There's a phrase that's important to the plot or arc (possibly Arc Words). There will come a time the characters encounter the phrase in a foreign language. The foreign phrase will always be translated precisely to the important phrase, even though linguistic quirks would make this unlikely. It even works with songs, when the translation rhymes.
An ancient inscription will always be rendered in complex long words with nuanced meanings, despite the fact that on-the-spot translation typically sounds more like a two year old trying to put together a sentence.
It gets even more amazing when ancient spells and prophecies rhyme or are puns in English.
For proof that this doesn't work at all, go to Google Translate and translate a sentence multiple times across many languages. example
An exception occasionally pops up when the form of a word in another language (usually with declensions, like Latin) reveals information such as number or gender that would require additional words in English, allowing the translation to be more precise than one would expect.
See Either "World Domination", or Something About Bananas for the most common subversion, and Lucky Translation for a few real life examples.
- Averted in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers with Carim's prophecies. They foretell the future exactly as it will come to pass... except you can't pick what is predicted and it comes out in ancient Belkian, which is apparently very difficult to translate properly. The accuracy is therefore reduced to the level of 'educated guess' or 'accurate horoscope.' And, in fact, they misinterpret the main prophecy to mean doomsday for the TSAB when in reality it says that they win.
- The difficulty isn't so much the fact that they're in Ancient Belkan, but that they're in poetic verse.
- In Steins;Gate, Daru's program translates English documents into flawless Japanese, complete with correct pronouns, suffixes and nuanced expressions. Anyone who has tried Translation Party would know that English-to-Japanese translations are not that easy. Then again, Daru is a "Super Haker", so maybe his program's that good.
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- VN Daru's program, on the other hand, gives the sort of translation you'd expect from Babel Fish.
- Averted in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, in particular with "arigatou/thank you" which has no equivalent in Ledo's language and requires a lengthy explanation. They also don't have a word for "meat," since they presumably only eat synthetic food, so his translator can only describe fish and chicken as "corpses."
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!: Capsule Monsters, the clues to solving the game Grandpa Muto, Yugi, and their friends are trapped in are written in hieroglyphics. Yet when Grandpa and the Pharaoh read them out loud in English, they rhyme nicely, with proper rhythm and meter.
- In a comic in French translated from Italian, Mickey and a professor can't understand a message left by an ancient civilization. But Dingo (Goofy), who like games, say it's just a rebus. The trope is then played for laughs when he say the rebus is "in Italian... for some reason", and translate it saying things like "that's a drawing meaning it's little, piccolo in Italian"...
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire plays with this. The reason why Atlantis was never found was a single error: instead of Írland, it was supposed to be Ísland. Which, conveniently are Ireland and Iceland in English...(for added fun, they also translate into Irlanti and Islanti in Finnish, keeping the joke).
- In Titanic (1997), it's mentioned the necklace is called "The Heart of the Ocean." Later when Cal presents the necklace to Rose, he calls it "Le Cœur de la Mer," which both characters simultaneously translate as "The Heart of the Ocean." However, one would usually translate mer as "sea." Of course, if it's a well-known necklace it probably has an official translated name in English, which both characters probably already know. (Compare how everyone "knows" that the "real" translation of the Chinese "Honglou Meng" is "Dream of the Red Chamber" rather than "Red Room Dreams" or "Scarlet Quarters Reverie".)
- The treasure map in The Goonies is in Spanish, but when translated into English, it becomes rhyming verse. No one even stops to consider how unusual this is.
- Subverted in The Usual Suspects: a Hungarian who encountered Keyser Soze is translated by an American interpreter as saying that they picked up a pasas, or "package." In reality, pasas is actually Hungarian slang for "guy," which no one realizes until much later on, giving Verbal enough time to mislead the interrogator until his bail is posted. The fact that the translator's first language is English, and less likely to know slang in another language, makes this scene more realistic.
- The movie Stargate had Daniel Jackson correct a translation of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, changing "door to heavens" to "Stargate". This is possibly because "Stargate" sounds cooler than "door to heavens". However, in the SG-1 episode "Moebius", Jackson travels back in time and helps plan the uprising that would lead to the Stargate being buried, along with the coverstone with the hieroglyphs (which he likely helped write) which he would 6000 years later translate as being Stargate. So it's not surprising he can translate it as he wrote it.
