My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to: navigation, search
"I [had] a fifteen minute chat conversation with my Cantonese friend, not knowing what I was saying at all. She informed me that most of what I was saying was gibberish, but I did manage to say that I enjoy fried sticky turtles and that my boots were filled with pudding."

A character thinks he can speak some language, but fails comedically and says something entirely different than what was intended—often complete nonsense or something rude. For example, maybe he tries to say "Can I please buy some matches?", but actually says "My Hovercraft Is Full Of Eels". Hilarity Ensues.

This typically has nothing to do with bad translations; the original speech was incorrect. For bad translations, see Either World Domination or Something About Bananas, Blind Idiot Translation, or Translation Train Wreck. However, if the language being spoken isn't the language of the work as a whole, there's usually a translation back so that the audience can see just how wrong the character's speech actually was. For example, Bob thinks he speaks French well. He speaks in French to a waiter, who looks at him oddly and says "Monsieur, I do not think that you really meant to say that there is a blue banana in your navel."

This is only rarely Truth in Television, mostly in relation to tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese and specific "false friends" (such as the Spanish word "embarazada", meaning "pregnant"). Most of the time, someone who speaks a language poorly just speaks it slowly, with a poor accent, and stumbling over vocabulary and grammar.

Also happens sometimes with written language: some languages (such as Hungarian and Arabic) rely on diacritics to distinguish similar-looking words, and ideographic languages (such as Chinese and Japanese) have complicated characters whose meaning (and pronunciation) can completely change with the difference of a few strokes.

The trope namer is Monty Python's Flying Circus, which is actually a relatively justified example: the speaker is a victim of an intentionally inaccurate (and often dirty) Hungarian-English phrasebook. For the bored and/or curious, the actual Hungarian for the title is A légpárnás járművem tele van angolnával. It's pronounced vaguely like "Ah laygpaarnaash yaahrmewvem telleh von ungohlnaaval", with the first syllable of every word receiving stress; the v is always like an English v, never like a German one (which is either F or V).

A common explanation for the trope is that the character making the mistake has been taught something rude by a mischievous native speaker, playing on their ignorance to purposefully give an obscene translation for something reasonable.

A subtrope of Fun with Foreign Languages. Often used in conjunction with Eloquent in My Native Tongue. Also compare Either World Domination or Something About Bananas, which is about inept translations, Separated by a Common Language, in which similar problems happen because of differences in dialect, and Malaproper, a character who does this in their native language.

Not to be confused with I Need to Go Iron My Dog.

Note: If you are interested in learning how to say that your hovercraft is full of eels in many languages, Omniglot has a useful compilation.

Examples of My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels include:

Advertising[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The newest Rita's Italian Ice is Swedish Fish flavored. For Rita's radio advertisements, they have a mock Swedish language lesson, where you are supposed to repeat after the lady who is saying phrases in Swedish. The last phrase is "Min svävare är full med ålar," which translates to this trope.
    • As an interesting side note, the Italian phrase for "frozen fish" is "pesce congelato," which sounds identical to "pesce con gelato," or "fish with ice cream."
  • Mitsubishi had a TV ad with a pre-Buffy Robia La Morte driving a red open roadster, following along to a 'Learn Italian' cassette. At a stop sign a man hears her and says in Italian (subtitled) "You speak my language!" - she breezily replies in Italian (subtitled) "Good toast, waiter! ...I would like a slice of suitcase." and drives off, the picture of self-assurance.
  • A German beer commercial had Indian businessmen in a beer garden doing this. When the waitress arrives, one of them says "Ich möchte diesen Teppich nicht kaufen." (I do not want to purchase this carpet). The waitress just nods and proceeds to serve them the advertised beer brand with the businessmen happily accepting.
  • One of the "Get a Mac" ads in the UK had PC attempting to communicate with a Japanese printer (Mac had language compatibility and could do so). He spouted the phrases "I am a rice cake" and "Where is the train station?"
  • Another German commercial used a well known joke to advertise a language course. It has coastguard responding to an English language distress signal with "What are you sinking about?"
  • A Canadian grocery store had a campaign advertising its new French breads, in which a baker would speak French and the subtitles would show that he was saying how great the bread was. In a hilarious Bilingual Bonus, the baker was actually repeating common high school French or phrasebook sentences, like "Where is the library?"
  • There is a West African hot pepper sauce which is very popular among African exiles in Britain and available from ethnic food retailers. In Ghana, its name simply means "pepper sauce". But it won't be on general sale anywhere else in a hurry, though, as the brand name is "Shitto", or "Shitto Gourmet". It does actually taste rather good, it has to be said, like tabasco, jerky sauce or peri-peri.


Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • Shortly after arriving in Japan, Albert Chamomile tries to tell Negi that Nodoka is being attacked by...well, we don't know exactly what he was trying to say, because the Japanese word he used means "fried chicken" (perhaps he meant "jellyfish"). Note that Chamo didn't have any reason to speak Japanese, as Negi is also a native speaker of English. Interestingly, this wouldn't be the last reference to fried chicken we'd see in this series...
    • Another instance is, yet again, chicken-related. Ku-Fei, upon meeting Al (who happens to be going under the guise of "Ku-Nel Sanders"), mistakes his name for Ku-Neru (which translates roughly into "Eat and be healthy", or so the manga says).
      • Literally translated, ku-neru means eat-sleep.
        • So Fiesta-Siesta?
  • One short in Lucky Star had Kagami talking about Taifuu Ikka (ikka = kanji for one and 'pass over') which refers to the calm after a typhoon has passed. Konata starts talking about the "Typhoon family" to which Kagami replies "Are you serious?" Ikka also can mean "family" if a different kanji is used. Tsukasa, of course, doesn't get why Konata's statement was silly.
  • In a third season episode of Sailor Moon, the girls are introduced to an Englishman friend of Mamoru's. They employ their English language class and all manage a decent greeting (Minako: Nice to meet you. Rei: Hello. Ami: I'm glad to see you.) except Makoto, who spouts off "Thank You!"
  • Herro! Merry Christmas, I am Exceru! You ah dog!
    • Me llamo Excel! Feliz Navidad! You're my bitches!
  • This happens to Kagura in Azumanga Daioh. Upon seeing a foreign tourist struggling with his luggage, she decides to go help him. He's quite shocked to see this girl running towards him yelling "Help! Help me!"


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • At one point in Elf Quest, the human explorer Cam Triompe makes a good show of elfin speech (not, to my knowledge, previously spoken by any human in the series ever unless they were raised by the elves) and says "I from over what I call Redmist Cabbage! Uh, no. Redmist Ocean!" (In later years and later stories, however, Cam becomes much more fluent.)
    • Cam was apparently the first human of his continent to speak the elfin language, but by that time (in the series "New Blood"), another, transplanted human tribe that worshiped elves as deities had adopted the elf-tongue as its own language.
  • In an issue of Justice League Europe, while discussing a failed robbery, Major Disaster points out, with much irritation, how Multi-man had to memorize just a few words of French, meaning: "This is a stick-up!" What came out as he went up to the guard: "Dance with my uncle's ostrich!"
  • In Y: The Last Man, one of Alter's Israeli soldiers is held at gunpoint by 355. She pleads for her life by ratting off every English phrase she can remember. Things like, "how much does this cost." It might have helped if she dropped the gun, but that is beside the point.
  • In The Modern Parents in one issue of Viz, Malcolm, Cressida, and Tarquin visit Kaftanistan to persuade a local warlord to stop hunting endangered mountain goats. Malcolm has prepared a speech that is supposed to go along these lines:

You should be happy to let the mountain goats breed in peace
You and your men should not upset the natural balance of the soil
If you are irresponsible now, your children will inherit a twisted and barren environment

but after translating it into Kaftanistani, it comes out as:

You enjoy mating with goats
You and your men perform unnatural acts in the dirt
Because of your evil wickedness, may your children be born deformed and barren

