Fun with Foreign Languages

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Brendan Shanahan: On our team,[1] we have Russians, Germans, Swedes - you name it, we got it. And we're all one big happy family.
Sergei Fedorov: (in Russian) Go to hell, Shanahan. You freak.[2]

Brendan Shanahan: That means "Shanahan is a good and great man." (to Fedorov) I love you, too, my brother!

Many comedic situations come out of foreign languages.

They may come when you insult someone in a language you assume they don't understand, and they respond with a smart-ass remark in that very same language.

Then comes the poor foreigners and their allegedly hilarious mangling of a second language, be it an American trying a different tongue or an immigrant misusing English.

Hilarity may ensue when an American asks a foreigner to teach them a language, and the foreigner deliberately misleads them as to what phrases mean to prank the hapless English-speaker. They might say something means "I want to make a purchase," when it really means "God, I love sniffing airplane glue and abusing my underpaid immigrant servants."

Then there's the Non-Ironic Language Echo, as seen in George of the Jungle.

"[They're] probably saying I'm the biggest jerk they've ever seen in their lives. Probably trying to think of something evil to do to me."

In Swahili: "This guy is the biggest jerk I've ever seen in my life!" "Let's think of something evil to do to him."

Of course, mutual speakers of a language might converse and share in-jokes, but lead their monolingual audience to think it's an entirely different (grave and important) conversation.

I Love Lucy started a joke that has been re-used several times. It involves a chain of translators, each of whom speaks two languages. Lucy's in a French jail. She needs to explain herself to a Magistrate (she unintentionally passed some counterfeit bills.) The Magistrate speaks only French, Lucy only English. Ricky speaks English and Spanish, another prisoner speaks Spanish and German, a policeman speaks German and French. So the conversation is passed back and forth through three intermediaries, including Lucy's signature whine and the Magistrate's dismissive "Huh!" (Eventually it's revealed she only needs to pay a small fine.)

See also Funny Foreigner, Bilingual Bonus, Tactful Translation.

Examples of Fun with Foreign Languages include:

Advertising[edit | hide | hide all]

  • There is a hilarious ad where a very nice, homey looking Dutch family gets into a car - husband wife, and two kids.They turn on the radio and an English song comes on - a techno song, singing "I wanna fuck you in the ass." The family looks at each other, smiles, and then gently starts rocking out. The caption comes on: "Engels Leren? (Wanna learn English?) Rock out here.
  • The German Coast Guards

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • In Eyeshield 21, there are two brothers on the NASA Aliens football team that have kanji tattoos. The older brother has the kanji for "Big" and "Helpful", while the younger, smaller brother has the kanji for "Little" and "Helpful". What they don't know is that when put together, the kanji combine to form the words "Poop" and "Pee", respectively.
    • Of course, the elder Gonzales brother's "Big Shit" tattoo is actually somewhat appropriate; He is some big shit, man. Not in a bad way, or anything, but he's gigantic.
  • In the original anime Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, they figured the best way to get an announcer that would breathlessly broadcast the outcome of children's card games is to get a guy who doesn't know Japanese and get him to phonetically shout his lines at the top of his lungs. '. What's more, they got a body builder and tae kwon do fighter, Bernard Ackah, to do it.
  • In Hikaru no Go, a mistake in translation between Korean Go pro Ko Yeong-ha and a Japanese reporter gives the titular character cause for anger- it had seemed that Honinbo Shusaku had been insulted. When the mistake is discovered, Yeong-ha decides not to correct it so as to piss Hikaru off even more.
  • Azumanga Daioh has some of this kind of fun. In one episode, Kagura encounters an an American tourist and tries to express her intention to help carry his luggage, but draws a blank on her English lessons: "Help! Help me!" Afterwards, the tourist thanks her in Engrish ("That herped me a rot, thanks."), and the only response Kagura can think of is to give him the thumbs-up and shout "Yay!"
  • In Slayers Premium most of the characters slowly lose the ability to speak anything other than "Octopusese". Two key phrases are "Flat chested" and "I love you", both said by Gourry to Lina. Needless to say, Hilarity Ensues.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Done in Impulse when Bart Allen "teaches" his mentor Interlac.

Max Mercury: A pleasure, Mrs. Allen. My name is Max Crandall. I'm Bart's guardian and kumquat-head. Make yourself at home in our dungeon.

Film[edit | hide]

