long segments of untranslated Russian dialog, which subtitles helpfully refer to as "[Men speaking in Russian]".
  • Hudson Hawk. While Hudson is ordering food at a restaurant he speaks in Italian. At the end of the order he asks for some ketchup and the waiter walks away complaining about the uncultured American. None of their Italian dialogue is subtitled.
  • The independent Russian film The Cuckoo is entirely about this: A Finnish man and a Russian man are stranded together in the wilderness with a local woman. All three can only speak and understand their native language, guessing what the others are saying through body language and emotions. The DVD release gave the option to watch with or without subtitles, though it's understandable without them—even if what they're saying is not entirely clear that way.
  • Red Tails has some fun with this. Since there's a Language Barrier between Lightning and his girlfriend Sofia, her Italian is un-subtitled. At the same time, when the German ace "Pretty Boy" talks to his compatriots his German is subtitled.
  • In Superman II, when the astronaut Boris first meets General Zod on the Moon, he says several words of untranslated Russian to him (presumably it was the equivalent of "Who are you and what are you doing here?").
  • In Big Trouble in Little China, while David Lo Pan is interrogating Wang Chi and Jack Burton, he speaks in Chinese to Wang Chi with no translation for the audience. Whatever he said, it sounded threatening.
  • In Pitch Black, Abu al-Walid, Ali, Hassan and Suleiman on their way to New Mecca aren't subtitled when whey speak or pray in Arabic, and they speak English when they talk with the other people.
  • You Only Live Twice:
    • Tiger Tanaka speaks untranslated Japanese to his underlings several times.
    • The Soviet ground controllers and cosmonauts speak untranslated Russian during the launch and flight.
    • James Bond is about to have his chest hair dyed black as part of his Japanese disguise. He says "Why don't you just dye the parts that show?" His first Bond Girl Aki repeats this in Japanese to the female Japanese attendants (who apparently don't speak English) and they all laugh.
    • When Bond and his second Bond Girl Kissy Suzuki arrive at the Ama village, she talks to several of the villagers in Japanese.
  • In Wreck-It Ralph Q*bert's speech is that of the videogames, even when Felix is using it. The rest of the Nicelanders are clueless behind.
  • Whenever someone is speaking Norse at the start of The 13th Warrior, someone else is usually nearby to translate it into Arabic (ie, English) for the benefit of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. When he leaves with Bulliwye's group, their conversations around the evening campfire are untranslated and don't have subtitles. Over the montage of their journey, English words and phrases are gradually slipped into the conversations, making up more of what is said, to indicate ibn Fadlan's learning of the language.
  • Bladerunner. When Roy Batty and Leon intrude into Chew's laboratory, Chew yells at them in Chinese several times, and speaks a phrase of Chinese to them later. None of this is translated.
  • Indiana Jones films
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark
      • Belloq speaks to the Hovitos in their native language, presumably telling them how great he is to have retrieved their holy object.
      • While Indy is trying to capture the flying wing, the huge guard calls out to the pilot in German.
      • After Indy sneaks into the secret Nazi island base he performs a Mugged for Disguise on a Nazi soldier for the purpose of Dressing as the Enemy. Before he's completely dressed a Nazi officer discovers him and starts criticizing him (in untranslated German) because he's out of uniform.
    • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When the Germans are with the ruler of Hatay, Colonel Vogel orders soldiers in untranslated German to bring forward a chest filled with golden art objects.
  • Blazing Saddles
    • When the Indian chief meets the Sheriff Bart's parents in a Flash Back, he speaks several phrases of untranslated Yiddish.
    • While Sheriff Bart and Lili von Shtupp are together they speak words and phrases of German to each other.
  • Constantine. While the little girl is possessed she screams "Papatayin natin silang lahat!" ("Let's kill them all!' in Tagalog). The audience is not told what this means.
  • Philadelphia Experiment 2. After William Mailer travels back in time to Nazi Germany, he has a conversation with his father Friedrich Mahler in German trying to tell him that he's Mahler's son. Mahler tells him that he doesn't have a son, and he doesn't...yet. Mailer hadn't been born yet.
  • 1941. During the scene while Hollis P. Wood is interrogated by the Japanese submarine crew with the German liaison officer present, several of the characters speak untranslated Japanese and German to each other.
  • Django Unchained is guilty of this. Granted, important scenes with German dialogue are translated, but when Schultz makes a somewhat awesome point of uttering "Auf Wiedersehen!" before blowing up several thugs, viewers requiring subtitles either get nothing or "(SPEAKS IN GERMAN)".
  • In The Fifth Element, the language that Leeloo speaks when she is first brought back is sub-titled "Unknown Language." When she speaks it to Father Cornelius, he can understand it, but not speak it directly. When Corbin Dallas asks him what language it is, he replies a divine one. Thereafter, Leeloo's speech is subtitled "Divine Language." Thanks, that helps alot!!
  • Pandorum: Manh communicates exclusively in untranslated Vietnamese (none of the other characters can understand him), supplemented with patient pantomiming. Nadia also occasionally slips into German.
