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. Compare Twisting the Words, when this happens in the original language.
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In-Universe Examples

    Jokes 
  • 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.'

    Literature 
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action — Films 
  • Reds: In order to better motivate a crowd of Muslims to support the Bolsheviks, Zinoviev uses this trope to replace Reed's call to class war with a call to jihad.

    Live-Action — TV Series 
  • 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 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.

    Magazines 
  • MAD
    • The magazine 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.
    • 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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 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 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.

    Web Comics 
  • 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 Alone Together the main characters Danni and Jerom are soldiers from two different nations that were recently at war stranded on an island together, neither speaks the other's native tongue and Danni never heard that the war ended. Eventually some pirates come by and Jerom speaks to them in an island trade language, asking one who speaks Danni's language to tell her that the war is over. The pirate tells her that the war is still going on. However, she happens to speak the trade language.
  • Tuuri Hotakainen of Stand Still, Stay Silent is the only member of the expedition who can translate Finnish. Her cousin Lalli doesn't speak anything but Finnish... and Tuuri has a history of dismissing Lalli's perspective when she wants him to go along with something. This affects how she conveys orders from Sigrun and translates his scouting reports.

    Western Animation — TV Series 

Other Examples

    Anime & Manga 
  • 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, the fact that they're both underage, or to the fact that they're cousins, but fans were not amused. A professional translator abstains from commentary, regardless of the circumstances.
  • 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.

    Comics 
  • This Batman comic 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.
  • 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...

    Literature 
  • 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.
  • Paweł Łęczycki - 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, Łęczycki 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.
  • The Polish translation of Tony Judt's opus magnum Postwar was released in Poland with an entire section filled with the publisher's comments on particular excerpts and although the text proper remained faithful to the original, quite a few notes and observations made in said comments may appear somewhat unnecessary if not downright political in their nature. Aside from correcting genuine historical mistakes, obviously most of them relating to Polish history, the publisher does shove their two cents into, for instance, some of Judt's less than enthusiastic remarks on Pope John Paul II, calling those "controversial at best".
  • C. S. Lewis's Miracles was translated into Japanese by a Baptist translator who Bowdlerized a few passages to make it seem as though Lewis was The Teetotaler and a non-smoker. Lewis suspected that the changes were made on doctrinal grounds that he didn't agree with— in person, Lewis was an Anglican who was an avid beer drinker and pipe smoker.

    Literature — Translations of 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!
  • 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.
    • Isiah has many examples, as many translators over the centuries have found it irresistible to retroactively tinker with the prophecies to fit Christian dogma a little better. For example, the Hebrew uses the word messiah to refer to both the prophecised Messiah and King Cyrus of Persia, a ruler popular with the Jewish population for encouraging freedom of religion, but many translations choose to Translate the Loanwords Too when referring unambiguously to Cyrus, calling him 'the one anointed by God', while using the loan word in all other cases.
    • Most mainstream translations give Isiah 53:5 as 'he was pierced for our transgressions', adding an allusion to Jesus's side being pierced with spears in the Crucifixion. A more accurate translation would be 'wounded by our transgressions', with no specific indication of piercing.
  • 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.
    • To make this all the more interesting, in some languages—including, at points, the English language—the term 'witch' would be understood as somebody who used magic malevolently, and a different term such as 'wise woman' or 'clever man' was used for the person who practiced benevolent magic, including selling antidotes to the witches' potions... This can come up when dealing with older works in particular, as often the latter term(s) seem to have been lost or lost the distinction, causing a time-induced case of Separated by a Common Language.
  • The KJV also explicitly translated a mythological animal's Hebrew name to "unicorn" in the context of a lion and a "unicorn" together symbolizing a people specially cherished by God and destined for great things. Unicorns were not known in ancient Israel, so artistic license 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 of congregation/gathering/assembly, "bishop" (when the Greek word is literally translated "overseer"), "baptize" (the Greek word meaning to immerse, which might upset those in favor 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 simply matter-of-fact.
  • 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 some early church leaders were women.
  • The word "baal" literally means "lord", "master" or "Husband" in various Semitic and Arabic languages (including Early Hebrew). Often misinterpreted to be a god in the semetic pantheon, it's actually a euphemism for deification of the current king. At some point, a translator, possibly attempting to brush Baal worship completely out of Hebrew history, changed all instances of baal to bosheth ("shame") in order to write out the name of Baal, including in names where the word was literally intended as "Lord" in unambiguous reference to YHWH — so Saul's son Eshbaal ("great is the lord") became Ishbosheth ("great is the shame"), Jonathan's son Meribaal ("from the mouth of the lord") became Mephibosheth ("from the mouth of shame"), etc. This carries through to most Bibles and Scriptures with the exception of scholarly works.
  • 1 Samuel 41 writes that David and Jonathan kissed and wept when they had to say goodbye to one another. A kiss would not have been an unusual gesture between two friends in a tender moment in that place and time period, so most translations leave it in. However, many conservative modern translations are so scared of any male-on-male action that they specify that the two friends kissed each other's cheeks (although nothing about that is said in the original Hebrew), or even (in the case of the ultra-insecure Living Bible) turn it into "and they sadly shook hands".
  • Ecclesiastes 11:2 is usually translated along the lines of "Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth" (ESV), one of many times the Bible urges those with wealth to spend it supporting the community. The NIV translates it as "Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land" and continues the verse by urging people to diversify a stock portfolio. It goes without saying that the particular economic system being justified there did not exist at the pre-feudal time Ecclesiastes was written, and would, in fact, have been considered sinful under Old Testament money handling laws. The NIV is an American translation from the Cold War era, so imagining King Solomon as a wise investor rather than as a wise man of generosity had a political motivation.
  • Song of Songs has a controversy over a line from the Beloved that would be literally translated from Hebrew as "I am black and beautiful". Many translations change it to something along the lines of "although I am black, I am beautiful". The context of the scene is that the Beloved is tanned dark because her brothers have forced her to work in the sun all day, thus changing her to be against Hebrew beauty standards, making this change a little less offensive; but the Hebrew had her insisting her black skin was a part of her beauty, while many translations made in times of racism and colorism had her claim her beauty despite her dark skin.

    Live Action — Films 
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Video Games 

    Web Originals 
  • 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."

    Real Life 
  • 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.
  • The infamous national anthem of Nazi Germany "Das Deutschlandlied" begins with the lines "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles / über alles in der Welt". This is usually translated as something along the lines of "Germany, Germany above all others / above all others in the world!"; however, the original German is a bit more ambiguous. You can interpret it as either "Germany above all (to me)" i.e. Germany should come as the first priority to its people or "Germany above all else" (i.e. Germany is the best thing in the world and everything/one else should bow down to it). Hofman von Fallersleben, the author of the lyrics, almost certainly intended the former meaning, as he was an advocate for uniting all the petty feudal states into one Germany, but both the Nazis and Antinazi propaganda during the war naturally chose to interpret it in the latter sense, which means that particular line has become Deader Than Disco - even some Germans don't know about the ambiguity in the text.
  • The Dutch Christian-run broadcasting group Evangelische Omroep (EO) was the subject of controversy after it edited the David Attenborough series The Life of Mammals to remove content that was not in line with their creationist viewpoints. Attenborough was not happy about it.


Alternative Title(s): Harry Bosco

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TranslationWithAnAgenda