  • The remake of To Be or Not to Be in which Bronsky and his wife perform Sweet Georgia Brown entirely in Polish, and continue to argue afterward, in Polish, before the announcer wearily declares, "In the interest of clarity, and sanity, the rest of the film will be in English!" Both characters sigh, relieved, and continue to argue in English.
  • Kukushka (Cuckoo) was based around this trope: none of the three main characters (a Finn, a Sami [Laplander] and a Russian) speak each other's language, and end up talking at each other and misinterpreting each other's meanings. This includes names; the uncommonly gregarious Finn asks the taciturn Russian for his name, and when the Russian spits a curse at the Finn, the Finn starts innocently calling him by that.
  • Happened twice with the same prankster and victim in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian at one point told Toula's whole family that he had three testicles.
  • The Man With Two Brains: In Germany, Michael is pulled over for speeding by a police officer, who demands in German to see his driving license - the subtitles appear on the screen. When he learns that Michael speaks English, he reveals that he can also speak English and orders his colleague in the car to turn the subtitles off ("That's better - we have more room down here, yah?").
  • Johnny English: Johnny just spits out what seems to be random Japanese-sounding gibberish, but it turns out he actually said "May all your daughters be born with three bottoms."
  • Subverted in The Sum of All Fears, where Ben Affleck's character addresses the Russian president in flawless Russian, and ends his message of goodwill by indicating that, since the Russian President attended a college in America, and speaks perfect English, there's no reason for Jack to speak Russian.
  • Considering that it's a French film set in the Catalan-speaking part of Spain with most of the characters using English all the time, The Spanish Inn a.k.a. L'auberge espagnole (double entendre: it's literally about a Spanish apartment, but the title is an expression that means "mess" in French, which is also appropriate) occasionally delves into this territory. One particularly memorable moment is when the English girl misunderstands the French slang word "fac". It's short for faculté.
  • In Braveheart, while Wallace is meeting with the English princess (a native Frenchwoman), she speaks with her counsellors in front of Wallace... but does it in Latin, assuming that the Scotsman cannot speak the language. They advise her that Wallace is a barbarian and a liar... and Wallace snaps back angrily that he NEVER lies. In Latin. And then, just to make sure they got his point, he switches to speaking in French.
  • Ace Ventura 2: Ace tries to communicate with the members of a strange tribe. His translator, either because he doesn't speak their dialect as well as he thinks he does or just to get back at the annoying pet detective, warps his every phrase. "I bring a message from the princess", for example, becomes "I am a princess."
    • It also irks Ace when he notices that his translator referred to him as "white devil" in the tribe's language. His defense is that it is how the tribe knows him.
  • The Canadian film Bon Cop Bad Cop frequently plays with both official languages. The Quebecois cop gratuitously makes fun of the Ontarian cop in French...until he finds out his counterpart is fluently bilingual.
    • "You speak French?" "Pas vraiment, j'ai un petit gadget installe dans mon cerveau et je vois des sous-titres sous les personnes quand elles parlent." (Not really, I had a small gadget installed in my brain and I see subtitles under people when they speak.)
  • The Non-Ironic Language Echo appears in Love Actually: when a monolingual Englishman is trying to converse with his monolingual Portuguese maid (with whom he is, needless to say, in love) they both end up saying exactly the same things. The story later goes on to partially subvert the Language of Love trope by having him take a crash-course in Portuguese before they take the relationship further, although the subtitles reveal that he still speaks it pretty poorly at the end of the film when he proposes to her.
  • Rush Hour 2: Detective Carter tries to speak to a crowd in Chinese, but Inspector Lee tells Carter:

Lee: You just asked everyone to pick up their samurai swords and shave your butt!

    • He also fouls up other situations, for example he thought he asked two attractive Chinese ladies for coffee. He actually invited them to get naked. They were not amused.
    • In the first movie, Carter spends his first few scenes with Lee believing he can't speak English. Lee lets him believe this until it's convenient for him to reveal he's fluent.
  • In the Ridley Scott thriller Black Rain Nick (Michael Douglas) asks "Is there a single Nip in this place who speaks fucking English?" in front of a Japanese cop who proceeds to introduce his police boss before finishing "-- and I do speaking fucking English". Fortunately Nick's American partner, Charlie, is a lot wiser.

Nick: "I want a Japanese cop who knows the street, speaks English, and can find his ass with both hands!"
High Ranking Police Boss: "WHAT did you say?"
Charlie: "He means 'a tough motherfucker'."
High Ranking Police Boss: "Ah, of course."

    • This proves a Running Gag, as when Nick's bitter "I like to be kissed before I'm fucked!" is translated by Charlie simply as "Foreplay."
  • In the 1985 comedy Water, American oil executives land on the island of Cascara and come across the local radical liberation front—all two of them (one of whom is Billy Connolly, whose character only communicates through bad singing).

Spenco Executive: (with exaggerated hand movements) "DO -- YOU -- SPEAK -- EN-GL-ISH?"
Cascaran: "I do, but my comrade will not speak until he can say Cascara is free."
Executive: "Is that a political posture or a speech impediment?"

  • From Spies Like Us. Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd are dropped into Pakistan only to be captured by bandits.

Chevy Chase (subtitles): "If you let me go, you can use my friend's head as a polo ball."
Bandits all laugh. One of them takes Dan's head in his hands, testing it for size
Dan Ackroyd: "What's he doing?"
Chevy Chase: "Err, he's saying hello."
Dan Ackroyd (taking hold of the bandit's head): "Hello! Hello!"

