"I was soon relieved of my position. I had an unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean. So now I very accurately translate other people's lies."It often happens that in international business, politics, or two sides meeting before a battle, that a translator is needed for the two (or more) sides to understand each other. It just as often happens that one side will either intentionally or unintentionally say something insulting, offensive, personally distasteful to someone on the other side, engage in a bit of Cultural Posturing, or make an outright threat that would either sabotage the talks or needlessly aggravate the other side. As the translator what do you do? Do you repeat all that accurately and maybe end any chance of agreement, not to mention possibly pissing off your boss? (Generally not a good idea if you happen to be translating for the Big Bad, by the way.) No, if you're smart, you choose to do a Tactful Translation, translating the spirit of what was said or is important, while leaving out all the insulting, offensive, or just plain stupid stuff that would only get in the way or complicate things. Odds are that afterward all the sides will go home feeling pleased with themselves or thinking they really showed those other guys, while only the translator(s) will know just why that whole deal worked out without turning into a bloodbath. Now, if the one on the receiving end of the translation actually speaks the language... Often winds up looking like a case of Translation: "Yes". May be the job of a Completely Unnecessary Translator. Contrast Trolling Translator, who twists translations far from the intended meaning.
— Simon Graham recounts his (brief) career as a translator in The Last Samurai
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Anime and Manga
- This happens in Axis Powers Hetalia when America visits Japan in order to make friends with whales.
Japan: Go. Away.Interpreter: It's nice that you have such interesting pursuits, but please pursue them at your own residence.
Mochi: Get out of my sight! Holy Bitch!Translation: I'm glad you like it.
- A meta example: in one of his mochi strips (titled "Beautiful Rice Cake"), the "king of rice cake" drops tonnes of Cluster F-Bomb in English, but the translations provided uses polite language. For example:
- An episode of Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu features a 'negotiation' session between Sousuke, an ex-mujaheddin Child Soldier with No Social Skills, and a Delinquent representing a gang who's kidnapped one of his friends. Sousuke is unable to understand the thug's street jargon and extremely heavy accent, prompting the Student Council President to step in and calmly translate it into Spock Speak. The show then goes on to invert the trope when Sousuke's equally formal reply flies right over the thug's head — so the Student Council President translates it into a series of crude threats completely deadpan, using the exact same tone of voice he used when doing the formal translation.
Sousuke: I see. Then please convey this to him, if you would: My military might exceeds yours by an overwhelming margin, so attempts at revenge would be a mere waste of efforts.
Student Council President: Hm. [to thug] Now listen you punk, there is no way you'd beat me. So step off, 'cuz you ain't even got one chance in a billion, you loser bi-atch.
Sousuke: Your language skills are outstanding, your excellency!
Student Council President: Oh, it's nothing, only what I've gleamed in books. I'm... Not certain he'll understand my translation, though...
- Black Lagoon's Rock tries to do this to the Japanese with whom Balalaika is trying to speak, until she catches on and insists he take fewer creative liberties.
- In the Basara appendix Kanata Sakaki does this, to hide Shuri's rudeness. We arenít told what he translates it to, though.
- In the original Japanese version of Heat Guy J, Clair comments to a hired hitman named Luca that "Perverts who think they're artists are the worst," after Luca boasts about his work and calls it "art." (Why Clair used that term in particular is never explained.) In the English dubbed version, he simply calls Luca a fool. (Which actually makes more sense, given the context.)
- Hilariously inverted in Secret Six. One of their members has infiltrated a cult while the others are standing by and communicating by radio. Alice gets found out, and Jeannette wants to go in to save her. Bane refuses, since acting too early would compromise their mission.
Jeannette: Please tell the large gentleman that I am about to ignore his orders, most respectfully.Catman: Bane? Jeannette says you should go &^%$ yourself. We're going in.
- Asterix had the case of Rhetoric, the Gaulish/Gothic interpreter. Seeing as he would be killed along with Getafix if Getafix refused to cooperate, it was a bit of a life-or-death matter for him to say Getafix would. To be sure, this is more a case of a false translation than just a tactful one.
- Played for laughs later on when Getafix asks the just deposed chieftain Metric if he would like the chance to take back his position from his usurper Rhetoric:
Metric: [Speech bubble filled with Symbol Swearing, including Rhetoric's name crossed out]Getafix: He says "yes".Asterix: [Winking] I get the general idea.
- Averted in "Asterix the Legionary" where the interpreter translates the centurion's Symbol Swearing into goth symbol-for-symbol. Granted, it wasn't within a sensitive context.
- Played for laughs later on when Getafix asks the just deposed chieftain Metric if he would like the chance to take back his position from his usurper Rhetoric:
- Played with in Fables when King Cole is acting as translator between the somewhat Americanized Western Fables and the Middle Eastern ones. Cole translates Prince Charming's rather undiplomatic demands that Sinbad and co. free their slaves in a much more polite (though still firm) fashion, while turning Sinbad's flowery courtesy into brusque straight-talking that Charming will respect more, ensuring that both sides come across with the level of relative directness they're aiming for, despite the cultural differences in acceptable levels of politeness.
- The Simpsons: A Scottish film the family watches on a plane has the actors' flowery insults translated into more polite and sophisticated phrases.
Man: Ach, ye wee soft jessies have spilt me wee larger! [Pardon me, sir, but you have spilt my adult beverage.]Man 2: The lord take ye for a dimmock, ye airy tweezer! [We strongly condemn your harsh appraisement.]
