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Translation Convention

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Zartog: I am Zartog, the rightful ruler of planet Malgor, and soon-to-be ruler of planet Earth, and I know a good weapon when I see one. Now tell me where your leader Ham is, or I will blast you all into oblivion!
(perspective switches to the humans, who hear nothing but gibberish)
Dr. Bob: ...Anybody understand him?

When a group of people whose native language is not the language of the audience are speaking in their native language, but the audience hears them speaking the audience's language perfectly. We are meant to assume that the characters are really speaking their own native tongue, and it is being rendered in the audience's language purely for their benefit.

In text-based mediums, comics especially, different languages are often set apart by Fonts or symbols, usually by enclosing them in ‹angle quotes›. In books, using italics is more common.

Sometimes the trope doesn't take effect until partway into the story. In some cases, the actors will be shown speaking their native language to give the audience a taste of what it sounds like before the perspective changes and the actors will shift to speaking English from there on out. Sometimes this shift is softened by the characters giving an excuse to Switch to English within the in-story dialogue itself and then never switching back. In these cases, the audience can assume that the characters went back to speaking their native language at some point, but we now hear it all as English.

This trope is the idea behind most dubbed media with an established real-world setting (including a redub in the same language), although if the original version already employs Translation Convention, sometimes the dub is actually the accurate version, such as the Italian dub of Pinocchio and Luca or the Spanish dub of Coco. However, languages left untranslated in the original may still be left untranslated in the translation. (Of course, this can cause problems if the language left untranslated in the original is the language being translated into, though translating that into the original language often works. On TV, you can just use gibberish.) Because of this, English-speaking viewers are actually the least likely to be the most shocked by this trope. For example, in the French version of Pearl Harbor, the Americans speak French while the Japanese speak Japanese.

When the work uses this trope on multiple groups of people speaking different languages, things can get complicated. The work may only translate the language of one group and keep the other group speaking its native language. In these cases, the translated group is always the one the audience is supposed to sympathize with, while the untranslated one is portrayed as more "foreign." Other times, the work will use Translation Convention when each group is speaking within itself, but drop the convention when different groups are speaking to each other. For example, groups of Russians speak English to each other, but speak Russian when German-speaking Germans are around.

If the characters speak with the accent of the language they're supposed to be speaking, such as Russians speaking English with a Russian accent to stand in for the Russian language, it's Just a Stupid Accent. If they instead speak with a British accent to convey being foreign, it's The Queen's Latin.

Most works of fantasy operate under the Translation Convention because the language they're supposed to be speaking doesn't even exist. In some cases the language being spoken will just remain unnamed and the translation will go unacknowledged, while in others the language being spoken will occasionally be namedropped for the reader's benefit, particularly if more than one language is being used. Some languages may go untranslated if the character whose point of view we share doesn't understand it, however.

Sometimes, despite the characters supposedly not speaking English, puns, jokes and wordplay are present that only work in English. There may be a handwaving explanation that equivalents have been replaced by the translator. Of course in real life a good translator will try to do this as well, preserving the original intention of the scene by coming up with a similar joke or pun for the language being translated to rather than just a literal translation that won't work.

This trope has unfortunately led many literal-minded audience members to believe they can overcome a language barrier simply by writing. It doesn't help that some works that employ conventional translation, such as Charlotte's Web, do have the characters overcome the Language Barrier by writing.

If the characters start in one language then switch to English for one reason or another, it is Switch to English.

Not to be confused with Translator Microbes, in which an in-universe device is performing actual translation. Can be used to subvert Aliens Speaking English. See also Bilingual Dialogue, Animal Talk, Common Tongue and Think in Text. May overlap with Invisible to Normals if it's implied that the translated group is hearing themselves speak the language that the audience is hearing them speak.

When the work itself is supposed to have been translated, see Fictional Document, Direct Line to the Author.


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    Comic Strips 
  • Angus Og: It is strongly implied in several strips that the cast are mainly speaking Scots Gaelic amongst themselves and only speaking English whenever it is to outsiders like tourists, or the Laird and his guests.

    Jokes 
  • This joke features two Argentines in Brazil. Their dialogue is in Brazilian Portuguese instead of Latin American Spanish and there's a note stating the translation was made for two reasons: to make the joke easier to understand and because whoever wrote the joke didn't know Spanish.