  • In Corky Romano, there's a particular amusing scene where Corky has to be the translator between a Thai and Vietnamese gangster. The problem? Corky doesn't actually speak either language, and just ends up repeating what ever was said to him back to the two others. It both confuses and eventually insults the gangsters, causing hilarity and violence to ensue.
  • In The Boondock Saints, the two "Irishmen" flip into perfect Russian to stick it to a Russian mobster.
  • Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. Sky Captain asks Kaji, his contact in Nepal, about his Tibetan language skills. Glancing at Hot Scoop Polly Perkins, Kaji replies in Tibetan: "When cold, nipples hard."
  • In Eurotrip (2004), the group of teenagers is trying to get a lift to Berlin:

Scott: Let me handle this, I speak better German. Hello!
Truck Driver: Hello!
Scott: [in German] My German is ill, but I can understand on you if the speaking is slowly.
Truck Driver: [in German] German! I have been driving for 14 hours straight and I haven't slept in three days and I am wired on schnapps, benzedrine, and those little chocolate covered peanuts.
Cooper: What did he say?
Scott: He said he's driving, something...
Scott: [in German] Do you know where is Berlin?
Truck Driver: [in German] Berlin? Yes, I know it well. I stabbed a woman in a bar in Berlin. But I am going nowhere near Berlin.
Scott: Berlin!
Truck Driver: [in German] Berlin! I also sexually assaulted a horse in Berlin.
Scott: He's going to Berlin.
Jamie: Awesome.
Truck Driver: [in German] Nowhere near Berlin.
Scott: All right, come on, let's go.
[the group get in the back of the truck]
Truck Driver: [to self, in German] I'll drive this truck off a cliff before I ever go back to Berlin.

    • Fun with Subtitles: The driver never actually says that he sexually assaulted a horse. It's only in the subtitles.
      • What he actually says is, "I was arrested near Berlin. I'm never going to Berlin again."
  • There was some movie, name forgotten, where a member of the mafia stole and hid the cash from a bank heist. Only he's mute, so they had to get a translator for that. Their conversation was more or less like this:

Mafia Boss: Tell us where the money is!
Translator: (In sign language) Tell him where the money is!
Mute guy: (In sign language) I have no idea! I was set up!
Translator: He says he didn't do it.
Boss tortures him some.
A couple minutes of the same.
Mafia Boss: I've gotten tired of this. Tell him that he has (looks at his watch) five minutes to talk, or else...
The boss pulls a chainsaw
Translator: (In sign language) Man, I don't know how to stress your situation. No one blames you for taking the cash, but you cannot keep it, and I am pretty sure that's the last tool he'll use...
Mute guy looks at the boss, and sighs in despair
Mute guy: (In sign language) I... OK. But I never meant to do it. You have to believe I just...
Translator: (In sign language) That's fine. Just tell me where did you hide it so we can leave this whole affair behind.
Mute guy: (In sign language) It... I buried it, under the Old Oak, in a black security suitcase. The key number is 4339.
They all remain silent for a little.
Mafia Boss: So? What did he tell you?
Translator: He... He said he once nailed your wife...
Mafia Boss: Ok, screw the money!

  • Somewhat similar to the George of the Jungle example, in Wizards of Waverly Place the movie Alex can't understand the locals, but uses a spell to create a literal caption floating in the air that translates for her, but while she is right about them talking about the cave, they also talk about how she's a strange girl and maybe if they just smile and nod she'll go away.
  • In Nadja, after Nadja is injured but gets away, Edgar tries to figure out her location using Twin Telepathy, which causes him to revert to his native Romanian as he describes what he's picking up; Van Helsing provides a running translation for the others. Part of it goes like this:

Edgar: [speaks in Romanian]
Van Helsing: She's in an airplane.
Edgar: [speaks in Romanian]
Van Helsing: Dying.
Edgar: [speaks in Romanian]
Van Helsing: ...for a cigarette.

Roverini: E possibile che Lei ha tendenze omosessuali?
Peter (translating): He wants to know if you're a homosexual.
Tom: No!
Peter (translating): No.

  • In the Russian film Peculiarities of the National Hunt, a young Finn wants to study Russian hunting traditions and arranges a hunt with his English-speaking Russian friend. The forest ranger who accompanies them speaks neither English nor Finnish, and the Finn does not speak Russian. When the two of them get drunk they suddenly discover that both of them speak nearly perfect German, but the ranger totally forgets that language once he sobers up. However, by the end of the "hunt" the Finn and the ranger are miraculously able to understand each other with each speaking his own language.
  • In the Tamil film Mouna Raagam, a Punjabi mechanic (he speaks Hindi, though) asks the protagonist (played by Revathy) to teach him a few Tamil phrases so as to impress a rich Tamil customer. Naturally, she teaches him various insults, which he then uses. Surprisingly, the customer leaves without too much fuss, only to return later on in the film and insult the mechanic in Hindi, after claiming to have paid a tutor 500 Rupees to learn said insults.
  • In the Abbott and Costello movie Lost In Alaska, Costello sees some Eskimos communicating in sign language and makes a few random hand gestures of his own. The Eskimo chief starts laughing, telling Costello, "You just told a funny joke!" Later, when Costello meets an attractive Eskimo lady, he tries to impress her by creating the same hand gestures he used before. She slaps him in the face; apparently it was that kind of joke.
  • In La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful), Roberto Benigni's character, Guido, translates the Nazi officer's brutal instructions into Italian for his fellow prisoners, among whom is Guido's young son. To spare his kid's innocence, the version he offers in Italian is not exactly a literal translation.

The game starts now. You have to score one thousand points. If you do that, you take home a tank with a big gun. Each day we will announce the scores from that loudspeaker. The one who has the fewest points will have to wear a sign that says "Jackass" on his back. There are three ways to lose points. One, turning into a big crybaby. Two, telling us you want to see your mommy. Three, saying you’re hungry and want something to eat.