  • In the war movie Operation Daybreak, every scene featuring Reinhard Heydrich plays in unsubtitled German. Not brief scenes either, but involved sequences like the wedding of his aide-de-camp. Only one or two scenes have one of his aides translating consequential remarks into English.
  • The film adaptation of Lone Survivor. With one exception, all Arabic dialogue is untranslated because the viewpoint characters (a team of Navy SEALs) don't understand it at all. (The exception is one scene, early in the film, of some Pashtun speaking amongst themselves. No Americans are present, so the scene is just there to show the audience that the villain is a bad dude.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Stargate Atlantis, Radek would occasionally rant in Czech about something with no subtitles provided.
  • There are episodes in Season 1 of popular drama Revenge where Emily speaks languages including French and Spanish without translation (though these aren't relevant besides telling us she's multilingual) and in one episode, where she repeatedly converses with another character in fluent Japanese, she then lies about what was said, and there is no captioning.
  • In the miniseries version of Shogun, when Blackthorne (the English protagonist) is around and the Japanese characters are speaking in Japanese, there's no subtitles.
  • Played with in LOST: whenever Korean couple Sun and Jin would speak among themselves or (in flashbacks) to other Koreans, the show would provide English subtitles. But when they spoke in front of others who did not understand Korean, no subtitles appeared.
  • In Monty Python's Flying Circus "The Funniest Joke in the World" sketch, the British Army creates a German version of the Joke so they can use it against Nazi troops. There's no translation (mainly because the German version is made up of nonsense words). Good thing, too — understanding it would kill the audience!
  • In an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy and Edina go to France on vacation. Three times an old man comes to the door and speaks in French; they're frightened of him, and keep just closing the door and ignoring him. Edina's daughter, who speaks French, shows up at the end, and it turns out they've been staying in a run-down cottage instead of the fancy château they had booked, and the old man was trying to tell them that.
  • Many characters on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show fall foul of this, speaking no language at all and, being puppets, they don't have captions - or didn't originally.
  • In the TV movie Canada Russia 72 about the famous hockey tournament, Canadian player Bobby Clarke says "Eat s***, you little c***s***" to Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov as he skates by. Kharlamov responds with something in Russian and Clarke sneers "What does that mean?"
  • In an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Marshall becomes so drunk to the point that he needs subtitles... which are provided for barely some of the speech.
  • Breaking Bad does this with most, if not all, of its Spanish dialogue.
  • Firefly uses this when various Chinese curses are spoken, and you can tell that they're curses from the context.
  • In Casualty 1906, a disagreeable Eastern European woman was being treated by the Edwardian doctors while behaving violently and probably being drunk. A Polish speaker would know what nationality she was supposed to be and could understand what she was saying however, on the DVD, the subtitles gave the untranslated text in Russian - people who don't know the difference would be none the wiser from the English dialogue on-screen.
  • Stargate SG-1 didn't ever use subtitles, which was probably a good thing considering most of the Russian spoken on the show would've punched huge holes in the fourth wall.
  • Played With in the Coupling episode, "The Woman with Two Breasts". The Israeli woman that Jeff is talking to speaks no English, and no subtitles are provided because he, like we, has no real idea what she's saying. Then, in the second half, when the whole sequence is run again with her speaking English and Jeff speaking nonsense, we again get no subtitles, and have to rely on our memories of what his side of the conversation was. Plus, we get to find out that some of his assumptions about what she was saying were...less than accurate.
  • Barney Miller:
    • In one episode they bring in a woman who everyone thinks is crazy (she escaped from a mental asylum where she's been held ever since she first arrived in the country 20ish years previously) and speaking her own made-up language. It turns out she is perfectly sane; she's just speaking a rare Macedonian dialect. The squad happens to find someone who speaks Macedonian to commuicate with her. None of the Macedonian is subtitlted.
    • Chano's frequent lapsing into Spanish when annoyed or upset isn't subtitled.
  • Several one-shot and minor foreign characters in Seinfeld spoke fluent, uninterrupted languages of their respective nationalities, occasionally without the aid of subtitles, such as The Soup Nazi, and Kramer's Hispanic friend that showed up for one episode and was never spoken of again, relying on the Rule of Funny and Rule of Drama, as they can fluently speak English if need be.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The War Games," we see a German officer talking with his superior in German. The superior hypnotizes him to forget that he's been shown that he's not really in World War I. We can understand the whole conversation, without knowing German, because we've seen the same thing happen before, between two British officers.