- In New Superman, I-Ching accompanies Kenan as a translator when he is invited to America by Lex Luthor, and carefully translates all Kenan's tactless comments as compliments. Inverted when he translates what Luthor's saying into Mandarin, and claims that Lex is continually saying Kenan doesn't train enough. And it turns out Luthor speaks Mandarin anyway.
- One story arc of Garfield has Garfield auditioning for a cat food commercial. Unfortunately, on the first take he discovers that the food is vile and pitches the bowl over his shoulder, whereupon it hits the director in the face.
Director: [muffled angry noises through the cat food]Garfield: Rough translation, I don't get the part.
- In the Katawa Shoujo fanfic Weekend at Hisao's, Hisao ends up doing this for his deaf girlfriend Shizune in a meeting with his old friends when the conversation turns to their respective Student Councils. Statements in brackets are in sign language.
Shizune:[Amateurs.]Hisao:[Be nice.]Shizune: [I am being nice. Still, you, Misha, and I did ten times more work than that, with only the three of us.]Ryoko: "What's she saying, Hisao?"Hisao: "Oh. Um. Shizune's saying that our student council was much smaller. It was a lot of hard work."
- In the Harry Potter fanfic Strange And Invisible History, the French Minister for Magic insults visiting British and Bulgarian diplomats, assuming that none of them speak French. Hermione does and translates everything he'd said word-to-word but uses a Tactful Translation for the Bulgarians' replies.
Viktor Krum: My people might be filthy shepherds, but we have manners, you ignorant, ill-bred cretin. Weren't you taught any better than this?Hermione: Minister, Viktor wishes me to thank you for receiving us, and begs your indulgence, as he is unfamiliar with the customs of France.Penko Krum: You snide bastard, I hope a rat chews that stupid moustache off your face as you sleep.Hermione: My uncle asks me to thank you for providing us an opportunity to work for mutual benefit, and hopes the natural beauty of out setting might encourage us all to reflect.
- In On the Wings of Dragons Harry asks a Tibetan wizard about the Chinese occupation and receives an angry mile-a-minute response complete with spitting on the ground. The one villager who speaks sufficient English claims "Master Jangbu say that when China men come it was bad time for Tibet," while according to one of the telepathic dragons accompanying Harry's party "White Eyes called the invaders dung eaters who smelled bad and fornicated with water buffalo."
- In A Marauder's Plan Remus, who as it turns out speaks flawless Bulgarian, is pressed into translation duty for Fudge and the Bulgarian Minister of Magic.
Remus laughed at Bogdan's latest joke about Cornelius and turned to translate something funny but not related to the British Minister to the man in question.
- Viciously inverted in Trav(ap)est(r)y within the Triptych Continuum. Celestia is used to dealing with Wordia Spinner and so spends their meetings playing a silent game called Translation, in which she takes what the Loyal Opposition's reporter is saying and mentally swaps in what was meant.
"So when he heard you'd lost an original Marble Whispers piece — and incidentally, he wanted me to say he's very sorry about the fire...""He's very sorry the two of you didn't die in it."
Films — Animated
- Disney's Aladdin. While Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are together in his hideout, Abu is annoyed when Aladdin gives Jasmine his apple.
Princess: My father's forcing me to get married.Aladdin: That's...that's awful! [Abu tries to take back the apple] Abu!Abu: [Chitters and gestures angrily]Princess: What?Aladdin: Abu says that...[thinks better of it]...that's not fair.Abu: [puzzled look]Princess: [disbelievingly] Oh did he?Aladdin: Yeah, of course.
Films — Live-Action
- Referenced in Gladiator when the Germanic tribes answer the offer of Maximus' messenger by sending his headless body back to the Romans tied to his horse, while the leader of the tribe appears on a hill, shouting at the Romans and tossing the head of the messenger to the ground.
Maximus: They say no.
- In the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, Hook captures Tigerlily and asks her, (with Smee translating) if she's seen Peter Pan. Tigerlily responds with visible anger and disgust, complete with spitting at Hook. Smee translates this as "She says 'sorry, but no.'"
- Played for laughs in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when Barbossa "translates" his comments for Elizabeth. It can be argued that Elizabeth's look of confusion is merely the result of Barbossa speaking so eloquently seconds after asking her to use smaller words that the "humble pirates" can understand, and his translation is not for her, but his own crew, who also seem confused.
- Used by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator here.
- In the Guy Ritchie film Revolver, there's a scene where Lord John endlessly abuses Macha's men in Cantonese, while the translator expresses this in very to the point and non-offensive words.
- In Speed, Alan Ruck's character, relaying Keanu's responses via walkie talkie to bomb control, relays a frustrated "Oh, fuck me!" as "Oh darn."
- In Ip Man, after the titular character's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against ten Japanese black belts, the general, suitably impressed by his skill, gives him his prize of rice and asks him to come again. Ip Man responds by telling the translator that he didn't come for the rice, implying he just came to kick their asses. The translator simply tells the general that Ip Man said he will come again. This is immediately followed up by another example: The general asks for Ip Man's name, and the latter replies that he is 'just a Chinese person', to which the translator tells the general that 'his name is Ip Man'.
- Brazilian movie Meu Nome Não é Johnny ("My name isn't Johnny") featured a middle-class guy that ended up in prison due to drug sale and abuse. He knew English, and, as his fellow prisoners had to deal with American prisoners (in none-too-friendly talks), he had to interpret between them and tried to do this. It went downhill when one of the Brazilian inmates remarked he knew what "fuck you" means.