- Lightly spoofed and subverted in Stargate SG-1, where Dr. Jackson (now the team linguist) once translated something as "the place of our legacy" but expressed some doubt by adding that it could also mean "a piece of our leg, but the first seems to make more sense."
- This was done again when SG-1 was searching for the Lost City. Jonas Quinn thought that it should be translated as the City of the Lost because the Ancients couldn't possibly lose one of their own cities and of course, Jack O'Neill took this to mean the City of the Dead. They came full circle when Dr. Jackson returned to the team and revealed that the city had been built lost and was therefore the Lost City.
- Subverted in Event Horizon. The distress signal sent by Event Horizon contains the Latin phrase liberate me ("save me"). It was later realized that the message was actually liberate tutame ex inferis ("save yourself from Hell"). Amusingly enough, the translation was still a little off. It would more accurately mean "free me/yourself."
- H.P. Lovecraft: That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die
- Which, though poetic, is odd when considering the original was supposedly written in Arabic. Given that the English translation of the book is said to have been contemporaneous to the King James Bible, one might attribute it to a poetic translator.
- Call of Cthulhu RPG makes a deliberate point of this: with each successive translation of the Necronomicon (or any other Tome of Eldritch Lore ), its in-game usefulness as a source of knowledge/power/danger decreases.
- One RPG sourcebook contains a chapter that attempts to explain things like this from an in universe perspective. Its Arabic version of the above quote also rhymes, and actually explains more than the English version.
- Which, though poetic, is odd when considering the original was supposedly written in Arabic. Given that the English translation of the book is said to have been contemporaneous to the King James Bible, one might attribute it to a poetic translator.
- The Magician's Nephew: While exploring a dead world, the protagonists encounter a bell and hammer together with an alien inscription, which a magical Universal Translator conveniently renders for them as: “Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,/Strike the bell and bide the danger,/Or wonder, till it drives you mad,/What would have followed if you had.”
- Played with in The Book of the New Sun: Terminus Est, the name of an important execution sword, never receives a single official translation. It's rendered once as this is the line of division and once as this is the place of parting. Both translators ignore the most obvious choice:this is the end. The ambiguity is a possible reference to the catastrophic events that will violently reshape (but not end) the planet.
- J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is not a case of the trope, as his Constructed Languages and their texts are not literal 1:1 translations. There are other-language poems with their 'Westron'/English translation both given by Tolkien, who are visibly not 'identical' but treated like any real-world poetry translation to produce a text both meaningful and working within the respective aesthetical rules. Both instances/reminders in the narrative text as well as in additional texts provide more insight into both in-universe and the (pretend) 'Westron-to-English' language and translation issues and problems.
- An in-universe trope subversion showing an on-the-spot translation occurs in The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf translates the (punctuation-less) inscription on the door to Moria (Pedo mellon a minno) as "Speak, friend, and enter." which, while 1:1 correct, should have rather been rendered as "Say 'friend' and enter." To preserve the meaning: Saying aloud the Sindarin word 'friend' (mellon) is the password to open the door.
- This might have been a dialectal difference. The standard Sindarin for "say 'friend'" is apparently pedo vellon, with the object of the verb under lenition ("softening" of the initial consonant). Either this inscription is in a dialect that doesn't lenit m's (which is etymologically plausible), or mellon appears spelled as it had to be read to open the gate.
- All of the "English" names and dialogue in the books are actually in Westron or "Common Speech", translated by Tolkien for the reader. At one point Tolkien has to point out that an apparent pun in English (the close ties between the hobbit families Gamgee and Cotton) was not present in the "original" language.
- On the other hand, there's one that does slip through. Orthanc, the tower of Isengard, has a double meaning: it means "Mount Fang" in Sindarin, and "cunning mind" in the language of Rohan. Since Rohirric is a very conservative relative of the language that Westron (mostly) derives from, Tolkien uses slightly modernised Old English to "translate" it. And orthanc does indeed mean something very much like "cunning" in Old English. So the same word has the same meaning in two languages?
- Glorfindel's Prophecy Twist of the Witch-King of Angmar's eventual destruction: "Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." In the Elvish languages of Quenya and Sindarin, the translations of "man" as in "human" are different from "man" as in "male". There shouldn't normally have been any ambiguity between "he can't be killed by a human" and "he can't be killed by a male human". To create that ambiguity when translated would have required some rather precise misdirection.
