Translation with an Agenda

Traduttore, tradittore. note 
— Italian pun, sometimes attributed to Dante Alighieri

Translators are professional people who would never put their political ideology, religion or other such opinions above their job, and would never violate the text in order to advance their own views.

Well, most of them anyway.

This trope is about the exceptions. Translators or editors that would, yes, and do, yes, ignore or twist the original meaning of a word or text in order to advance their point of view. Serious translators consider this an utterly unprofessional and even evil breach of ethics and of the reader's trust. Unprofessional ones, however, couldn't care less, and the result is a Translation with an Agenda.

These are translations that gleefully ignore or twist the original text in order to pursue a political agenda either of the translator or of the editor/employer of the translator. Whereas a Tactful Translation is meant to smoothen the edges of a situation, a Woolseyism is essentially a distilled translation and a Cut-and-Paste Translation tends to have cultural or logistical reasons, a Translation with an Agenda is done solely to advance a political, religious or otherwise ideological goal - twisting or ignoring the original work by falsely identifying villains in it with one's political opponents, mistranslating a "good" adjective as something more specific related to one's agenda, or even by simply mistranslating most or all of the text to make it a tract on one's views. Note that this isn't a mere mistake or simple unconscious bias - there is actual, conscious intent to make the translation fit one's views regardless of what is said in the original text.

Needless to say, fans, translators, and translator fans who realize what's going on get quite furious, with good reason.

Sister Trope to Trolling Translator, which is when a translator deliberately mistranslates because it's amusing.

Examples: (not organized by medium)

In-Universe Examples
  • One episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day names the Translation with an Agenda process "Harry Bosco" after an In-Universe example. In this episode, figuring out what was actually said before the translation was Harry Boscoed is a major plot point.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic 2, the HK-50 droids masquerade as protocol droids (who among other things work as translators) to spread anarchy and war by ruining diplomatic confrontations. Judging by some of the cut content (where you see the place they're manufactured and trained), they are not at all subtle about it, often opening conversations with vile insults and overt threats they attribute to their "masters".
  • In the Christopher Stasheff book A Wizard in Chaos, a boss's steward is deliberately mistranslating prices quoted by merchants and taking the excess. This lands him in trouble when the protagonist, a telepath, shows up.
  • MAD ran a series of Newspaper Comic strips which had been (allegedly) adapted by the Soviet Union, re-translated into English, which had the various characters bemoaning their fates or otherwise delivering very unsubtle stabs at the American Way. For example, in a Peanuts Halloween strip which showed the kids going Trick or Treating, the speeches were changed to the kids having to go begging door to door to get something to eat and being so embarrassed by having to do so that they dress in costumes so nobody will see their shame.
    • Speaking of MAD, there was a Mad Look At strip where a man was speaking at a political rally with someone translating into Sign Language. Everyone in the room gets offended. The last panel is the interpretor being paid by the man's opponent.
  • The final The Critic webisode showed an alternate ending to Pearl Harbor for the Japanese market.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Planet of the Ood", the slavers' presentation reveals that they offer a selection of translation devices to make the eponymous race's speech conform to what their masters want to hear, thus creating the illusion of Happiness in Slavery.
  • In a rare heroic example, the translator from the Sherlock Holmes story "The Greek Interpreter" exploited the kidnappers' ignorance of Greek, questioning their prisoner about the circumstances of his captivity while they thought he was interrogating him about things they wanted to know.
  • Subverted in Lawrence Block's Tanner's Twelve Swingers where despite his boss' request that he "translate" an eastern European political author's latest book in a way which would be more favorable to the western countries, especially the US, the title character fully intended to translate it "word for glorious word."
  • In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot story "The Stymphalian Birds", two conwomen stage the murder of an Invented Individual who they claim is the abusive husband of one of them in a Central European country and get the mark to give them money that they claim they will use to bribe the police to cover up the murder. Since the mark is a monolingual Englishman, he has to trust them to do all the talking to the police. They get caught when they later translate an innocent conversation with another guest as that guest revealing that she knows about the murder and demanding a payoff. At that point, the mark consults fellow guest Hercule Poirot about the apparent Blackmail, and the con unravels.
  • A famous, and somewhat universal, joke has a translator interpreting what the captured rich man is saying, and vice versa his captors. Repeated demands for the location of a treasure, threatening the hostage's life, only get the answer "I won't tell" from the hostage - until one of the bandits draws a weapon, at which point the hostage shouts where the treasure is hidden. The (clearly greedy) translator looks at the other bandits, and says 'he doesn't know, and he insulted your mother.'
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court, we have Zimmy, who translates for the Polish-speaking Gamma. Zimmy has a tendency to "translate" a lot of what other people say into insults, to prevent Gamma from making friends with anyone else, and thus keep her around.
  • In the Mass Effect universe, the normally-insular Batarian Hegemony makes a point of providing up-to-date glossaries and language rules to the rest of the galaxy, in order to facilitate the spread of their propaganda.
  • in Sam & Max Save The World, Sam is tasked as the translator between Whizzer and the president, despite the fact that both speak English. The president nonetheless insists that he can't understand anything Whizzer says, so Sam has to deliberately mistranslate in order to accomplish his goals.
  • In the Western Animation version of Sam & Max, a yeti/abominable snowman they are with creates a lynch mob out of a remote village by altering what the duo asked him to say to sound like threats.

