A comedy trope. An incidental character says something in a foreign language. A character who either speaks a little of the language or has a translation method attempts to explain it to the others. For some reason, they narrow it down to a few possibilities, and they have absolutely nothing in common in terms of meaning, often with one being rather reasonable in the context while the other is absurdly different. Sometimes they pin it down to the one translation but then it's just so ill fitting, they can spot it's wrong. One might wonder what kind of language could possibly have that property, but real languages are that weird—consider, for example, all the different ways a word can pick up meanings other than its original literal one, in a process known in the real world as semantic change.
See also "Blind Idiot" Translation, of which that is also an example, Fun with Homophones, where a similar joke is made without any translation occurring, instead relying on similar words in the same language, or My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels, which is when there's only one translation, but the translation is completely different and unrelated. Can be seen as an unintentional instance of Lopsided Dichotomy.
When it comes to cultural idioms, this becomes Blunt Metaphors Trauma.
- In The Curse of Nostrildamus by Don Rosa, Donald Duck and Scrooge find the tomb of the eponymous seer and Donald tries to translate the text written on the grave:
Donald: It says "Thank you for the plastic monkeys".
Scrooge: Try again.
Donald: Whoops! It REALLY says "Sudden death to whosoever disturbs the tomb of de Nostrildamus".
- In Sergio Aragonés Destroys DC, Batman sees the bat-signal in the sky:
Batman: There must be a desperate situation threatening Gotham's very soul! — Either that or my next movie is premiering tonight!
- In one Zits strip, an unintelligible Pierce asks Jeremy for a favour after having the bands on his braces tightened. Jeremy remarks that he just agreed to either share his history notes or milk Pierce's hamster.
- In a Dragon Magazine strip of The Order of the Stick, Vaarsuvius tries to translate a draconic inscription on a statue, and concludes that charging it with magical energy will open mystic portal. On attempting this, however...
Vaarsuvius: On the other hand, the Draconic words for "exit" and "swarm of puffins" are very similar...
Belkar: Dragons HAVE a word for "swarm of puffins"??
Vaarsuvius: They have three, actually. Theirs is a complex culture.
- In a Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown comes home from the sandlot after the last game of the season, and tells Sally, who is watching TV, that he's going to put some Neat's Foot Oil on his glove and put it away for the winter. When Linus calls and asks where he is, Sally answers that "He said something about how neat it is to wear gloves on your feet in the winter."
- In Mary Potter 2: the Heir of Slytherin Mary asks Hermione's mother to help her practice her (minimal) French.
They had a very long and confusing conversation (with extensive commentary from Hermione and frequent pauses for Mary to look up words) about either flying or ballet and Persians or drills, or possibly mythology or Percy Weasley (but probably not Weasley), and then either common sense or a census. It didn't really matter which for the last one, Mary supposed, as the wizarding world seemed to lack both, and that was the gist of what Emma was saying. Probably.
- Naruto: The Abridged Series: "He either said he's been hired by Disney to kill the old guy so he can't finish the bridge, or we're going out for coffee next week."
- A Witch and an Amazon Walk into a Bar:
Tonks: There was only one sentence that was clearly describing the effects of those rings. It was written in some weird combination of Latin and Greek, too. My best translation is that they were created to 'foster sympathy in a bonded pair of strangers, so that they might forever experience an arousing, harmonious union.'
Rose: That doesn't sound so bad...
Tonks: On the other hand, it might have meant that they were designed to 'produce mutual suffering in two people forced together so that they would forever burn in concert.'
- Charming Chocolates:
Harry and Malfoy were seated on the other end in a heated discussion on something he couldn't read in the translation from across the room - if Ron's knowledge of sign language could be trusted, it was about either plumbing or footwear.
- Battle of Heroes: Earth vs Olympus: "I... I don't know. I sort of sounded Greek, but all I got out of it was monsters. It could have also been hot chocolate, the jury's still out."
- Finding Nemo: "He either said to move to the back of the throat, or he wants a root beer float."
- 101 Dalmatians: Colonel the sheepdog tries translating what he heard from the Twilight Bark.
Colonel: Fifteen spotted puddles stolen? Oh, balderdash!