- This is averted in Eragon. Brom translates a poem from the Ancient Language (Elvish) for Eragon, which sounds pretty but has no real rhyme or meter, and Brom says himself that he can't translate it perfectly. And therefore makes perfect sense. Again averted in the sequel, Eldest, when Eragon composes a poem in the Ancient Language. The reader is shown a translation of it, and it doesn't rhyme either. This allows the author to provide incredibly beautiful, classic poems without having to write overwhelmingly moving poems from scratch.
- The novel Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Blinking Eye features a prophecy written by a Spanish-speaking woman, in Spanish, which is then translated into English. Amazingly, it was written so precisely that it rhymes perfectly in English, and although it becomes a plot point that they aren't sure whether a line ought to read "big headed man" (as in, a man with a physically large head) or "big-headed man" (as in, a man who thinks a lot of himself), this is possibly an artifact of the English translation, and no such confusion may have existed in the original wording. The Spanish word cabezón could have both meanings.
- In the first Artemis Fowl book, Artemis is able to write a computer program that is able to decipher a written language that predates Egyptian hieroglyphics, and then translate it into English in perfect meter and rhyme. All this without actually having any knowledge of other languages himself. Sure he's supposed to be a genius, but...
- Then again, Gnommish is less an ancient language and more a fancy English cipher.
- Holly Short works for the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, or LEPrecon. Like "leprechaun", see? Which means the English translation of a Gnomish abbreviation happens to sound just like a Gaelic word.
- A poem in the twelfth Deverry book includes a note that it rhymes in Deverrian, but not English.
- Averted in the Star Wars novel Traitor: Nom Anor (A Yuuzhan Vong who speaks Basic, i.e. English), while listening to an excruciatingly boring shaper's drone, muses (apparently in Basic) that "maybe that's why we call them drones". He decides not to share this with anyone, because it's only a joke in Basic. (And a really weak one at that.)
- The Yuuzhan Vong language in general averts this one; based on the word-for-word translations seen, it's very rich is poetic and religious imagery, so that even everyday terms tend towards the highly involved and metaphorical when translated directly.
- Possibly subverted in A Song of Ice and Fire where everyone is concerned about the prophesied "Prince that was Promised." However, the prophesy in question was written in ancient Valyrian and one character points out a quirk of the Valyrian language: all words in High Valyrian are gender neutral, so the Promised One might not be a prince but a princess. Whether the character's theory is correct or not remains to be seen, but the evidence seems to be in favor so far.
- A plot point in Empire from the Ashes rests on the language of the Fourth Imperium of Man having terms equivalent in nuance to the English terms 'Imperium' and 'Empire'. Note that the Fourth Imperium predates civilization on Earth by millennia. To be fair, the book at least is nice to specify that the language of the Fourth Imperium had equivalent terms, rather than just acting as if the English translation was proof enough.
- Generally played straight in Speaker for the Dead, in which translations between English and Portuguese and the alien languages of the pequeninos tend to be incredibly precise and elegant. Possibly justified as the translator is usually a "piggy," and they are canonically better than humans at learning new languages. There is one important aversion: at one point, Ender asks a male piggy to translate a statement in which he commands a female piggy and refers to her asking him for a favor. It is explained to him that the syntax to express this does not exist in their language; a female can command a male and a male can petition a female, but never the other way around.
- The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley contains an aversion. The remnants of humanity have been receiving technical knowledge from a mysterious extra-solar source, and finally a message arrives which seems to be demanding payment. We see a "probability weighted" translation. It begins FOR (A PERIOD OF TIME: CONJECTURE: 400 EARTH YEARS?) DATA HAS BEEN SENT. NEW SUBSCRIBERS (22%) ARE GIVEN A (UNTRANSLATABLE) TO ADJUST and ends SEVERE PENALTIES, SEVERE PENALTIES (97%)
- Played with in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Fallen Heroes. The Lonatian language is apparently spoken in sweeping and elegant poetry. When it comes out of the universal translator, it's annoying doggerel; the computer can keep the rhyme scheme, but at the expense of everything else, sometimes including the meaning. But then there's one scene in the book where Quark can tell the Lonat trader is getting desperate when his poems start getting worse, despite the previous suggestion that this is the translation program's fault.