  • In the first issue of Havoc Inc., Chris and Chester are trying to negotiate for horses using a phrasebook that (Like the Trope Namer) was written intentionally badly. The merchant concluded they were crazy zealots and gave them a pair of horses just to get rid of them.
The book makes them say such things as "I have a frog and much money. I only pray you will take me for all I am worth", "Show me your rubbish, I must browse!" and "My monkey will wash your vegetables". Fortunately they get away from town before Chris read the passage that translates as "Shoot me now, for I have known your mother many times"
  • A rare moment of comedy in Sleeper
  • In one Spider-Man story, Peter tries to use sign language to say something to his neighbor's hearing impaired daughter. His attempt seriously cracks her up, and she writes on paper, "You called me your potato, silly!" Ironically, he had previously - as Spider-Man - gotten her to trust him by signing while saving her from a fire, where she had been terrified of him and the fire. One would think it would have been much harder then.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Averted (mostly) in Love Actually - when Colin Firth's character learns Portuguese to woo the Portuguese woman he's fallen in love with, he's still hilariously bad at it, but his speech is mostly coherent; it's mainly plurals in the wrong places and incorrectly-conjugated verbs rather than him saying something completely incoherent and out of context. There is a perfectly in-context reason, however, for him to fear eel-attack, coming about halfway to uttering the trope-naming phrase.
    • It also works the other way when we find out that Aurelia has learned English, "just in cases."
  • In Family Jewels, the criminal, while pretending to be Mexican, says "I have a cat in my pants". He crosses the border before the cops manage to work that out, ending the movie on a good note.
    • Almost exactly the same thing happened in Blue Streak...although the cops LET him get away, and understood exactly what he said.
  • In Phenomenon, a friend of John Travolta's character asks him to teach him some Portuguese so he can hire a (beautiful) Brazilian lady as his maid. Travolta uses a tape recorder to give English and Portuguese "translations" for sentences like, "Can you start on Monday?". But the Portuguese sentences actually mean "You have beautiful eyes", and so on. At the end of the movie the friend and the Brazilian lady are getting married. Aww.
  • George of the Jungle: Lyle uses a phrasebook to attempt to communicate with his native porters in the African jungle. Apparently the makers of the Hungarian phrasebook from the original sketch also made a Swahili one.

"Pardon me, girls. I know you're feeling pretty hey sailor up here about now. But if you would just let me order a bowl of fried clams, we can all have smallpox tomorrow."

  • Johnny English: When Johnny tries to speak in romantic Japanese to Lorna, it comes out as "May all your daughters be born with three bottoms."
  • In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Uhura tries to get the Enterprise past a Klingon guard post by speaking Klingon without the aid of a translator. She says, "We am thy freighter condemning things and supplies." The Klingons find the phrase humorous; to maintain the ruse, the Enterprise crew responds with forced laughter.
    • According to the novelization, the Klingons figured anyone that incompetent had to be petty smugglers and were therefore not worth the trouble of stopping.
    • The novelization also provides a more rational explanation for why they were scrambling to look up Klingon phrases in old paper books, instead of using the Universal Translator—namely, that the same saboteur(s) who had altered the ship's logs to make it look like the Enterprise had fired on the Chancellor's ship, had also wiped the Klingon language data from the memory banks specifically to keep the Enterprise from crossing Klingon space without giving themselves away as soon as someone tried to establish communications with them. (The books were part of Uhura's personal collection, not part of the ship's library, so the saboteur presumably didn't know about them, or didn't have any opportunity to get to them and destroy them.)
    • The spin-off book Klingon for the Galactic Traveller has a whole section devoted to avoiding this. There is a tiny difference between "luq, joHwI' (Yes, my lord)" and "lu joHwI' (My lord falls from power)". Also, "Huch DaHutlh (Thou lackest money)" sounds like "Quch DaHutlh (Thou lackest a forehead)". And mispronouncing "qaH (sir)" as "qagh (gagh, a dish of worms)", well...
  • Appears in Mr. Bean's Holiday.
  • Bruce Banner, in The Incredible Hulk's 2008 movie, cautions some native speakers in Brazil: "You wouldn't like me when I'm... hungry". Ironically, in Portuguese, irritado (angry) and com fome (with hunger) are not at all similar, while in English, "angry" and "hungry" are fairly confusable.
  • Rush Hour 2. Thanks to his poor poor Cantonese, Carter invited two girls to get naked and sacrifice a small goat instead of having a drink. He also told the entire triad bar to take out their Samurai swords and shave his butt.
    • Jackie Chan's English isn't all that great to begin with. This explains some of the what-did-I-say looks he gets in the outtakes when the crew starts laughing after he flubs a line.
  • In The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville meets a foreign dignitary. He tries to speak to him in his own language, and gets punched out.
  • Invoked in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when Nick intentionally tells Ian the wrong phrases. First Ian inadvertently tells her mother "Nice boobs" instead of "Thanks for the food." The second time, he's wise to the trick and asks Toula's cousin to confirm that the phrase he's being told to use is correct; unfortunately, the two are conspirators and he still ends up telling the whole family "I have three testicles."
  • Ringo (a.k.a. Pumpkin) in Pulp Fiction notably calls for the "garçon" to bring him more coffee, believing that it's the French word for waiter or server, and his waitress immediately explains that "garçon" is French for "boy". Actually "garçon" has both meanings, as you can see here
    • True, but he used to it address a waitress. "Garçon" can only be used to a (male) waiter. The French for "waitress" is "serveuse".
  • The movie First Family features an African ambassador who has 'taught' himself English by memorizing random phrases from a phrasebook and uses them regardless of their relevance to the situation.
  • In Four Weddings and a Funeral, a girl learns sign language in order to talk to David, a deaf guy she's sweet on. She doesn't get it quite right ... which makes her all the more adorable.
  • In Gung Ho a secretary for the Japanese auto manufacturer says tells Michael Keaton that her boss is "between a rock and a hard-on." He rushes in while jokingly saying, "I gotta see this."
  • In the 1989 German comedy movie "Otto – Der Außerfriesische" starring comnedian Otto Waalkes, the main character travels to the U.S. to search for his lost brother. With the help of a German-English dictionary, he tries to communicate with a local cab driver, first speaking the supposed english phrase and then the German translation (supposedly for the viewer to understand).