    • Therer's even a double payoff from this seemingly random speech: not only does the son retain his innocence, but he "wins" the tank!
  • In the 2011 film Courageous, the main character Adam has his friend Javier in the back seat of his patrol car. While Javier is still in the back seat, a call goes out for a warrant of a drug trafficker. As Adam arrests the trafficker, he tells Javier to act like a crazed man to freak out the trafficker. The trafficker is disturbed by the behavior of Javier, as Adam has told the trafficker they have the leader of the gang "The Snake Kings" in the patrol car and he is not to make eye contact if he values his life. When Javier starts speaking Spanish in a sinister tone, the trafficker starts freaking out. The translation captions shows us Javier's only listing his lunch plans.
  • Meteor (1979). A Russian scientist is meeting with a U.S. General Ripper to begin politically sensitive negotiations to aim nuclear missiles at the oncoming Death From Above. Each side has their "English voice" and "Russian voice", both speaking at the same time to avoid accusations of duplicity. Eventually Sean Connery gets tired of the babble and just has them speaking English with the pretty female Russian translating—at the end the general turns to his Russian voice and demands, "Is that what I said?" The translator just says, "Yes."

Literature[edit | hide]

  • A joke similar to the Ally McBeal example shows up in the Discworld book Jingo, where a Klatchian general insults an Ankh-Morpork general by slipping into his native tongue, and passing it off as an old Klatchian saying. (This has double comedic impact, because the usual apology for rough language in Discworld books is "Pardon my Klatchian", a la the real idiom "Pardon my French".)
    • In Hat Full of Sky, the "ancient dwarfish runes" on a magic wand translate as "Oh, what a wally is waving this".
    • This could probably also work for hand-gestures. At one point in Monstrous Regiment, Commander Vimes gives the titular group a thumbs up, which prompts this confused exchange: "I think in Ankh-Morpork that means 'Jolly good.'" "I heard in Klatchian, it means, 'I hope your donkey explodes.'" "Why would he say 'Jolly good'?" "Or hate our donkey so much?"
      • Later in the same book, in a deliberate nod to JFK, Vimes attempts to say "I am a citizen of Borogravia" and instead comes out with "I am a cherry pancake." Being Vimes, it doesn't bother him too much.
    • In Interesting Times, it's mentioned that "Argh!" translates in one Discworld language as "Your wife is a big hippo", "Hello, thinks Mr. Purple Cat", or "I would like to eat your foot" depending on inflection. This becomes a running gag, where Rincewind's screams are literally translated into these phrases; at one point, Rincewind screams "Argh!" and another character responds "What's that about a hippo?"
      • It also translates to "Quick! More boiling oil!" in yet another language. Considering one of the characters is an insane emperor, this has unfortunate consequences.
    • In Pn P RPG there is a skill called Shouting At Foreigners, which roughly works like this.
      • IRL, the 'thumbs up' gesture can mean a lot of things in different cultures. In some Middle Eastern countries (including Iraq) it means 'Up yours!' which puts in context the crowds of thumb-waving Iraqis who greeted US troops...
  • In Moby Dick, Stubb gets aboard the French vessel Rosebud and engages in a strange conversation with her captain, being the chief mate the translator. While Stubb insults the French captain, the chief mate misguides his captain to get rid of two rotten whales that are attached to the ship. This creates the mildly hilarious situation that the captain seems to be very pleased by Stubb's "advice".
  • Harry Potter: At the Quidditch World Cup, the Bulgarian prime minister drives Cornelius Fudge crazy by making constant demands in Bulgarian, which Fudge does not speak. It is not until after the match that he reveals he speaks English very well; he just thought it was funny to watch Fudge flounder about trying to figure out what he wanted.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy two aliens conducting peace negotiations accidentally hear a comment in English by Arthur Dent which unfortunately in their language sounds like a hideous insult, and they decide to attack Earth but due to a miscalculation of scale their war fleet is swallowed by a small dog.
    • Likewise in Hitchhiker the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Department (its only profitable division) used to have a sign in mile-high letters bearing their motto "Share and Enjoy", but the letters sank into the planet's crust and the upper halves now appear to read, in the local language, "Go Stick Your Head in a Pig".
    • Belgium!
  • Averted in Anne Mccaffrey's Doona novels, specifically the first one where the Admiralty and other high holies of Earth are aware that the 'Doonan' language is complex and intricate enough that mispronouncing a syllable would be equivalent to insulting someone's ancestors to the 13th generation or so. Needless to say, the aforementioned high holies rely on the 5 year-old child who wears a tail and has been living with the 'Doonans' (later revealed to be a star-faring sentient race of their own) to translate between the two races/superpowers when they finally do meet in an official capacity.
  • That's also the method used in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. A human exploration team make First Contact with the Runa people of Rakhat, a planet circling Alpha Centauri. Their first efforts at communication are between the team's linguist and a little Runa girl. Runa are used to dealing with "foreigners" from other parts of their own world. Taking advantage of children's capacity for language learning and adaptability, Runa children are traditional interpreters. The girl addresses the linguist because he came forward first; also, he is smaller than the other team members, and she thinks he's a child, too.
  • In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Greek Interpreter", the titular interpreter is brought to translate for a Greek man who is being held prisoner. They manage to communicate by sneaking in extra words after the words the interpreter is asked to translate, which is how the interpreter learns the man's name and some details of his situation.
  • The Peking Target by Adam Hall. Quiller has been captured by the Soviets, who force him to make a radio transmission giving a false report to his base. Unknown to the Soviet Big Bad, his translator is on Quiller's side. So the Big Bad tells what he wants Quiller to say in Russian, the translator tells Quiller what the actual Soviet plan is in English, and Quiller must then transmit that information to his base in a manner that still sounds plausible (if the false information contains the words Seoul or Peking, for instance, the Big Bad would be suspicious if he didn't hear those words). Quiller describes the whole process as like navigating though a minefield.
  • In Keith Laumer's Retief stories, the hero, Jame Retief, is often the only one who bothers to learn the native language on whatever world they're visiting, leading him to be the designated translator. This sometimes results in him carrying on two entirely different conversations with different sides who don't understand what the other side is saying, and each side assuming that he's just acting as a translator.
  • In Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop, Randy Disher tells Japanese tourists "Mune on sawaru na, shinu kakugo shiru." He thinks this means "Please forgive me for the inconvenience, I'm truly sorry." According to his Japanese-speaking partner, it actually means "Stop groping my breasts and prepare to die."
  • In one Darkover novel it's mentioned that a particular Darkovan phrase, which translates literally as "friend and brother", is forbidden to diplomats from the Terran Empire. The everyday inflection would be acceptable, but it's too easy to say it with the inflection that makes it mean "brother" in the familial sense—or the one that makes it mean "same-sex lover".