    Music 
  • True for much non-English music, unless the artists choose to sing in understandable English or officially release translations. Averted by Youtube uploaders adding subtitles and lyrics translation pages if a band is popular enough/if someone who is a fan is interested in translating the lyrics. And, of course, this is true for those who don't know English and listen to lyrics sung in English.

    Theatre 
  • In Henry V, an entire scene between Catherine and her lady-in-waiting is conducted in French.
  • The Light in the Piazza: All the Italian characters speak and sing in Italian unless they are communicating with an English character. No help is provided to the audience during these scenes (aside from a brief fourth wall breaker) and, for those who don't speak Italian, the meaning of the scene must be guessed at through context, body language and what words can be picked out.
    • One production even applied this to the opening announcement, having it all be in Italian but only saying the words "cellphones", "flash photography", and "emergency exits" into English.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed:
    • Zig-zagged in the first game. If Altair runs into any of the locals while walking about, several may speak English (translated by the Animus) but whenever he runs into guards, especially when rescuing a person, he may quote something that never gets translated.
    • The guards may quote something in either Arabic or French depending on which region you are in, though sometimes they may speak English as well.
  • In the Mothership Zero DLC for Fallout 3, the player character is abducted by aliens whose language is never translated. The aliens' motivation and reasons for abducting humans can therefore only be inferred (and it makes them a whole lot creepier). Additionally, another abductee is a samurai who speaks in un-subtitled Japanese.
  • Max Payne 3 plays around with this. Max Payne doesn't speak Portuguese, so for most of the game you have no idea what the people around you are saying. Occasionally though, Max will catch a cognate, such as amadores (amateurs), and react to it.
  • Spec Ops: The Line uses this in the opening to increase tension. You don't understand any of the Farci being spoken.
  • In Final Fantasy X the Al Bhed language is subtitled - only the subtitles are in Al Bhed, not English. As you collect translation books throughout the game, various letters in the subtitles are gradually replaced by their English equivalents to represent Tidus' growing understanding of the language.
  • In Deus Ex:
  • Sleeping Dogs has a bunch of "peppering Cantonese cuss words into English" and background NPCs who speak basically accurate but unsubtitled Cantonese, though Mrs. Chu is the only plot-relevant character to only speak Cantonese.
  • The World of Warcraft Draenei starting zone involves the player befriending a tribe of anthropomorphic bears called furbolgs (the Stillpine tribe.) Initially, the player can't speak their language, so the NPC text is untranslatable gibberish.
  • Nikolai in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 speaks in Russian, as do some of the soldiers, and it is not subtitled like the English is (though the English can be heard perfectly fine anyway).
  • In Knights of the Old Republic 2, Darth Nihilus' speech (in the ancient Sith language) is left untranslated in subtitles and the player character doesn't seem to be able to understand him either, despite her ability to understand a wide variety of alien languages.
  • The humans in Asura's Wrath speak a different language from the Demigods with no subtitles. This is used to show how out of touch they have become over the millennia.
  • Halfway through Uncharted 2, Drake winds up in a small tibetan village. All "conversations" with the non-English speaking villagers are simply subtitled [Speaking Tibetan], even after Drake has learned to speak it. The effect of this is amplified by the fact that Tenzin, Drake's partner during these chapters, is one of those villagers.
  • In The Last Express, some languages are subtitled, while others are not, in order to delineate which ones the player character knows. French and Russian are subtitled, while Serbian and Arabic are not.
  • In Star Fox Adventures, when playing as Fox before the translator device is ready, any Dino Talknote  is rendered "Dino Talk". (When playing as Krystal or hearing her later as Fox, the Dino speech in those cutscenes is subtitled. The growls are subtitled, as that's a representation of what Slippy does in the cutscene with the Queen: he tells Fox what they're saying.)
  • In Mercenaries, the player has the choice of picking between three characters who can either speak Russian, Chinese, or Korean as an additional language. The subtitles thus add to the Replay Value, as character choice dictates if faction leaders simply chatter in foreign or have their plan-whispering translated.

    Webcomics 
  • In Megatokyo, most Japanese is shown as English within angle brackets—except when non-Japanese-speaker Largo is the viewpoint character, in which case it is romanized, as he would hear it.
  • In Unsounded some kind of supernatural bird speaks to Sette. The Rant lampshades this: "Don't ask for a translation - Sette doesn't understand it so you shan't either!"

    Western Animation 
  • Lady Rainicorn in Adventure Time speaks untranslated Korean.
  • Played With in the Phineas and Ferb episode "Tri-Stone Area". The characters speak in cave-man jibberish, and no sub-titles are given. Of course, if you know all the Catch Phrases, Running Gags and things that happen Once an Episode, you pretty much know what they're saying, just from the situation and inflections used. The authors break in in stop-motion animation, and talk about this:
    Jeff "Swampy" Marsh: Whoa, whoa, whoa. So—so they're just gonna be talking in "cave-talk"?
  • In Teen Titans, Guatemalan siblings Mas y Menos only speak Spanish and are not given subtitles. While this makes for some hilarious moments when interacting with their Spanish-illiterate team mates, they become comedy gold if you can actually understand them.
  • Used almost in almost every episode of Archer that takes place in a non-English speaking location.

    Real Life 
  • RealLife: Perpetually played straight. Implied to be the Trope Namer, and most likely the Ur Example.
    • Albeit this could change (keyword here, could), with Google Glass.
  • As the name explains, if you want to talk to someone who doesn't speak any language you do, there is no captioning to help you out. Try pointing.

Reading Foreign Signs Out LoudTranslation TropesRecursive Translation
Gag SubText TropesSpice Up the Subtitles
Shopping MontageImageSource/Live-Action TVThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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