I am thirsty ("I am thursday")
I am hungry ("I am hungary")


Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater, the title character gets into a conversation in a language he doesn't speak at all. His conversational partner later informs him that he'd claimed to be a politically incorrect sardine who likes to eat the tires off motorcycles. ("I said that?" "Like a native.")
  • In the Discworld novel Feet of Clay, Carrot is teaching Angua Dwarfish; when she tries to show it off to Cheery, she accidentally says "small delightful mining tool of a feminine nature".
    • Carrot just thinks she's incorrect, because dwarves look the same genderwise. One of the earlier books explains this.
    • In Interesting Times, Rincewind the Wizzard is sent to the Counterweight Continent because he is the only one to understand the language - somewhat.

'Just give me all your food and... unwilling dogs, will you?'
They watched him impassively.
'Damn. I mean... arranged beetles?... variety of waterfall?... Oh, yes... money.'

      • Of course, the Counterweight Continent is a Discworld version of China, where most of the various languages are tonal, meaning the same syllable can mean several different things based on intonation. For example, the words for "wizard" and "blob of swallow's vomit" differ only by tone.
      • The same thing happens with Mr. Saveloy, albeit to a slightly lesser extent:

" That's right. You'd be very welcome to join us. You could perhaps be a barbarian... to push beans... a length of knotted string... ah... accountant. have you ever killed anyone?'"