- Madagascar: Alex, Gloria and Melman take the NYC Subway to Grand Central to stop Marty from going to Connecticut, and Alex tries to interpret the announcement over the train's intercom.
Alex: Did he just say "Grand Central Station" or "My aunt's constipation"?Gloria: This is it!
- In Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett tells us that in various places around the Discworld, the word "Aargh!" can mean anything from "Your wife is a big hippo!" to "Quick, extra boiling oil!" This ends in a Running Gag throughout the book where people misinterpret other people's screams to various effects. ("I'm not even married!") This likely parodies tonal languages such as Chinese, where what would sound like one word in English could be translated in up to four completely different ways in Mandarin, depending on tone. Cantonese would have nine possible translations. (Even more, considering the abundance of homophones.)
- In the same book, Rincewind is often shown cycling through different meanings of what is presumably the same phrase. It's all represented as English, but it's an accurate, and hilarious, reflection of problems non-native speakers of Chinese can have pronouncing the words/phrases they really want. For example:
Rincewind: Chief Wizard?
Twoflower: That's what he said. Well... actually what he said was he wanted you to be a blob of swallow's vomit, but that was because he used the low sad tone rather than the high questioning one. He definitely meant wizard.
- Sewer, Gas & Electric by Matt Ruff: The sentient AI that lives in Disneyland overhears a conversation behind the doors of Walt Disney's secret speakeasy — hey, It Makes Sense in Context, OK? — and applies its audio filtering subroutines. It decides that the conversation is either a) a conversation about dinner and drinks or b) override instructions telling it to kill 1000 people in ironic ways, and to construct a robotic race of "perfect Negroes." It chooses option B. Unlike most examples, it wasn't really mistaken or confused: it deliberately chose the option that would let it kill people, because it hated humans and was bored.
- In The Heroes of Olympus' second book, when Percy first arrives at the Roman camp, the quartermaster Octavian says that the stuffing of disemboweled teddy bears (yes, you read that right) foretold Percy's arrival:
Octavian: The message said: "The Greek has arrived." Or possibly: "The goose has cried."
- Ax does something like this in Animorphs (the kids are in fly morph):
Ax: He's welcoming the Visser back aboard the Blade ship. Or he may be telling him his brother is a meteor fragment. I understand Galard, but this morph's hearing is very uncertain.
- Since the Visser actually does have a brother he's been trying to hunt down and is part of a species capable of faster-than-light travel, the second translation isn't actually that far-fetched.
- In one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books, it's mentioned that the Darkovan idiom for "friend and brother" is strictly forbidden to Earth diplomats. Correctly pronounced it would be entirely appropriate for a speech encouraging friendship between two cultures, but spoken with the wrong inflection it can come out meaning anything from "brother" in the familial sense to "same-sex lover".
- In the Ever After High book The Storybook of Legends, Maddie translates one of Giles' riddles thus:
He said, "Legacy Day is a hoax, and the Storybook of Legends holds no real power!" Or maybe he said, "Legacy Day is hilarious, and the Storybook of Legends is a monster."
- Richard Bartle's online novel Learning to Live With Orcs has an orc language that naturally leads to this:
Whereas on Earth there are several languages which are tonal in nature (most notably the main dialects of Chinese and certain African tongues), the HA use volume to overload their basic set of phonemes. Thus we get sha ("flower"), sha ("sun"), SHA ("river") and SHA ("pigeon"). These four volumes are relative, so it is possible to whisper to someone that there is a pigeon outside without frightening the poor bird away, but of course it takes a lot of practice to get the levels right. Anthropologists are steeled to such problems, though, and I was confident I would soon get the hang of it, perhaps after a week or two...
- From Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Errant:
Keff: I'm ready. Listen - "Freihur, co nafri da an colaro, yaro."Translation program: Greetings, leader you take me go, please.Carialle: That's fine, if that's what those words mean. Trying to guess from context, it still could mean "Greetings, your sister sells rugs in a zoo".
- In Angel, Lorne had his moment with this trope. "Either they're going to talk to their prince, or they're going to go and eat a cheesemonkey."