- Battlefield Earth, The Film of the Book: Terl makes a long threat (which we hear in English), and Jonnie translates as "Try to run, he'll kill us". Terl hangs a lampshade immediately after.
- Slightly inverted in Fort Apache, in that Cochise calls the Indian agent Meachum "un hombre malvado, que no dice la verdad," which Sergeant Beaufort renders as "a yellow-bellied polecat of dubious antecedents and conjectural progeny." (The literal translation is "an evil man, who does not speak the truth.")
- Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels amusingly plays with this trope while combining it with Fun with Subtitles. When one gangster is informing another about infamous Yardie kingpin Rory Breaker his lines (which are in a a deep slang and would be all but incomprehensible in North America) get subtitled. As the character narrates about some poor dumb bastard confronting Rory at a bar, changing the channel Rory was watching and saying "Now fuck off and watch it somewhere else" the subtitles show up with "Please remove yourself from this bar". Just a few seconds later, however, the trope is gleefully inverted, as the narrator tells about how Rory "Walks straight past the jam rolls who are ready for action" and the subtitles translate this as "He walks straight past the arseholes". A couple of seconds after that there is more bickering between Rory and the other guy that involves cursing at each other and it gets translated far more politely than how it was actually said. Enjoy it for yourself here.
- Early in the 1992 Last of the Mohicans film, there's a bit where Magua, (who is still pretending to be an English ally at the time, but is leading them into an ambush) and Major Heyward get into an argument.
Duncan: You there, Scout! We must rest soon, the women are tired.Magua: No, two leagues, better water. We stop there.Duncan: No, we'll stop in the glade just ahead. When the ladies are rested, we will proceed. Do you understand?Magua: [speaking Huron] Magua understands that the white man is a dog to his women. When they are tired, he puts down his tomahawk to feed their laziness.Duncan: [a distinct edge to his voice] Excuse me, what did you say?Magua: Magua said... I understand English, very well.
- In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus is unimpressed with Ian's attempt to wish him a happy Easter ("Cheestro Nasty!"), and mutters in Greek, "My people were writing philosophy when your people were still swinging in trees." At Ian's confused look, Toula says, "He likes you."
- The Last Samurai. Simon Graham is an Anglo who has lived in Japan for some time, working as a translator. As he put it in the page quote, he was fired from a British trade mission because he made the mistake of being blunt in a language and culture which is all about indirectness and implication, especially when it comes to important things. He has since learned to "Very accurately translate other people's lies."
- A more serious use of this trope occurs in The Beast of War (1988), set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet tank commander orders a villager to be placed in front of his tank-track to encourage him to talk. His wife comes running up and is grabbed by the Afghan translator.
Translator (in Pashtu): "Get out of here, woman. This one prefers bullets to words!"Wife (struggling): "You dirty traitor, tell this Russian pig to let my husband go!"Translator (in English (Russian)): "Sir, this woman respectfully requests you release her husband."Tank Commander: "Ask him where the rebels are."Villager: "Mujahadeen are all around you! They will kill every one of you!"Translator: "He says he doesn't know."The tank commander isn't fooled, and drives over the villager.
- Black Rain. Nick's partner Charlies does this as a Running Gag (e.g. Nick: "I like to be kissed before I'm fucked!" Charlie: "Foreplay") starting with this scene.
Nick: "I want a Japanese cop who knows the street, speaks English, and can find his ass with both hands!"High Ranking Police Boss: "WHAT did you say?"Charlie: "He means 'a tough motherfucker'."High Ranking Police Boss: "Ah, of course."
- Happens at the climax of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. One of the sub's officers understands both English and Russian, and so is the de facto translator. When the police chief tells the submarine captain that he is under arrest, and the officer translates, the captain laughs, then starts swearing in Russian. The officer translates this as, "He is very angry...he thinks you're an idiot."
- Averted in Patton; when at the joint celebration with the Russians, Patton is offered a drink. His response? "I won't drink with that Russian son of a bitch." The translator tries to protest that he cannot say such a thing, but Patton tells him to say it, "word for word." After doing so, the Russian general responds back, "I also think YOU are a son of a bitch." That is something Patton will drink to, one son of a bitch to another.
- Discussed in The Interpreter. Nicole Kidman's character, an interpreter for the United Nations, states that she must always keep this in mind or risk poisoning international relations. For example, she will always refer to someone as having "gone".
- In Innerspace, when Jack first tells the lab that Tuck is inside him, they start asking Tuck questions, which he can hear. But, of course, Jack has to repeat Tuck's responses. One lab guy assures Tuck that they will get him out and Tuck replies "You better, you two faced son of a..." and Jack repeats "He says thank you."
- Much like the Patton example, C3P0 tries to smooth things while working for Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, yet Jabba is impressed and becomes more agreeable when the bounty hunter theatens him with a thermal detonator.
- In Apollo 13:
CAPCOM: Aquarius, watch that middle gimbal. We don't want you tumbling off into space.
Jim Lovell: Freddo, inform Houston I'm well aware of the God-damned gimbals!
Fred Haise: [calmly] Roger that, Houston.
- Strictly Ballroom:
Grandma: (Spanish, subtitled) Hot Stuff can shake his tail feather, but he knows chickenshit about rhythm.Fran: Grandma wants to teach us.
- Much of the humour from the TV Movie Spies Lies And Naked Thighs comes from a main character's job as a UN translator. A straight example features a man brandishing a knife across a negotiating table and being translated as inviting the person on the other side of the table to pursue his complaint through the proper channels.