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Seinfeld: Elaine thinks the Korean women are making fun of her, which of course they are. She brings George's father, who secretly speaks Korean, to eavesdrop on their chatter, but his short temper leads him to blow his cover quickly.
  • Ally McBeal: Lucy Liu, arguing a case, purports to be relating a Chinese proverb. The subtitles reveal that she is, in fact, simply describing her plan to win sympathy from the jury by using her tone to convey that she's saying something deep and meaningful while actually saying nothing of consequence, because "None of you speak Chinese."
  • Who's The Boss?, "Tony the Nanny": Tony Danza theorizes that Italian-speaking uncle Vito Scotti thinks that he's to blame for Scotti's daughter standing up to him regarding her fiancé, and he's right (according to Scotti's daughter's interpretation).
  • Frasier When Niles suspects that his wife is cheating on him with her German fencing instructor (it turns out that she isn't), Niles confronts him. Frasier doesn't speak German, but does know Spanish. However the Hispanic maid speaks no English but knows German. She worked for a German family that turned up in Guatemala... just after the war.
    • In another episode, Roz asks Frasier to break up with her French boyfriend, who can't speak English. It turns out, he didn't want to stay with her anyway, and so we see a subtitled conversation where they discuss where to get good beefsteak instead, while Roz thinks they're talking about the break up.
    • In yet another episode, Frasier has to learn how to give a speech in Hebrew, and he asks Noel to translate the speech for him, in return for a favor that Noel asks. When Frasier fails to carry out the favor, Noel still translates the speech... into Klingon.
  • The chain-of-translators joke is subverted in The West Wing, where, after a couple of back-and-forth exchanges, the foreign dignitary at the end of the line rolls his eyes and asks "Why don't we just speak in English?"
  • The British version of Coupling had an episode with an instance of The Rashomon that was largely about this; it features two completely different perspectives in a conversation between an Israeli girl who doesn't speak English and a Welshman who doesn't speak Hebrew. (He thinks a word that she says is her name; when we hear it from her perspective, we find out exactly what that word (shadayim) really means.)
    • "They arrested him? What for? All he was doing was running around the Air Israel desk calling her name..."
  • Late in the first season of Lost, Michael picks up just enough Korean to allow for some gesture-heavy conversations with Jin, where Jin says something in Korean and Michael responds in English. Sawyer then starts referring to them as "Han and Chewie."
  • On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a vampire minion attempting to translate Latin for Spike comes up with "debase... the beef... canoe". Spike's response, as can be expected, is "why does that strike me as not right?"
    • It turned out it wasn't really Latin, but a cipher meant to look like like it to the casual observer.
    • Also, Latin doesn't have a word for 'canoe'.
    • A 7th season episode has Giles offering a Chinese potential slayer ice cream - she's speaking Chinese, subtitles reading "I'm lactose intolerant! This man is trying to kill me!" - Chinese is apparently not a language he's versed in.
      • He explains earlier that he can speak Mandarin... but the Chinese potential speaks Cantonese. (Both are considered "dialects" of Chinese, but are mutually unintelligible.)
  • In My Name Is Earl, the "chain-of-translators" version is used. And includes sign language, for extra fun, as the lawyer is deaf.
  • There are a few jokes in Babylon 5 about Ivanova's ineptitude in speaking the Minbari language. Also one serious moment, when Marcus is only brave enough to call Ivanova beautiful in Minbari; when she asks for a translation, he gives what is probably a technically-correct (given Minbari's flowery prose) translation which weakens the meaning. Later on, after Ivanova has learned the language, she thanks him—her Photographic Memory let her remember, and then translate, the phrase properly.
  • In an early episode of French Fields (Fresh Fields IN FRANCE!), the Fields meet their neighbors, and they start trying to hold a conversation with each other in French. Over the course of the conversation, they discover that they're all actually English and can converse normally.
  • In the Are You Being Served? episode "German Week", the German Band arrives, and a character says something to them in German, and they respond in English.
    • Truth in Television: in Germany and other European countries with a large proportion of people who speak English as a second language, it's common for tourists attempting to speak the local language to receive a reply in English. The guidebooks specifically warn people not to be disheartened by this and that the attempt is always appreciated.
  • In Allo, Allo!, characters "speak" French, German, and English. To viewers, it's actually all English, but they speak in different accents to simulate speaking the other languages. Among the characters are a pair of British airmen who "don't speak a word of the lingo", and a policeman (actually a Brit in disguise) who speaks bad French, frequently saying "Good moaning," when he comes in, often to deliver a "massage from Michelle."
  • Rather than using Just a Stupid Accent, Pizza loves to use foreign languages whenever they can. Throughout the series, we hear mafiosi speaking Italian, Triads speaking Chinese, and even ancient Romans speaking Latin. Of course, the channel that makes the show (SBS) has the largest translation group in Australia, so the foreign phrases are as immaculate as possible.
  • One episode of Scrubs had The Todd ask Carla's brother Marco to teach his a pick-up line in Spanish. Marco tells him to say "Yo tengo herpes genital, para ti."
    • "Mucho herpes... grande!"
    • Carla's brother also pretended not to know English for years to maintain the special bond he and his sister had. He also occasionally used it to spy on her.
    • There is also a very funny scene involving Elliot trying to talk past a patient's kid with Turk in French. Turk's knowledge of that language is evidently limited to what his high-school classmates taught him. The subtitles are roughly accurate. What Elliot says is quite literate. What does Turk say? "I have the Eiffel Tower in my pants." I might add that he says it badly—what he says translates word-for-word as "I have Eiffel Tower pants."
    • Another episode of Scrubs had the Janitor acting as a sign language interpreter between Turk and JD and a deaf father and son.