    Multiple Media 
  • BIONICLE; While the dialogue is all presented in English, and the series' distinctive Cypher Language maps to English, the characters are understood to be speaking in the Matoran language in-universe, and a number of words in that language have been defined.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Bible:
    • The Four Gospels: Much of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, although it's likely Jesus and his disciples actually spoke Aramaic. A few words ("Eli Eli lema sabachthani" is the most famous example) are left in the original Aramaic and then translated in the text, and it's implied that different people speak with different accents, but these subtleties are lost in translation, which (obviously) are all in one language and dialect. Occasionally, some wordplay is lost in the translation to Greek: for example, in Matthew 23:24, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of straining out a gnat (Aramaic: galma) and swallowing a camel (gamla).
      • The Gospel of John reveals that Simon Peter was actually christened as Cephas (from kepha, Aramaic for rock), which translated is equivalent to Peter in Greek, but keeps up the translation convention and refers to him as Peter for the rest of the book.
    • Averted with Dorcas' resurrection in Acts 9:36-42. At the start, Luke mentions her name is "Tabitha, which translated means Dorcas"note , and refers to her as Dorcas for most of the passage. However, Peter speaks Aramaic, and thus he refers to her by her Aramaic name Tabitha when bringing her back to life.

    Podcasts 
  • Cool Kids Table: Yoshi from the game Here We Gooooo! only speaks Yoshi, but because Dario and Crania have royal educations they understand what he's saying.
  • The White Vault often includes documents or recorded conversations in languages other than English. Typically, characters begin by speaking the language which is actually being used, then fading into English for ease of listening.

    Radio 
  • Lampshaded twice in John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme: Once when one of Jesus's disciples questions his use of the word "off-licence" as anachronistic, and he points out he's not even really speaking English, and again when an argument between Victor Hugo and Quasimodo about whether the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame is offensive ends with Hugo pointing out that it's not even called that in France.
  • Lampshaded to death in the BBC Nordic Noir spoof Angstrom, in which characters will often draw attention to the fact that they're supposed to be speaking Swedish, but obviously aren't, such as repeated references to the Regional Public Records Office and Research Library for Public Research and Library Records, But It's All One Word in Swedish.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted uses this in various instances, particularly when characters have names consisting of nouns and adjectives such as Strength of Many or the Unconquered Sun, even when their actual names are probably in in-character languages such as Old Realm or Firetongue, while also having names that sound reminiscent of real life ones (such as Venus and Mars). It's most apparent with the Alchemical Exalted, who not only have names reminiscent of propaganda and weapon designations such as Excessively Righteous Blossom and Stern Whip of Industry, but the ones who turn into cities are renamed to contractions of their original names (so Luminous Exarch becomes Lux).
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Subverted in the case of the dwarves, who use Reikspiel just about every time they're featured, both when dealing with humans and when speaking to other dwarves in the presence of non-dwarves: in both cases it's because they don't like outsiders to hear their tongue.
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • The background information indicates that humanity has moved on to speak "Gothic", but all records and dialogues are rendered in English. "High Gothic", on the other hand, is rendered as Latin with occasional bits of other languages, usually German. The effect being to convey what High Gothic would sound like to someone only speaking Low Gothic.
    • While the alien races also have their own languages, the Translation usually does not kick in and second-hand interpretation needs to come in. In some of the spinoff media though, like the Dawn of War series, the Convention is in full force regardless of what race the player uses. Just a Stupid Accent is in full effect: Eldar get Voice of the Legion, Tau get a stilted Japanese accent, and Orks get a heavy cockney brouge.

    Web Animation 
  • Parodied in this Naruto fan video: two Japanese businessmen are shown talking to each other in English and it seems like an obvious example of this trope... until one of them suddenly stops mid-sentence and says "why the fuck am I speaking to you in English?".
  • The giant bugs of Humans-B-Gone! communicate via pheromones, not unlike their real-life counterparts. Fortunately, narrator and giant cockroach Professor Gregorsa translates these into English for us.

 
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Alternative Title(s): Translating Convention

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Zartog Speaking Alien

Zartog tries to communicate with the humans, who can't understand him because all they hear is him speaking Alien.

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