- In Gran Torino, Sue's grandmother launches into a furious tirade to Walt, which Sue tries to spin as a welcome to her home, despite her delivery and body language making it obvious what kind of things she's really saying.
Walt: What did she say?Sue: Uh, she said 'Welcome to our home.'Walt: (Sarcastically) Yeah, right.
- Inverted in Fearless (2006). Before a match with a huge American wrestler, protagonist Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) is asked to sign a waiver stating that he understands the fight may result in his death. Huo then gives a speech politely stating why he disapproves of death matches and more or less saying Let's Fight Like Gentlemen. The wrestler's Chinese translator tells the wrestler that Huo threatened to beat him up. This gets the wrestler fired up and even more determined to win.
- In Mr. Baseball, Tom Selleck plays an American baseball player who signs up with a Japanese team. He requires a translator, who regularly invents comically false translations to avoid the outrage that would be caused by the player's offensive and irreverent comments.
- Snowden, when Snowden shows up at a bankster venue, a Russian diplomat addresses him saying that he is either a fool or a spy. Snowden doesn't understand Russian and the translator politely tells him "Mr. Debrinin asks your business card, please."
- In The Magnificent Seven (2016), Red Harvest examined a plate of food with disgust and commented that, "white men's food is only fit for dogs" in Comanche. When asked about what he said, Chisolm replied that Red Harvest wasn't hungry.
- In The Painted Veil, the Crowning Moment of Funny in a mostly serious movie occurs when Walter Fane (a British doctor in China), with his government-assigned translator Col. Yu, goes to a local warlord to request his cooperation in fighting a cholera epidemic. When the warlord responds with an angry tirade, Walter tacitly invokes this trope to let Col. Yu take over negotiations. The Colonel proceeds to "translate" an insult into a tactfully-worded threat that gets the result they need:
Colonel Yu: [deadpan] He said no.Walter Fane: He doesn't speak any English, does he? Tell him that's the most ridiculous suit that I've ever seen.Colonel Yu: [in Chinese] This Doctor respects you greatly, and you are right. It is quite a mess, this epidemic. But my superior said if your men cannot control it, then our army will be happy to come out here and help you. After seeing this place, it's so overwhelming, I'm afraid once our soldiers are here they won't want to leave.
- Done to hilarious effect in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie. When Marty Eggs offers a woman a lengthy proposition (which is not translated to a title card), she smacks him over the head with her purse. Marty stumbles around until Mel Funn steadies him; Mel's mouth visibly forms the phrase, "You dumb son of a bitch!" The title card, however, reads, "You bad boy."
- A Soviet joke (referring to the enormous degree of censorship in the Soviet Union), that goes like this: an Italian movie has been translated into Russian. The very first scene gives us an angry naked woman lying on the bed and an embarassed naked man who is quickly getting dressed.
The woman: Castrato! Impotento!The translator: Go away, I don't love you anymore!
- It's the boss' birthday, and the staff are struggling for some kind words to put on his birthday card. Then the IT-guy enters and they ask him for a concise, comprehensive description of the boss.
"Dumb, self-absorbed faggot!" - utters the IT-guy."That's great! We'll put it this way: a man of rare intellect, who knows his worth and cares about all his employees."
- A professional interpreter joke features an inversion: "Two world leaders were having a jovial and warmhearted conversation... until their interpreter arrived."
- Another joke that inverts this trope:
- A gangster takes a translator to visit the shop of a man, whose brother has just died. He had taken money from the gangster and hid it away somewhere - and the gangster assumed he had told his only living relative, his brother. But the brother only spoke Italian, you see, which is why a translator was needed.
When the two got to the shop, the gangster asks the translator to translate everything exactly - so he does. "Do you know where your brother hid our money?", the gangster asks, and the man answers "No." This goes on for a while, the translator pausing to make sure he has everything correct before he translates. Eventually, getting fed-up, the gangster pulls out his gun and snarls. "Listen, if you don't tell me where that money is, I'll shoot you in the head!" The translator tells the man this, who confesses; it's in the back-yard of his house, beneath the apple tree, and the gangster can have it back; he doesn't need it!
The translator pauses, and says, "He says you don't have the balls to shoot him, boss."
- A gangster takes a translator to visit the shop of a man, whose brother has just died. He had taken money from the gangster and hid it away somewhere - and the gangster assumed he had told his only living relative, his brother. But the brother only spoke Italian, you see, which is why a translator was needed.
- A bit of office humor involves a miserable idea which gets lousy feedback among the workers ("It is a crock of shit, and it stinks!") slowly being transmuted by tactful translation ("It is a pot of fertilizer and nobody can stand its stench"; "it is that which promotes plant growth and nobody can abide how strongly it smells"; "it is a promoter of growth and is very strong") up the corporate ladder, until the CEO hears nothing but praise ("It is strong and will promote our company's growth!") and declares it to be good. Thus the plan becomes policy; or to put it another way, shit happens.
- an Ukrainian one: Did you know that the Ukrainian word "Шабля" (sabre) means "Could you please be a bit more quiet, Miss?" in Russian?("Ша,бля!" is the Russian equivalent of "Shut up,slut!" )
- The Warlord Chronicles gives us a page quote when the Boisterous Bruiser Saxon warrior king Aelle faces off with a coalition of Briton princes, generals, and warlords. When called upon to surrender and offered mercy, Aelle responds with an incredibly long-winded and detailed set of threats, tortures and torments toward every notable figure on the British side. (Believe it or not, the version on the quote page is much shorter than the full thing). The translator's version is simply "He says no." The trope also gets lampshaded, as right after Derfel translates Aelle's speech, Meurig responds "Surely he said more than that?" The Old Soldier Sagramor, who has been doing this sort of thing for his almost his entire life, just tells Meurig "You don't want to know what he really said."