- Subversion: In Buffy the Arc Words in Season 7 are "From beneath you, it devours". Andrew and Jonathan reveal in "Conversations With Dead People" that, while in Mexico, they've had dreams with the refrain "Desde abajo te devora." Andrew translates the phrase as "It eats you, starting with your bottom". The literal translation is "From below, it devours you", but this particular phrase probably would translate fairly closely to Spanish and back.
- Andrew provides his own lampshade a little earlier in the scene when he complains that Klingon was easier to learn than Spanish because the former "had much clearer rules on transitive and intransitive verbs."
- Used twice in Angel:
- The so-called Shanshu Prophecy says that the vampire with a soul will "shanshu" as a reward if he makes it through his trials. Wesley struggles with finding a translation for this word, first going for "die", but finally discovering that the word means both to die and to live, explaining that the original authors of the text thought of life as cyclical and thus equated the two concepts. He realizes this means he will "live until he dies", or in other words, become human again..
- Spoofed in an episode where Lorne states that a group of demons "...either are going to discuss it with the prince, or go eat a cheesemonkey".
- Frequently used in The Twilight Zone:
- Notably in the episode "To Serve Man", which manages to simultaneously subvert this trope and provide one of the most ridiculous examples of it. Translators translate the name of the aliens' book as "To Serve Man" but don't realize until later that the "serve" in this case means to serve as food. However, the entire premise of this misunderstanding of the translation is patently ridiculous, as it asks the viewer to seriously believe that the exact same pun exists in two completely unrelated languages. To get slightly geeky on the subject - it's not that unlikely in any language with transitivity distinction, as the two senses of "serve" describe the same action with different object focus "to serve food (to Man)" and "to serve Man (some food)". It wouldn't be surprising to find similar ambiguity in most languages (at least, on Earth...) But it's a bit more complicated, as you need the words "to give food" and "to do favors" to be alike, which is reasonably rare and that the dative and accusative forms of 'man' to be alike.
- The original Damon Knight short story that the episode was adapted from does attempt to get around this by saying that English and Kanamit share certain linguistic quirks and double meanings. (It also depicts the translation as less like codebreaking than the TZ episode; the people in the story use a Kanamit-English phrasebook as a starting point for the translation.)
- Well-spoofed in a Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror episode where the Simpsons are kidnapped by Kang and Kodos and fed well... Lisa becomes suspicious and finds a dusty tome titled 'How to Cook Humans.' She publicly confronts the aliens in front of her family. Kodos takes the book and blows off some dust. The title is revealed as 'How to Cook For Humans.' Lisa claims that there is more 'space dust' on that cover and blows more of it off. The book's title changes to 'How to Cook Forty Humans.' Naturally, the alien wrenches the book from her hands for the last time and blows as hard as he can. The official title for this thing stands at 'How to Cook for Forty Humans'. The aliens are dismayed at humanity's suspicious nature and claim they would've offered paradise... They also express disgust at the sheer quantity eaten. Their alien chef cries. It also lampshades the fact that the book is in English by saying that by an amazing coincidence, English and Rigilian are exactly the same. Great episode.
- Subversion on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Dax translates a particular line of ancient Bajoran glyphs as meaning that the people will either "suffer horribly" or "eat fruit", depending on context.
Dax: Given the tone of the rest of the inscriptions, I would bet on the horrible suffering.
- A related instance occurred in the pilot episode of Lost. Shannon translates the French distress call as "It killed them all." However, the actual pronoun used is "il," which would more commonly be translated as "he", French does not have a separate pronoun for inanimate objects. Hence, she more likely would translate the message as "He killed them all." However, seeing as some thing had just killed the pilot, the line needed to be translated with "it."
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" gleefully deconstructed this trope. When trying to communicate with an alien race, the universal translator didn't work on their language because their speech patterns were vastly different. Their language was based on metaphor, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" is said repeatedly to the Enterprise crew, but it isn't learned until much later that they learn Darmok and Jalad were mythological heroes who became friends at the place Tanagra, slaying a legendary beast. So when they say "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" it is a term for a friendship formed while battling a common foe.