    • Earlier in Interesting Times, the narrator claims that a simple word like "aaargh" can, in a certain language from Honwondaland, mean "More boiling oil, please!" which can have interesting implications for those uttering it.
    • A Running Gag in the same book has Rincewind use an intonation while screaming "aaargh" that translates it into the counterweight continent phrase for "your wife is a big hippo".
    • And then, of course, there's Vimes' attempt at dwarfish from The Fifth Elephant. It nearly causes a diplomatic incident since the only word he knows for 'dwarf', having learned by picking up Ankh-Morpork 'street dwarfish', is the word for 'dwarf (indicating miscreant)'. He also calls himself "Overseer Vimes of the Look" and says "I am sure you are a dwarf of no convictions. Let us shake our business, dwarf (indicating miscreant)."
      • In case that's unclear, imagine what would happen if you addressed the chief of police as "punk". Yeah, like that, but with more axes.
    • Jingo mentions two Klatchian tribes who went to war over a translated word in a holy book, which meant either "god" or "man" - the difference in the original language is only one dot, and if the dot had been a little further to the left it would have been "licorice".
      • Modelled on the Real Life theologian disagreement whether God and Jesus are homoousios (of the same substance) or homoiousios (of a similar substance). Because it was in Greek, and the disagreement was over an iota subscript, it gave us the phrase "not one iota (of difference)"
    • Also in Monstrous Regiment, Vimes has a slight communication problem when, as a gesture of friendship towards Polly Perks and her regiment, he tries to say "I am a Borogravian" and instead claims to be a cherry pancake. An obvious reference to Kennedy and "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (see Real Life, below).
  • In one of the M*A*S*H novels (M*A*S*H Goes to Morroco), a new and rather naive foreign service agent declares that her Arabic training has been inadequate, since she couldn't figure out what a sheikh meant by 'mudden yuri' or 'yumuth erware sar mishues'. (The sheikh in question is rather drunk, and is simply spouting what the people who got him that way - namely Hawkeye and Trapper - said every time they knocked one back.)
  • Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need plays with this by having translation guides that mostly consist of random sentences in English like "You bum, there is a fish in your library." The foreign translations were mostly just gibberish.
    • "Dave Barry Does Japan" features a real-life example that happened to Dave. He attempted to thank a hotel worker in Japanese. Showing typical Japanese politeness, the man bowed and left, at which point Dave's then ten-year-old son pointed out that what he had actually said was "Very much good morning, sir."
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Outbound Flight, a human character tries to learn the Chiss language, with limited success. At one point, he gives his profession as "fishing boat" (he meant "merchant trader"), but for good reason: he physically can't pronounce the distinction between the two words. Thrawn, on the other hand, has no trouble picking up Basic while trying to teach that main character.
  • In Peter and the Starcatchers, Molly Aster can communicate with porpoises fluently... except for the standard greeting, which she always mistakes for the phrase for "My teeth are green." She remains blissfully unaware of this throughout the novel because the porpoise Ammm is too polite to correct her. In Peter and the Sword of Mercy, her daughter makes a similar mistake.
  • S.J. Perelman used this occasionally; at one point in Westward Ha! he asks a Far Eastern noble "whether the pen of his uncle is in the garden". In a mild variation, the person he's talking to actually speaks perfect idiomatic English.
  • In Dreams Made Flesh by Anne Bishop Daemon wants to impress Jaenelle by telling her how much she means to him in the old tongue. He plans to say this one phrase he has taught himself in a very intimate situation, but during a faked public argument he utters it as it's the only one he knows that their listeners wont be able to understand. Lucky for him he did that then, as what he was really saying was:"I eat cow brains."
  • In Summer Knight, Harry Dresden attends a White Council meeting in which the official language is Latin. Unfortunately, Harry's Latin is very crappy so when he tries to say "Sorry, Merlin. It's been a very long day. I meant to have my other robe" and "Please excuse my lateness and appearance," he actually says, respectively, "I am a sorry excuse Merlin, a sad long day held me. I need me a different laundress," and "Excuses to you for my being dressed and I also make lately." No, that's not a typo.
    • Darn that Latin correspondence course.
  • In Things Fall Apart, the white colonists hire an African translator to speak to Okonkwo's tribe, but because he speaks a different dialect than the tribe, every time he tries to say "myself" he ends up saying "my buttocks." "My Buttocks" becomes the translator's nickname among the tribesmen.
  • One anecdote in the sequel to Three Men in a Boat, set in Germany, has George bewildered when he tries to buy a cushion from a German shop and the three young sales girls throw him out. Turns out the word for 'cushion' sounds very similar to the word for 'to kiss' ("küssen").
    • Yes... "cushion" is "Kissen". But words ending with -en are usually plural, or verbs. Knowing English makes it even harder not to mix it all up.
      • Not really, 'Kissen' is a singular word. And a verb turned into a noun would sound exactly like the infinitive of the verb, namely with the ending 'en'. There is very little pattern when it comes to plural forms.
  • In C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, a not-quite-fluent professional translator between humans and the alien atevi says, in the atevi language, "pregnant calendar" when she means "urgent meeting", and "disintegrate and abase your weapons" when she means "surrender and throw down your weapons".
  • My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger has a number of sign-language examples, as many of the characters find themselves needing to rapidly learn American Sign Language after a six-year-old Deaf boy attaches himself to them.

Lori: So if I wanted to say "I live near the river," I'd do it like this?
T.C.: Um, actually you just said "I live in a parking lot." You didn't mean to do that.