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, when Daenerys negotiates for the purchase of a slave army in Astapor, one of the merchants insults her repeatedly with lewd and sexist comments, but his young slave interpreter translates this much more politely. Of course, neither the slave nor the merchant realize at that point that Dany actually does speak their language. She's impressed by the translator's wit and bring her into her service.
- In Windhaven, someone is executed for doing this. She was carrying very rude verbal messages between two places at risk of war, and made them a bit more polite. When her employer found out he had her killed, and though he was removed from his position for insanity shortly thereafter, he was considered within his rights to do so. They take the job of delivering the exact message seriously.
- A large part of Bren Cameron's job in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner-verse, as the only person authorized by treaty to translate between a human settlement and the government of the other intelligent species on the planet. Even when, as in later books, he's not the only person who can translate, his skill at tact and diplomacy is exceptionally valuable.
- Comes up in the X-Wing Series. Wedge Antilles flies the fake Falcon, Millenium Falsehood with Chewbacca as copilot, but since he doesn't understand the Wookiee, he brings along a translator droid. Chewbacca knows Basic and takes offense to Squeaky not translating the more colorful elements of his speech.
- The Devil's Dictionary defines an interpreter as "one who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter's advantage for the other to have said".
- The non-fiction book Smokescreen by Robert Sabbag (about the dope smuggling trade) relates an incident where a Cuban hitman was sent with the protagonist Alan Long to discuss the matter of 2000 pounds of pot that drug boss Jimmy Alvarez believed had been ripped off by Long's friend Lee Carlyle. Carlyle turns up for the meeting drunk and immediately starts jabbing his finger in the hitman's face and screaming insults. Fortunately the hitman does not speak English.
Carlyle: "You Cuban motherfuckers! You Cuban motherfuckers!"Hitman (placing a hand on his .38): "What did he say?"Long (placing his hand firmly on top of the hitman's): "He is telling you of the respect he has for the Cuban people."Hitman: "I don't think that is what he is saying."(Continuing stream of abuse from Carlyle)Long: He understands Jimmy's position, and he fully intends to pay."Carlyle: "Did you tell him what I just said?"Long: "Word for word."(Carlyle storms off. Long smiles reassuringly at the hitman.)Long: "Bueno!"
- Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein. Tex wants to how the Venusians, once they have cleared away the mud from the pit the rocket ship is in, expect to get the ship out of the pit. Oscar translates, and their matriarch replies, "Tell thy impatient daughter [all Venusians we see are female, so they assume the same of humans] to chase her fish and I shall chase mine." Tex replies, "No need for her to be rude about it." When the matriarch asks what he said, Oscar tells her "'She' thanks thee for the lesson."
- Funnily subverted in The Dresden Files. In Changes, Dresden meets the Red King, who does not speak English. An unfortunate vamp is called to translate, and tries to do a tactful translation. She gets smacked by the Red King, and while he can't speak the local language, Dresden can get the gist that he's telling the poor girl "Translate it the way he says it, damn it."
- It later transpires the Red King speaks English perfectly well (and that said slave knew this); he was probably smacking her to put Harry off guard.
- Ephraim Kishon once did this for a fight between one of his Hungarian relatives and a shopkeeper. He did it so well that they made peace. At the end, he thought he should try the same thing with the USA and the Soviet Union.
- The title character in Mara, Daughter of the Nile tries to do this when the first meeting between the king and the foreign princess he is betrothed to doesn't go so well. Unfortunately for Mara, she forgot that the king also speaks Babylonian.
- Late in Harry Turtledove's World War series, American physicist Max Kagan comes to aid the Russian nuclear program in making atomic bombs to use against the Alien Invaders. When Vyacheslav Molotov (Stalin's Number Two) comes to check on progress after the arrival of Kagan, he is at first amused by Kagan's impertinence and fire, thinking he prefers it to how terrified most Russians are when dealing with him. Eventually, Molotov realizes that the Russian scientist translating between him and Kagan is doing a Tactful Translation and demands to know what Kagan is really saying. By the time the scientist finishes repeating what Kagan has really said, (an incredibly bold and sometimes profane denouncement of the Soviet way of running the program and general attitudes) Molotov is fondly imagining a day when the scientists won't be as indispensable as they currently are and he'll be free to kill them all.
- Part of that has to do with how the Soviet leadership (especially in Stalin's time) view scientists. In their eyes, scientists are intellectuals who think they're better than the common working man. Scientists are to be put in their place and only tolerated when absolutely necessary. This is mentioned in the novel, by the way.
- In Wen Spencer's Tinker, inverted — an elf informs a man, in Low Elvish, that two children are under the protection of the Wolf Who Rules. The man asks what it means. A woman tells him that it means hands off the kids, or I'll break your face. Which is, indeed, what it means.
Julie: [shouldering her rifle] You tell that fathead to call 'em out.Alex: [translating] If your majesty would be so good as to designate a target, she would be most willing to offer a demonstration.