Janitor: While these two were having sex with each other, I worked out how to restore your son's hearing.

    • Turk finally learns Spanish as an anniversary present to Carla. He decides to keep it secret though when he finds he can benefit from hearing things Carla thinks he can't understand.
    • Scrubs loves this joke: in another episode Dr Cox asks Elliot how to tell a German patient he has lung cancer. Elliot, being annoyed with him, teaches him to say "Your wife has huge cans." Even better, when he says it, he's miming what he intends to be lungs...
  • Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory attempts to learn Mandarin Chinese, but has just a bit of trouble with the tones. He then attempts to speak Chinese to various native speakers, with predictable results, as translated on screen in subtitles: "Long live concrete?" "Your monkey sleeps inside me." "Show me the mucus." "Oxen are in my bed! Many, many oxen!"
    • Bit of a nitpick, but he actually says "Where is the mucus?", not "Show me the mucus".
  • Again, Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, describes his team for "The Physics Bowl", consisting of the Third Floor Janitor, the Lunch Room Lady and a guy who (due to Sheldon's poor skills on Spanish) is either her son or her butcher.
  • Both Monty Python ("My nipples explode with delight.") and Saturday Night Live ("I want to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.") built memorable sketches around this trope.
    • Monty Python's Flying circus also did a reversal of this, With a "Polish Phonetic guide to English" containing such memorable phrases as "2 U F U N E M" (Do you Have you Any ham?)
      • Isn't that "Swedish For Beginners" by The Two Ronnies? S, V F M. F U N E X? 9.
  • There was a joke on Conan O'Brien making fun of the fact that Clint Eastwood spoke no Japanese despite producing the movie Letters from Iwo Jima. A dramatic scene is actually one of the actors forgetting his line and the other actor telling him to wing it. They go on to insult Mr. Eastwood and end by yelling about what they are having for lunch.
  • A Harry Enfield sketch featured Stan Herbert (basically a middle-aged Loadsamoney, whose catchphrase was "I'm considerably richer than you) in a cafe in Spain, explaining to an English couple that, unlike them, he didn't need to speak the lingo, because he was so rich. The waiter then states, in Spanish, that he urinated in Herbert's drink, and the couple raise their glasses to him.
  • At the end of one episode of MASH it turns out that Hawkeye has taught the Koreans that the correct response to Frank Burns calling him a "twerp" is: "You tell it to him, Ferretface!"
    • See also: "Frank Burns eats worms."
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'Macrocosm' Captain Janeway's habit of putting her hands on her hips turns out to be the 'worst insult imaginable' in the Tak Tak language, causing her and Neelix to narrowly escape execution. Shortly afterward she vows never to put her hands on her hips again. A few seconds later, she unconsciously does it again. Likewise Chakotay talks about his first away mission, when he failed to realize that males and females used different body language symbols and ended up proposing to the alien ambassador. "It was a while before I was allowed on any more away missions."
  • An utterly bizarre example of this trope appeared in the sketch show Big Train. A girl on a biking tour stops to ask two locals if they speak English? They both reply, in perfect English, 'No, I'm afraid I don't." The girl responded "Oh I was going to ask for directions" to which the local replied "Well that would be wasted on me, as I don't speak English". This continues for a while (with the girl even trying in German with the locals replying that they don't speak German in perfect German). At the end the girl leaves, and the two locals laugh about how they actually speak perfect English. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7dC2Tng0yg
    • The road panel is labeled in french with "chaussée déformée" (uneven road surface) and "interdit aux nomades et campeurs" (forbidden for gypsies and campers).
  • Drop the Dead Donkey. Jerkass reporter Damien is taught an "ancient greeting" by Japanese journalists which actually means "Go have sex with a hedgehog". After their initial shock the Japanese executives he greets find it a lot more funny than he does. Henry repeats this situation with a Russian dignitary, introducing himself as a pregnant cabbage. On another occasion Damien pretends that a tearful witness in Nagorno-Karabakh is talking about how his family were shot by drunken soldiers. Unfortunately the cleaning lady is from that region and reveals he's actually thanking Damien for giving him money so he can visit Elvis Presley's home in Memphis.
  • One of the funnier gags on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment involved Jamie posing as a clueless Maitre D' in a Japanese restaurant while the employees insulted him in Japanese. Jamie couldn't understand a word, but the customer knew exactly what they were saying. Hilarity Ensues.
  • The classic Dutch sketch comedy show Van Kooten en De Bie had this song some time in the 70s. The subs don't quite match the actual lyrics. Presumably, the Dutch were less familiar with English profanity when this first aired than they are now.