Real Life Examples
  • This case is a textbook one. "Nasty", a general insult, was translated as a specific political slur regarding people of a certain Brazilian political party. Since the editor of this comic is linked to a magazine well-known in Brazil for utterly hating said political party, and since it would take specific effort to make such a "mistake" (as "nasty" is a fairly simple word that can be translated more easily into several others), it became clear that this was a Translation with an Agenda.
  • While the book has never been translated fully, at least some of the controversy regarding The Satanic Verses in the Arabic speaking world can be attributed to the fact that the title was sometimes deliberately translated using the word "ayat", which specifically means the verses of the Quran as opposed to its more general English title.
  • In his Let's Play of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, after having railed against Yoshio Sakomoto for Metroid: Other M in earlier videos of the LP, Slowbeef translated his producers log as thus:
    "Hello, this is Yoshio Sakomoto! Itís not easy writing stories for Metroid considering my functional illiteracy. Honestly, I donít really like Samus, and I donít want you to like her either. I hate her and feel threatened by her. I will ruin this franchise. Iím just coming out and telling you. Fuck Metroid and fuck you."
  • There's an infamous scanlation of Cardcaptor Sakura where Tomoyo's Love Confession to Sakura is unchanged, but presented with a note on the side that reads "Ewww..." It's uncertain if this was in reaction to the lesbianism or to the fact that they're cousins, but fans were not amused. Both of the pair being notably underage might be a factor, but a professional translator abstains from commentary.
  • Many Chinese films will have lines altered when exported to the US to remove any pro-Chinese political messages. With some films, this not only means taking out overt references, but anything that can be construed as even vaguely political. Suffice to say, has become a Berserk Button for fans.
  • The Franco Regime had a board of censors to make sure Spaniards weren't exposed to foreign filth and dangerous political ideas. This extended to movie dubbing, and some efforts of the censors are still legendary in Spain, the most egregious one being turning the protagonists of the adulterous affair in Mogambo to an innocent-looking brother and sister, making their visually hinted relationship incestuous instead in a spectacular backfire. Another straightforwardly political one was omitting Rick's past as a fighter for the Spanish Republic in Casablanca.
  • While not as exaggerated as the Spaniard ones, Mexican-Spanish dubs did this sometimes. As a rule of thumb, any reference towards Americans going against Mexicans will be invariably changed, for obvious reasons.
  • When coming up with an Inuktitut word for "uranium", a translator who obviously had some personal views regarding nuclear energy rendered it as "rock that kills", and that term was used for some time before it was realized what had been done.
  • Garfield is probably one of the least political comic strips in existence. But in the eighties, one Norwegian translator team kept insisting that Jon subscribes to Klassekampen, a well-known left-wing newspaper. And considering what a Straw Loser Jon was at the time...
  • An editor for Commie, an anime fansub group, took this Up to Eleven with the ED for the last episode of Inugami-san to Nekoyama-san. He altered the lyrics to express his hatred of the show and regret of picking it up in not very subtle terms.
  • Pawel Leczycki - a 17th century Polish Bernadine monk - was the translator of Giovanni Botero's travelogue Relazioni universali. Apart from fixing some of Botero's errors in the sections relating to Poland, Leczycki also seemingly added some content reflecting his biases—e.g. in a listing of Greater Poland's major cities he added a bunch of cities which happened to house Bernardine convents, and in the section on Russia he put in a bunch of mean jabs at the country.
  • Michael Wood's 'In Search of Alexander' documentary, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, gets a subtle one in thanks to a pointed translation of his Greek guide Arrian. When Wood reaches what he believes to be the site of the famous Battle of Gaugamela in Iraq, he gets out his copy of Arrian and describes Alexander's preparations for war - most prominently offering up prayers to the gods Phobos and Deimos for their aid the next day. Traditionally Phobos and Deimos are translated as something like "fear" and panic" or "terror" and "disarray", but here, in the middle of Iraq, not long after the end of the second Gulf War, Wood chooses to translate them as "shock and awe"...
  • The Italian dub of Monty Python and the Holy Grail has replaced the humour with near-incomprensible political jokes.