- When Emperor Gustav Adolf, in 1632, expresses disbelief that Julie Sims is capable of the marksmanship she claims, her fiance, Alex, has to translate the exchange:
- In 1634: The Galileo Affair, when relaying to a bedridden Ruy Sanchez the gist of an argument involving a mob outside the USE embassy in Venice seeking vengeance for the murder of Joe Buckley, which they believe was done by the Spanish envoy currently in the building, she mentions that she's cleaning many obscenities from the report, and muses that "in another universe I should look into getting a job as a UN translator".
- Professor Mmaa's Lecture: The interpreter present at the talks between the termite Prime Minister and the ant delegate does wonders in translating the ant's suave Trouble Entendre into the Minister's blunt plain talk, and vice versa.
- Played with in Farnham's Legend, the novelization of X: Beyond the Frontier. The Split Patriarch threatens to have his entire translation team executed for a ridiculously flowery and sycophantic translation of a communique from the Xenon. He much prefers the to-the-point electronic translation.
- Thursday Next's brother, The Very Irreverend Joffy Next, finds himself doing this when one of the saints of his religion returns and proves to be an obnoxious, sexist boor whose only saving grace is that he speaks Old English so almost no-one can understand his comments.
- In the Rivers of London book Whispers Underground, Peter has a conversation with a Taiwanese sorceress through a translator. At one point the translator simply tells him that she's gone into a speech about mainland China, she feels very strongly about it, and could he just try to look interested.
- In the East German children book "Die dampfenden Hälse der Pferde im Turm zu Babel" by Franz Fühmann, Emanuel, one of the children protagonists, fishes an X, a C and a Q out of a noodle soup ("blast, the hardest ones") and imagines Xerxes and Julius Cäsar meeting. The Q is a Quatschkopf note , i.e. their translator, who cleverly derails their inevitable declarations of war by telling them outright lies. (Q and his player, who after all is named after Immanuel Kant and is the book avatar of reason, is not too happy with this and goes lengths to vindicate it before his conscience.)
- Defied in the Mageworlds prequel The Gathering Flame, when Warhammer's Number-Two Gunner introduces a passenger to the Ship's Engineer:
Tillijin(#2 Gunner): ... This is Ferradacor, son of Rillikkikk. Ferrada, for short.
Ferrada(Ship's Engineer and hulking saurian creature): [makes rumbling bass noises]
Tillijin: He says he's pleased to meet you.
Ferrada: [speaks again, this time to Tillijin]
Tillijin: It was a loose translation, she's new here.
Ferradanote : [speaks once more]
Tillijin: Oh, all right. He say's 'Another damned thin-skin. I hope she does not get in the way.'
Live Action TV
- Used in a Spike Milligan sketch where Milligan, as David Attenborough, explores the primitive Cockney tribes of London. A Cockney taxi driver rattles off a series of complaints about his customers in perfectly understandable English, which Milligan/Attenborough's interpreter translates as "The gods are angry".
- In Lost there's a scene in which Sayid is translating questions and responses between an American sergeant and a countryman of his. When his countryman's responses do nothing but tell Sayid to kill every American soldier in the room holding them captive, Sayid translates this as "He doesn't know."
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Dagger of the Mind", after Spock relates the state and warning of a seemingly mentally ill patient to Kirk via communicator, the nearby Dr. Noelle says, "Well, that's foolish!" Her being further away, Spock doesn't hear all of the comment and asks Kirk to repeat it, prompting him to say, "Tell McCoy the technical expert he sent along with me insists that any concern is... unjustified."
- Melinda from Ghost Whisperer tends to carefully reinterpret what the dead are really saying.
- In the Crusade episode The Needs Of Earth, an alien leader's translator explains to Captain Gideon that their leaders deliberately avoid learning other languages in order to avoid compromises to their moral and intellectual purity. The following exchange ensues:
Gideon: Really? [pause] Tell your boss he's an ass.(translator whispers in leader's ear)Translator: I told him you were honored and deeply humbled to have a being of such high moral character aboard your ship.Gideon: Do you do this a lot? Lie to protect his ego?Translator: All the time. It's politics....and self preservation.
- Magnificently averted in Boardwalk Empire, where a Jewish criminal with a bad gunshot wound is brought to interrogation in a dentist's office. He insults the federal agent interrogating him in Yiddish - both the mother of the dentist's patient and the agent's deputy speak it, and provide a comically tactless translation (since the agent demanded her to translate "word for word").
Middle aged Jewish woman: He says you should fuck your grandmother... with your faggot penis!Agent Sebso: Little faggot penis.
- The West Wing averts this regarding the deaf pollster Joey Lucas, whose translators always say exactly what she signs. Her (well, her translator's) first line involved calling Josh an "unmitigated jackass". It also lead to a few funny moments.
Joey (through Kenny): Joshua Lyman, you have the cutest little butt in professional politics.Josh: Kenny, that really better have been her talking.
- Answered by Fire. An Australian police officer working with the UN insists that his East Timorese translator tell him exactly what the people he's talking to are saying. The translator protests that the Timorese often misunderstand what the Australian is saying, and he has to correct them before they start going off on another tangent and everything takes twice as long.
- Invoked by Captain Pellew in the Hornblower episode "The Examination for Lieutenant" (also known as "The Fire Ships"). Upon learning that the Spanish intend to break their alliance with the British, Pellew is too flustered to formulate a reply, and simply tells Hornblower (acting as a translator/interpreter, speaking French with the Spaniard) to tell the Spanish officer the sort of thing Pellew would say, leaving Hornblower to figure out an appropriate reply on the spot while Pellew grits his teeth.