Professional Wrestling[edit | hide]

  • One time Essa Ríos and Lita were making fun of Kai En Tai in Spanish, when the two Japanese wrestlers turned around and berated them in Spanish; they then left complaining about them in Japanese, to which the Mexican wrestlers responded to in Japanese.

Radio[edit | hide]

  • I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue had a round in which humorous translations were given of foreign phrases that had entered the English language: these included "avant-garde" (next-to-last coach on a train) and "film noir" (my photos haven't come out).

Theater[edit | hide]

  • This is Older Than Feudalism, due to Plautus' POENULUS ("The Porridge-Eating Uncle"). A stock New Comedy slave claims he can speak Punic, but when actually interpreting for the titular uncle (who actually speaks Latin perfectly well), he resorts to "creative" translations of the Punic.

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Donovan Deegan, father of Dominic Deegan's title character, speaks Orcish - to some degree. When he received the Orc name "Kulka Sheendo Dak," he was told it meant "bringer of peace and joy." Appropriate as that would have been, he found out many years later that "bringer of peace and joy" was "Kilka Shiendo Dak." As Donovan proudly dressed in pink most of the time, they had named him "little pink man in pink." His Orcish provided comedy on other instances as well, with such statements as "My land mass erupts with kittens."
    • Recently, it's revealed that Donovan has not only been providing Fun With Languages, he's been having his own fun with languages. He speaks perfectly fluent Orcish, coming out with a profound "I believe it goes, '<It is not the language of the clans but the language of nature to which one has to listen.>' Cue WTF faces from all present.

Dominic: You...you've been able to speak Orcish all along, haven't you?
Donovan (Orcish): <Only for the past twenty years or so.>
Dominic: Then why the hell have you been pretending to speak gibberish for the past two decades?
Donovan: I'm a bard. Why do I do anything? (next panel) Because it's funny.
Hukthak: <I knew it!>

  • In Faux Pas, which focuses on an assortment of animals (foxes, rabbits, cats, a chicken...) and gives a few faceless humans only incidental roles, nearly all of the various animals are quite capable of understanding human speech. Because Status Quo Is God, though, Failure Is the Only Option when the animals attempt to make themselves understood by whichever humans presently have control over their lives. Thus, the chicken, Myrtle, is able to read and write... but her "handwriting" is so poor that the humans can't quite make sense of it (even though, whenever readers are shown a page of her writing, Myrtle's "chicken-scratch" is perfectly legible). More to the point: when a new character is introduced --- a cockatiel uninspiredly named Cocky --- who "can speak human, for real," ...it turns out that Cocky is fluent in "French human," and comically inept with English. So, when the fox who urgently needs a translator asks Cocky to tell the humans this or that, Cocky ends up with gems like: "M'sieur! This girl fox photo of your wildest dreaming to begin? This fox Randy, she is not he!" (Which actually makes close enough sense, in context, but the human doesn't get it.)

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • There is a story (the name of which I have forgotten) where the main character boards a train and sits across from two teenagers. His sister is standing on the platform, and when he starts a conversation with her in sign language, the two teenagers start talking about him, assuming he's deaf. He's not.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Dexter's Laboratory, "Got Your Goat": When Dexter realizes the chupacabra is really one of his escaped experiments, he rushes to pick up "Charlie", with Dee-Dee tagging along to act as an interpreter. Once they arrive in Central America, they run into some surly locals who accuse them of being poachers. Dee-Dee, whose grasp of Spanish is really rather lacking, thinks they're asking them if they're thirsty, and in trying to tell them "yes we are", says "I enjoy hamburgers and trousers, but I really like green balloons!"
    • Also, the episode in which Dexter, while trying to learn French, listens to a tape while sleeping, which gets stuck on the phrase "omelet du fromage", or cheese omelet. Oddly enough, Dexter ends up bringing about world peace, winning the Nobel prize, etc., merely by saying this phrase at people.
  • Played with in Duckman, usually by Cornfed. "Either you're babbling, or you just told me in Cherokee 'my scrotum is many colored'."
  • Family Guy toyed with this by having a Spanish character only speaking enough English to respond to Brian's first two sentences.