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow gets a text from Xander while he's out on a date. It's one of the signals in a system they set up ages ago — but Willow is having trouble remembering what the code means. "Uh, this one's either 'I just got lucky, don't call me for a while' or 'my date's a demon who's trying to kill me.'" Knowing Xander's experience, they assume (rightly, it is revealed) that it is the latter, but given what we saw in the last scene with Xander, he could have easily sent the former. It is left to the audience to decide.
- Star Trek examples:
- From "The Reckoning", an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
Dax: "During the reckoning, the Bajorans will either suffer horribly or... eat fruit."Sisko: ... "Eat fruit?"Dax: Given the tone of the rest of the inscriptions, I would bet on the horrible suffering.
- Though in the end, the Bajorans don't really suffer horribly...but Kira is seen eating a fruit salad near the beginning of the episode.
- From the 30th anniversary special skit with Captain Janeway and the cast of Frasier:
"Captain, I'm not sure I'm reading this instrument panel correctly, but either there's a malfunction in our left turn signal, or there's an armed Klingon on board the turbolift!"
[the turbolift doors open, revealing an armed Klingon]
Janeway: Shall we assume it's the latter?
- And in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Fight or Flight", Hoshi is trying to translate an alien recording when Trip puts in his two cents:
"Could be a laundry list, or instructions on how to conquer the universe."
- From "The Reckoning", an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- Referenced in one episode of Stargate SG-1:
Dr. Jackson: Uh, w-well, my translation's a little bit vague, um, I think the circle means "the place of our legacy" — or it could be "a piece of our leg", but the first seems to make more sense.
- Which may look strange at first, considering the apparent unlikelihood of any other language having "leg" and "legacy" use similar sounds. However, as Reality Is Unrealistic, it happens frequently in Real Life; see below.
- The Suite Life on Deck has an incident where Cody translates some hieroglyphs as instructions to free Bailey from a curse unleashed by a crown. "...that or a recipe for fish tacos".
- While shopping on Babylon 5 Garibalidi comes across a vendor selling what is either an aphrodisiac or a furniture polish, the translator can't tell. He comments that it had better not leave a waxy residue. On anything.
- From the season three episode "Boxed In":
Tony: What's he saying?
Ziva: They're either discussing letting us go, or the best way to murder us. [beat] It's a complicated language!
- "The Meat Puzzle", when talking about Ducky's mother:
Tony: Her usual afternoon fistful of Wild Turkey. Her last words to me were either "I'm gonna slit your throat" or "kiss your moat." I couldn't tell 'cause she was slurring.
- From the season three episode "Boxed In":
- In an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina is transported to one of Harvey's nightmares, where he is running towards a French text book but is unable to get near it (this is because they have a French exam coming and Harvey is having anxiety issues). Sabrina helps Harvey get the book, upon which he kips something in French. Sabrina then says to herself that Harvey either "said that he was happy to get the book back or that his shorts are too tight" and concludes that it's her who should study more French.
- One episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has the Petries inadvertently hiring a live-in maid, a Spanish girl named Maria. Rob, having taken a couple of semesters of Spanish in high school, can (with great effort) communicate with her and translate some of her words. At one point, the Petries successfully communicate to Maria that they can't keep her, and she runs away screaming "Me tiro en el mar! Me tiro en el mar!" Laura asks Rob what she said, and he responds that it was either that she's going to throw herself in the ocean (the correct translation) or that she's going to the movies.
- Chuck: In "Chuck vs The Gobber", Sarah sends a message to Chuck using an electronic beeping language designed by the FBI for the two of them to communicate with each other.
Chuck: Right now, she's saying she loves me. Or she's planning on buying a Buick. I can't really tell, it's a complicated language.
- The Live-Action Adaptation of the French novel series Fantômette had one episode where the Villain of the Week had stolen a machine and tasked his henchman with translating the user manual from Japanese. The henchman has trouble with one word: As he explains to his employer, the manual warns that improper use of the machine could cause a big something, but the word has several translations including "explosion" and "samurai attack".
- Cheers: When Carla meets her future mother in-law, the woman is not impressed with Carla, and angrily storms out of the bar. Carla, who doesn't speak French, turns to Frasier to translate (reasoning that as a pompous intellectual, he must speak French). Frasier explains that she said she refused to let her son marry Carla, and would rather be dragged around by her tongue. Either that, or she called Carla a small grapefruit.