- Breaking Bad uses the deadpan "that means no" version in the second season. After Tuco's death, his uncle Hector is brought to the DEA office and is asked if Jesse was there at the house during the time in question. If Hector says yes, it would blow a major hole in the stories that Jesse and Walt have prepared and get them into a lot of trouble. Fortunately, Gomez points out that Hector is a old-school Mexican gangster, and despite being rendered mute and wheelchair bound by a stroke, he's not the type to cooperate with police. When Hank asks if Hector is going to help them, Hector responds by looking Hank dead in the eyes, then takes a long, liquidy shit. (In other words, he literally shit on the idea.)
Hank: I guess that's a no."
- In Game of Thrones' third season, Daenerys goes to the city of Astapor to potentially buy an army of slave soldiers. The slavermaster, who only speaks Valyrian, constantly makes insulting remarks to Daenerys, referring to her as a "stupid Western whore," and remarking to one of the other slavers that he's only offering her such a good deal because he likes "the curve of her ass," while the slave translating for him either filters these comments out, or changes them into him offering a deal "because he is generous." Then after the slavers turn over control of the army, they find out that Daenerys actually spoke perfect Valyrian all along and knew exactly what he was saying. Cue Oh, Crap! look from the slavermaster. Missandei, the slave who translates for him later enters Dany's service and translates honestly, though she does express embarrassment for the insults she sometimes has to relay.
- A notable inversion occurs in the final season of The Wire. After a prolonged behind the scenes political struggle, the new mayor of Baltimore Tommy Carcetti manages to get rid of Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell, who Carcetti long considered a hack but was unable to fire due to Burrell's political connections. When Carcetti gives a standard making nice political speech honoring Burrell, the Baltimore Sun line edtor Gus Haynes translates the speech into the truth. Even Gus' workplace enemies are amused by the routine.
Tommy Carcetti: I chaired the public safety subcommittee, and I called upon him (Burrell) many times. We worked closely together then, and when I became Mayor, we formed a strong relationship...Gus Haynes: "He feared and hated me, and I merely wanted him dead."Tommy Carcetti: ...making Baltimore a safer city...Gus Haynes: "Don't stray from the Inner Harbor."Tommy Carcetti:...I know that the criminal justice coordinating council need a new...Gus Haynes: "It took a while, but I finally put his ass out to pasture."
- Key & Peele uses an inversion as the premise for the "Luther, Anger Translator" series of sketches. President Obama (Peele) gives an address in typically mild politic-speak, which Luther (Key) "translates" into the intensely emotional language that he really means. The real Obama liked the routine so much that he invited Key to do it live with him at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner.
- Bassem Youssef (who hosted an Egyptian version of The Daily Show) did this as a joke when Jon Stewart came on his show
In Arabic, to the audience: People describe him as the Bassem Youssef of the US. He tries to imitate me.In English, to Jon: I just said you're awesome!In Arabic: He literally mimics me.In English: I just said that you're an inspiration to me.
- In Vikings Athelstan becomes the translator for Lagertha and a completely smitten King Ecbert. Though he seems bemused by Ecbert's attraction, he also downplays some of their words to each other, presumably out of loyalty to Ragnar (Lagertha's ex-husband, who still has considerable feelings for her). As such, Ecbert's lengthy declaration about how beautiful, fascinating and wonderful Lagertha is simply becomes: "He likes you." Later, after being invited to Ecbert's villa, Lagertha agrees and declares that: "I need a bath." Athelbert significantly leaves this out when he relates her words to Ecbert.
- Young Indiana Jones: While fighting in the Mexican revolution, Indy is tasked with translating the Title Cards of captured American silent films and newsreels. When the reel turns to the revolution from an American perspective, Indy attempts to play off the footage as respectful to Pancho Villa, but fails: the revolutionaries shoot up the theater.
Title Card: To the Halls of Montezuma! US troops sweep into Mexico.
Indy: US troops ... pay a courtesy visit to Canada.
Card: General Pershing: "We shall soon have that cowardly bandit Pancho Villa on the run."
Indy: It says General Pancho Villa ... is a great man.
- In Daredevil, if you speak Japanese, you'll know that Nobu actually has a pretty foul mouth, but Wesley always translates his words into something more polite and businesslike. Unfortunately, Nobu does speak English (though not perfectly), so he eventually gets mad for being censored, and threatens Wesley in thickly-accented English.
- This was the original purpose of Honey Huan in Doonesbury. When Duke Harris was the American ambassador to China, she was assigned as his translator and "softened" most of his speeches into something more diplomatic. She sometimes did this while translating Chinese officials to him as well.
Honey Huan: "Now is saying a joke. This is the climax... here is the punchline... laugh."
- Best example is during the first Duke's speech to a Chinese audience. Part of the translation is:
- In one Bloom County strip, Steve Dallas dictates a letter to a deadbeat (and evidently quite violent) client who has yet to pay his legal fees. Opus, who's taking the dictation, changes it from a profanity-laced tirade to a gentle reminder.
Steve: PS: Have you strangled your wife yet, psycho-brain?Opus (writing): PS: Give Mary Lou a hug for me!
- Inverted in Corporal Kev, which ran only in the U.S. military's newspaper Stars and Stripes in the early 1980s, when Kev is picked to translate for a joint exercise between American and French tank troops.
American officer: Introduce me and tell him I'm looking forward to the exercise!