Real Life Examples in The Bible

Some translations of the Bible are considered by some people to have an agenda. This not only makes this trope Older Than Print, it also earns the Bible a section of its own!

  • The ever so infamous homophobic Leviticus verse actually uses a term more accurately applied to underage [male?] prostitutes than "man".
    • A lesser known verse, 1 Corinthians 6:9, rattles off various lifestyles that will never get into heaven. One such lifestyle is translated by the King James Version as "[those] that defile themselves with mankind", the American Standard Version as "abusers of themselves with men", and the English Standard Version as... "men who practice homosexuality".
  • Some Jewish people accused Christians of doing this to the Old Testament, translating lines from the original Hebrew to make them sound like prophecies applicable to Jesus. Of particular note is the line "A young woman shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7:14) where "young woman" was translated as "virgin". Even before that it's thought that the young woman -> virgin translation happened before Christianity existed and occurred in the first major translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, called the "Septuagint," which was completed by 132 B.C.
  • Conservapedia, where they try re-translating the King James Bible from English to English. They feel there's too much Liberal bias in the translation made in the 1600s.
  • The line translated in the King James Version as "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live". An equally valid translation would be "poisoner".
    • There was no real distinction between the use of malign magic and poison in the culture at the time. Both made people fall dead with no visible reason. In any case, "witch" in the context means "a person who uses magic/poison to harm others", rather than "person who uses magic, period".
    • The difference between "poisoner" and "witch" is that, in some countries, women were more likely to be accused (and executed) for witchcraft than men. Poisoner is a far more gender neutral word today, and in the 1600s it would more commonly be applied to men, as far more men had any knowledge on how to use poisons. With the change of a word, the translator changes the focus of suspicion from primarily men to women.
  • The KJV also explicitly translated a mythological animal's Hebrew name to "unicorn" in the context of a lion and a "unicorn" together symbolising a people specially cherished by God and destined for great things. Unicorns were not known in ancient Israel, so artistic licence applied here. Guess whose national insignia is a lion and a unicorn... and the KJV was an English translation.
  • Speaking of English translations of the Bible, the Geneva Bible was infamously biased in favor of the type of Calvinism embraced by the vast majority of Puritans. This fact, plus the fact that the other, state-sanctioned translation was of less than satisfactory quality, helped pave the way for the King James Version in the first place.
    • Though it is worth mentioning that a bit of royal Executive Meddling regarding the rules for translators (reproduced here) insisted on keeping in the "old ecclesiastical words", presumably to not rock the boat of the status quo too much. So for example we have "charity" for "love", "church" instead congregation/gathering/assembly, "bishop" (when the Greek word is literally translated "overseer"), "baptize" (the Greek word meaning to immerse, which might upset those in favour of sprinkling) etc.
  • A New Testament example is the common practice of translating the Greek word "doulos" as "servant" when it meant "slave". The New Testament has a lot of casual and uncritical references to slaves, but slavery is nowadays considered abhorrent. At the time it was fairly matter-of-fact, but one of Christianity's main selling points was its insistence that slaves were as equal as anyone else in the eyes of God, and (in the context of their status, anyway) should be treated as such.
  • The Temperance Bible altered every instance of Jesus drinking wine to drinking grape juice. Also, every other mention of wine is retranslated "grape juice", unless someone is getting drunk off it or condemning it.
  • The ending salutation in Romans 16 references Junia, a female deacon or church leader. Nearly all English Bibles (exceptions to this include the New King James Version and more scholarly ones, like NRSV) render this name as "Junias" in an attempt to make it masculine and disguise the fact that many early church leaders were women.


Alternative Title(s):

Harry Bosco