- Another example is the phrase "Sokath. His eyes uncovered!" which is taken to mean "He understands!"
- Some linguistics professors like to show this episode to their students as an example of how understanding a language requires understanding the culture that created it.
- The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Riddles" features Neelix telling a joke to Tuvok. The riddle is, essentially, "Some guy is stranded on a desert island with only a calendar, isn't rescued for six months, but survives. How did he do it?" Tuvok is rather unimpressed at the answer of, "He ate the dates." Later, Tuvok proposes that "He ate the Sundays (sundaes)" could be an alternate answer. These are, mind you, alien characters and neither one has any incentive to learn English since they live with universal translators. Neelix in particular was only exposed to humans (and therefore English) seven years ago. The implication is either that both these characters took the time to learn English for some reason, and the joke wasn't Lost in Translation, or dates/sundaes are both food- and time-related words in three different languages.
- Tuvok, at least, has the excuse of being readily familiar with the Earth dating system. It's not unreasonable to expect Vulcans to have studied English, either, as it is occasionally stated to actually be the official language of the Federation, not just a Translation Convention. As for Neelix, he could have simply looked the joke up, and he is sometimes portrayed as quite enthusiastic about studying the cultures of his new friends. (E.g. preparing Klingon food for a holiday B'Elanna doesn't even bother to celebrate.)
- Averted in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Bread and Circuses" with an example similar to the Zeitgeist one below where the Enterprise runs into a planet of space Romans where the rebels worship the sun. It is revealed at the end that it's actually the "son of God". The writers intentionally established early on in the episode that the natives were speaking English, precisely so they wouldn't need to deal with this issue.
- Subverted in the Doctor Who episode "A Good Man Goes to War". Melody Pond, the daughter of Amy and Rory? After translation through the language of the Gamma Forest, her name translates to River (Pond) Song (Melody). Also given a nice EXPLANATION, as well. The only water in the Gamma forest is the river so it's their language's closest translation of Pond.
- Also averted with the Arc Words of the season: "Silence Will Fall" is said by various characters in rather ominous circumstances, but in the last episode of the season it is revealed that "Silence Must Fall" would be a better translation, and that the full phrase would be "Silence must fall when the question is asked". This discovery changes the role of the season's primary antagonists from apparent Omnicidal Maniacs who want to kill the Doctor as part of their plan to Well Intentioned Extremists who are trying to kill the Doctor before he is asked "the question", which would make the Time Lords return and resume fighting the Last Great Time War. Why must silence fall? Because where the Doctor is asked "the question" is a truth field that prevents anyone from lying. Therefore, the only options are to answer truthfully (bad) or not speak.
- Averted in "The Christmas Invasion." A hasty, computer-assisted translation of a newly-encountered alien language uses exceedingly simple vocabulary and syntax and often renders a single concept using two or three near-synonyms when it's unclear which one is closest to the intended meaning. When the setting's Translator Microbes kick back in and the viewpoint characters (and audience) start hearing English coming out of the aliens' mouths, they sound just like any other aliens on the show.
- There's a moment in Metal Gear Solid 4 where Snake reads out the slogan of the French PMC "Pieuvre Armament" as "Arms of the octopus. Arms for your war." This is a reasonably okay slogan for a PMC named after an octopus, until you realise the slogan was originally in French, and he was translating from that - the appendages/weapons double meaning for the word 'arms' doesn't exist in the original slogan, which uses the words 'tentacles' and 'armaments'. With the wordplay gone, the supposedly catchy slogan loses a lot of advertising power.
- Unless the founders intended it as a Bilingual Bonus.
- In the original Metal Gear Solid, Psycho Mantis's Interface Screw works in both English and Japanese, but only because Japanese borrows the word "video" from English. In English, it relies on the similarity between VIDEO and HIDEO; in Japanese, it's ビデオ and ヒデオnote .
- Lampshaded in Schlock Mercenary. After a character makes a pun ("'Mercy' and 'Mercenary' may sound similar, but I assure you it's just a misleading coincidence"), the narration box notes that "Oddly enough, this joke works in Galstandard West as well as in English."
- In the Zeitgeist movie, which contains many research errors, one theory brought forth is that Jesus Christ is a ripoff from earlier sun gods. See, he's the son of God, which sounds similar to sun, get it?