- Robin Williams in his 2002 "Live on Broadway" show commented on the belief held by some Muslim terrorists that if they kill an infidel they will receive 71 virgins in Heaven:
"But recently, there was an article in the New York Times, the Koran scholars tell us that the actual translation is not 71 dark-haired virgins, but 71 Crystal-Clear Raisins... slight difference of interpretation, really! That's so strange, it's like, "thou shalt not kill," is "thou shalt not wear a kilt!" And the Scots are going, fuck off!"
- Tatooine, Knights of the Old Republic. The player can ask HK-47 to translate the speech of a Jawa who's asking for help rescuing his tribe from the Sand People (the PC speaks Jawa so the game provides subtitles, but the Jawa's grammar is even worse than Yoda's). HK responds that there is a 98% chance that he is indeed asking you for assistance with rescuing his tribe. The remaining 2% is the chance that "the diminutive organic is merely looking for trouble and needs a good blasting. This may be wishful thinking on my part, Master".
- In Sonic Colors, Tails attempts to build a translating device for the Wisps. It... doesn't work well.
Tails: So anyway, they are either being used for their magical powers by an evil man, or to make underwear to be worn by salad.
- World of Warcraft:
Huntress Bintook: BY THE LIGHT! Their penmanship is atrocious. From what I can gather, they're either planning to "eat the blue skins and take their village" or bake a blueberry pie. It really could go either way. We must get to the bottom of this!
- A quest requires you to steal attack plans from an ogre tribe. When you give them to the questgiver NPC, she remarks:
- Bonus points: You can actually read the message yourself before turning the quest in, and the wording is vague enough that both interpretations are technically valid, though the first is (of course) more likely to be correct.
- And in the next quest, she sends you to get information from the ogre lieutenant:
Huntress Bintook: The battle plans were drawn up by an ogre lieutenant. His name is either Dump or Lump.
[Bintook turns the parchment sideways and cocks her head]
Huntress Bintook: It could also be Billy.
- The infamous "graveyard duck" line in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is a meta example of this. The original Japanese text uses the word "ahiru", which specifically refers to the waterfowl and not crouching, thereby Jossing a lot of fans' hypotheses about how that line got in. The currently believed explanation is that it's either obscure Japanese slang for a night patrolman, or a Konami in-joke of putting inappropriate ducks in every game.
- In Tales of Berseria, the ancient Avarost language has a grammar which is nothing like the current language and often requires a keen sense of intuition and unusual leaps of logic in order to truly understand the meaning. When Laphicet and Grimoirh are trying to figure out the Avarost in an ancient book, Grimoirh finds herself particularly stumped by a line which, if translated literally, states "The parent hates tomatoes, the child eggplants."
Laphicet: I... doubt those have much to do with Innominant, yeah.
- Rookie from Club Penguin drives Klutzy off from attacking the EPF's systems after mistaking Herbert's computer for an arcade. Rookie manages to simulate "crab-talk" with a typewriter, only to be unsure afterwards if he either told Klutzy that this wasn't a video game, or he threatened that the EPF is armed with peanut butter. Either way, it somehow worked.
- A Running Gag in Farmington Tales is that Floyd is the only one who can interpret his dog's barking. In one mini-game level General Hardy appears to understand the pooch, claiming to have been brushing up on his canine.
General Hardy: He either said "I found another mine buried in the road," or he said "I have an itchy painting light bulb forever."
- In the second game in the The Legend of Spyro trilogy, The Eternal Night, Spyro and Sparx have just fought off a group of apes who were attacking the temple, when they encounter the Assassin, whose voice is incredibly muffled sue to his large helmet:
Assassin: Prepare to die!
Sparx: He said something about preparing to die. Either that, or he wants you to repair a pie.
Assassin: Mwah ha ha ha ha! Time to feel some pain!
- Later in the game, the duo encounter the Assassin again:
Sparx: AAAAHHH! He wants to steal my brain!
Spyro: Actually, he said it's time for pain.