Brian: Hola, me llamo es Brian ... Nosotros queremos ir con ustedes...
Migrant Worker: Hey, that was pretty good, except when you said "me llamo es Brian," you don't need the "es," just "me llamo Brian."
Brian: Oh, oh you speak English!
Migrant Worker: No, just that first speech and this one explaining it.
Brian: You .... you're kidding, right?
Migrant Worker: Que?

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • 419 scam-baiters use this sometimes, relying on the fact that the scammer rarely speaks anything other than his native tongue and limited English. One example was a would-be scammer who stood for two hours at Madrid airport holding a sign that read chupame la verga, which he was led to believe was Spanish for "hello my good friend" but is in fact an invitation for people to perform a lewd act "down there".
  • Google Translate. Anything sent through it enough times will sound like Gratuitous English in the end.
  • Some of the phrases in The Zompist Phrasebook are designed to cause people to mangle foreign languages. For example, the phrase "I understand your language perfectly" becomes, well, you'll find out. Mwahaha!
  • In the humorous nonfiction travel guide Speaking You English?, the author relates a story about a time he was in France with a friend of his who wanted to proposition a comely French woman sitting at the bar with them. The friend spoke no French and so used the author as an intermediary. The author proceeded to make up a sob story for the woman while raising her offered price, then conducting a conversation with her about politics, all while the friend thought the author was still negotiating for him.
  • During the ARG within Cloverfield movie's viral marketing campaing, a guy nicknamed Kosmopol -who was able to deveal many clues-, stated in his blog: "Apropos, sorry for my miserable English: just know, I'm just little humble Russian, living in Germany and translating this manga from Japanese into English.".
  • English As She Is Spoke
  • Bill Bailey loves using French and German in a variety of songs. These include Docteur Qui and Das Hokey Cokey.
  • Russian joke featuring a performer introducing herself as "Yani Suka Takaya" (which sounds Japanese), except that it actually means "I am not such a bitch" or "Yani, such a bitch" in Russian.
  • The Spanish swearword "cojones" (balls), when used by English-speakers, is occasionally misspelt or mispronounced as "cajones" (furniture drawers). Hilarity Ensues.

That bloke really had a lot of cajones! (That bloke really had many drawers.)

    • Although in many dialects of English, the first vowel of both those words is reduced to ə, making them barely distinguishable from each other – especially in fast and/or casual speech.
  • Apparently the Dutch Prime-Minister Gerbrandy was notorious for his bad comprehension of the English language, resulting in some hilarious incidents while the Dutch goverment was in exile in London during the Second World War. The most famous language mess-up supposedly happened between Gerbrandy and Churchill. The Dutch word for 'jump' is 'spring' and if a Dutchman were to ask someone to jump up, he'd probably say 'spring eens'. Which, when said quickly, sounds a lot like 'spring is'. So when Churchill commented to Gerbrandy 'Spring is in the air!', Gerbrandy replied puzzled 'Why should I, mister Churchill?'
      • The same guy once greeted Churchill by saying goodbye, to which Churchill responded "This is the shortest meeting I have ever had". (Gerbrandy had looked up the translation of "goedendag", which can be used as a greeting as well as a goodbye.)
    • also, Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, who Napoleon had made king of the Netherlands, once said 'Ik ben konijn van Holland' (I am rabbit of Holland.) it should have been 'koning'
    • Joseph Luns, Dutch minister of foreign affairs, once tried to tell John F. Kennedy he breeds horses as a hobby. Since breeding is known in Dutch as "fokken" it came out as "I fok horses".
      • Kennedy then replied "Pardon?", to which Luns responded "Yes, paarden!" (Dutch for horses.)
    • Prime-minister Joop den Uyl once remarked that "the Dutch are a nation of undertakers". The Dutch verb ondernemen is literally the English undertake (as onder is under and nemen is take), but in Dutch an "ondernemer" is someone that owns any kind of bussiness, the one the English word refers to would be a "begrafenisondernemer".
  • The Lewis and Clark expedition had a headache with this. The explorers spoke English and French, but not the native languages. Charbonneau, their Mountain Man guide, spoke French and Hidatsa. Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa (as she had been a long-term captive of that tribe) and Shoshone (her native language). Negotiations with the Shoshone got...interesting.
  • The "chain of translations" trope supposedly actually happened in the Scottish town of Stornoway. A member of the town's Pakistani community was a witness in a court case, and he insisted he only spoke Punjabi. A translator was found from the community, but he said he only spoke Punjabi and Scots Gaelic. So another translator had to be found who could translate from Gaelic to English. The story goes that it later transpired that all three men spoke all three languages, but objected to the case and wanted to wind the court up.
  1. The Detroit Red Wings, for those unfamiliar with 90s hockey
  2. Well, he actually says "Sup, Shan, go skate in the skies!" So that's double mistranslation for you!