Kev (supposedly in French): He says you're a wimp and your tanks are junk...
French officer (supposedly in French): Tell him I am shocked at this outburst!
Kev: He says you have a face like a goat, and your men play with dolls!
As the two officers growl at each other, nose to nose, Kev thinks, "I'm gonna enjoy this!"
- In Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden's act, one of their songs is a flamenco-like number which Ronnie sings in El Spanish "-o", with Barry translating. At one point, Ronnie refers to "Una slappera esta bristolas enorme", which Barry translates as "A farmer's daughter who did a lot of charity work".
- In Red Dead Redemption, Landon Ricketts did this to the protagonist in one mission. Marston gave elaborate descriptions of his target, and Landon gave the Mexican informant very basic ones. Made much worse by the fact that Marston knew enough Spanish to ask (or at least understand) these things himself, and Landon even translated the answers which Marston objected.
- Played for Laughs constantly with hapless Protocol droids and translators in Star Wars: The Old Republic, doubly so if they're translating for Hutts. Huttese is second only to Galactic Basic as a "default" language, and all of the PlayerCharacters are perfectly able to understand it, but there are still situations where the Hutt will declare something like "Winner gets to eat my translator!" and the hapless translator has to spin it "Uh..may the winners feast on victory!"
- In Destiny, when you're put up against a Fallen commander, who angrily shouts at you in his native (read: alien) tongue:
Variks: That was commander of the Fang. He just called you a...well...it was an insult.
- The deaf/mute Shizune from Katawa Shoujo naturally needs everything translated for her, using either her best friend Misha or the protagonist Hisao. Both generally translate accurately except in the case of Shizune's Arch-Enemy Lilly, where Hisao is frequently guilty of trying to avert a fight between the two women by giving hilariously inaccurate translations (which fool neither of them).
Lilly: I have no idea how to fish.Shizune: (signing) [How magnanimous of you, Lilly.]Hisao: Shizune says you should at least try. It might turn out to be fun.Lilly: Very well. Akira, how do you use this?
- Lilly, however, is fooled once in Shizune's route, when Hisao translates one of Shizune's sarcastic comments into something completely different. He questions how ethical it is to do that, but they get through the fishing trip without fighting, which pleases him.
- Provided by the comic itself in Girl Genius, in the footnote translating Agatha's furious Symbol Swearing.
Translation: "Ooh, what naughty little devices, to so turn upon your creator! Oh! Indeed, my foot is in such excruciating pain! I shall construct a device that will give you such a whack, see if I don't!"
- Corner Alley 13 has it Played for Laughs when calm and unconcerned Cole proceeds with translating every phrase in an obviously much more polite (and comically eloquent) form while, well...
- MegaTokyo: Faced with the challenge of translating Largo's wholesale insanity for Kimiko, Piro decides to just make something up.
Largo: But if yer gonna mooch food off this chick, make sure she brings b33r next time.Piro: He says that having a robot like Ping may seem weird, but it's not! She's actually quite handy to have around!Erika: My, my, isn't this an interesting conversation.
- Occasionally played with in Darths & Droids, when they remember that no-one knows what Pete/R2-D2 says until Sally/C-3PO translates it.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent has a complex Language Barrier and monolingual characters with a habit of Brutal Honesty, regularly giving translators an opportunity for this.
- Implied as what C-3PO and his entire line of translator droids do in Star Wars: The Clone Wars; the Pantoran Chairman wanted C-3PO to translate, word for word, what he was about to say to the natives on which he was about to declare war. The Chairman knew that C-3PO would try to remove all of the harshness of his words.
- Many business and political affairs only get resolved because the translators know how to soothe out what they're translating, or merely how to adapt it to different cultural sensitivities.
American foreman: Look, boss, it's gonna be damn near impossible to meet this deadline without more men!
- It works like that in text, as well. For tact or not, a good translator sometimes attains a better text than the original.
- Tactful translations are downright vital when translating between low context cultures (the U.S.) where language is more literal and high context cultures (for example, Japan) where language is much more nuanced based on situation, context, and social standing. A simple question or request, without further elaboration, might be seen as unspeakably blunt or insultingly evasive. For example, here's how one of these might go:
Translator: Smith-san, with respect, suggests that despite his most earnest efforts, the deadline may not be met on time and humbly requests additional manpower to meet the company's goals.
Japanese manager: With regret, we must decline the request, but believe that with additional determination, it would be possible to meet our goals. The extra effort devoted to this task will certainly not go unrewarded.
Translator: No can do, but there's pizza and ice cream in it for you if you do the job.
- An unrealistic political proposal was being circulated round the civil servants at a British department of state for their opinions as to how they could make the politicians' flawed idea work. Rather than swear outright, one civil servant expressed dissent by writing Round Objects! (ie, Balls!) next to one of the more outlandishly unrealistic propositions. When it got back to the department principal, he inquired, loftily, "Who is this Round and to what does he object?"
- Double Subverted with the legendary response of General Anthony McAuliffe to German demands for the surrender of the 101st Airborne in Bastogne. McAuliffe's original reply, as reported, was "NUTS!" When the German representatives asked for clarification, they were told "The reply is decidedly not affirmative. If you continue this foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous." When the parley party returned to meet up with other German elements, bringing along a couple of American translators under safe conduct, another request for clarification was met with the reply "Du kannst zum Teufel gehen (You can go to Hell). If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city." Originally, one of the translators wanted to say "take a flying shit," but it was realized this might be too UNtactful a translation even for the circumstances.