- Neverwinter Nights 2: Your resident eccentric gnome, Grobnar, attempts to translate the word the githyanki keep calling you, but fails. It most directly translates as "shard-bearer" (meaning the shard of the Sword of Gith that you don't know at this point is embedded in your chest), but more fully "one who stole a silver sword and broke it to hide their crime".
Grobnar: 'Kalach-cha'. 'Kalach-cha'. Well, it's not Gnomish, Elvish, Dwarvish, Orcish, Goblin, or Draconic — well, unless the 'k' is silent, but that would make it "gizzard stone" or the equivalent.
- In The Legend of Maxx, the main character Maxx is said to be either the destroyer of everything or a bowl of two goldfish by Remiel due to in-comic translation issues with the prophecies regarding Maxx. Remiel frequently repeats this possibility whenever it's mentioned that he could destroy the world in a vain attempt at hope.
- In Chopping Block, Butch thinks a French speaker is either telling him to kill for Beelzebub, or asking where the bathroom is. Being a deranged serial killer, he opts for the first "to be safe." And despite all logic suggesting the contrary, he actually guessed right.
- Translating the Correspondence of Fallen London is a somewhat... difficult task. Even aside from the fact that it tends to cause one's eyes to bleed and hair to ignite, and has been known to drive scholars mad.
"Could that long ululating moan be 'A path unmarred by obstacles'? Or perhaps 'A future consumed and forgotten' would be more accurate? Well, you'll find out soon."
- The Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Travis of the Cosmos" had an alien taking over Shake's brain to communicate. Unfortunately, the alien only spoke broken Japanese. Frylock tried translating, but could only come up with a marriage proposal.
Frylock: He agrees! Or he DISAGREES!!
- The Trope Namer is The Fairly OddParents!, specifically The Movie Abra-Catastrophe, wherein Cosmo serves as the translator for the monkey following the group around. Every time he translates something the monkey said, he always provides something that makes sense for context, then adds, "...or something about a banana. I'm not sure which."
- On The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius Sheen did this once, when he believed he could read hieroglyphics simply because they looked similar to writing from his favorite TV show. They clearly were not the same. They play with this by having Sheen start off by reading it in a fashion that could believably be called translating it, and just when everyone's starting to go slack-jaw in shock, Sheen's story veers off into... well, Sheen being Sheen, proving he had no idea what he was doing.
Sheen: "The queen flew on the wings of an eagle. She had a VCR, but wanted a DVD and the gods sent munchkins to hypnotize her water-skis, so she took her peanut butter sandwich for a walk. The end."
- In the Pinky and the Brain episode "Around the World in 80 Narfs", Brain accidentally upsets a group of Italians. Pinky pulls out his phrase book and says something to them. He then tells Brain that he either said "We're sorry" or a terrible insult. Naturally, it was the insult.
- Happens more than once in Dogstar, usually with Gran doing the translation:
Gran: He says "You're very brave". Either that or he wants to know the way to the station. It's a tricky language.
- Tangled: The Series: Played straight in "The Lost Treasure of Herz der Sonne", when Feldspar translates the inscription of the treasure map.
Feldspar: "All who claim the treasure shall be made to banana."Rapunzel: Made to banana?Feldspar: Oh, what am I thinking? "Zarothay" is banana. "Zarotho" means [Beat] "suffer an eternity of doom".
- One episode of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? saw Ivy and Zack transported to Mongolia and confronted by a couple of horsemen, whom Zack tries to speak to in Chinese. The horsemen respond by charging the two with swords.
Ivy: What did you say?!
Zack: I'm not exactly sure! I either asked for directions or said their sisters wash ugly camels!
- One Dilbert cartoon has an e-mail version of this trope. The Marketing Department gets a typo-ridden e-mail from Wally that is telling them to either "launch the new product" or "eat lunch with a penguin."
- A common example when studying theology, specifically, possible translation errors in the bible, the phrase "GODISNOWHERE" is used.* This can be interpreted both as "God is now here" or "God is nowhere". Simply put, Hebrew can be a bit confusing to translate if you don't know the context.
- Supposedly a Reuters story in 1970 about the US Navy training dolphins was originally filed in French then translated to English, and "dolphins" was mistranslated twice, first as colonial soldiers, then as guinea pigs.