  • In The Saga of the Noble Dead, half-elf Leesil was never properly taught the Elvish language. His later attempts to learn it go poorly; the first time he actually tries speaking to an elf, he manages to turn a request for directions into an insult against the elf's mother.
  • In the second Symphony of Ages novel, Gwydion tries to flirt with Rhapsody in her native tongue. His attempt to compliment her behind translates to "You have the most lovely muffins." She never lets him live it down.
  • In the second book of the Nursery Crime series, The Fourth Bear, Mary Mary's attempts at speaking binary to Ashley's parents turn out to be this, once turning a toast into something that Abigail's mother would never have done, and especially not to herself, and another time turning Abigail's name into something about how Mary's prawns have asthma.
  • In Rick Cook's Limbo System, the computer-generated translations do this a lot. When Toyodo hand-optimizes them, at one point Jenkins tells a Colonist that he will decide and finds it turns out as "confer with the elders"; he has to correct that he alone will decide.
  • In his humorous essay "Confessions of a Gallomaniac" (published in his 1921 collection The Margin of Hesitation), Frank Moore Colby describes how in his desire to learn French he fell in with a Frenchman whose English was as bad as Colby's French, and how they would "practice" at each other.

Our conversations, as I look back on them, must have run about like this:
"It calls to walk," said he, smiling brilliantly.
"It is good morning," said I, "better than I had extended."
"I was at you yestairday ze morning, but I deed not find."
"I was obliged to leap early," said I, "and I was busy standing up straight all around the forenoon."
"The book I prayed you send, he came, and I thank, but positively are you not deranged?"
"Don't talk," said I. "Never talk again. It was really nothing anywhere. I had been very happy, I reassure."
"Pardon, I glide, I glode. There was the hide of a banane. Did I crash you?"
"I noticed no insults," I replied. "You merely gnawed my arm."
Gestures and smiles of perfect understanding.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

Stephen: "Let's see if you can guess this one: 'Mia kusenventurilo estas plena de angiloj.'"

    • After some hints, Rob Brydon goes from 'My cousin is a meercat of strange angles' to the words for 'eels' and 'hovercraft'. When he puts the sentence together, he still can't believe it:

Stephen: Yes, 'my hovercraft is full of eels.'
Rob: ...Seriously?
Stephen: Yes.
Rob: (laughing) I thought you were being cross with me there, you were saying that just to move on!

  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; In The Stinger of "Different Drum", Jason tries to use sign language to say something to Kimberly's hearing impaired friend; both she and Kimberly laugh, as he told her "my dog smells."
  • Trigger Happy TV had a recurring sketch featuring a Scandinavian man asking random people on the streets very poorly worded and outrageous questions or statements, with a thick Scandinavian accent.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "School Hard", while studying French, Buffy says something in French that translates to "The cow should touch me from Thursday."
    • And she said it wrong.
  • In Babylon 5, Ivanova tries to show Marcus and Delenn how she's been learning Minbari and can therefore command the Minbari crew of the White Star. Her attempt is subtitled "Engines at full, high power, hatrack ratcatcher, to port weapons, brickbat lingerie."
    • In a contender for Delenn's Crowning Moment of Funny, after she has diplomatically suggested that Ivanova allow herself or Marcus to translate her orders to the White Star crew and Ivanova has gone out of earshot, Delenn orders Marcus to warn the crew that anyone who laughs at Ivanova's... creative... Minbari will answer to her personally. Given how most Minbari are depicted as being rather stoic, anything that could make them laugh would probably have to be quite a howler...
      • It's implied much later in the series that much of Minbari humor is related to puns, but laughing at failure of others is a taboo, so they'd probably have only laughed, if they thought that Ivanova was making deliberate mistakes for the fun of it.
      • The funniest thing about that sentence is that Minbari have lingerie.
    • In an interesting case of real life imitating art, when this scene was translated into Chinese a lot of Ivanova's idiomatic English didn't survive the translation barrier in a similar way.
    • She pulls another one later, while ranting about their current situation. She ends her rant with an exclamation of "Ah, hell!" - in English, of course. The Minbari cannoneer, however, promptly opens fire on absolutely nothing. When Ivanova seems completely confused by this, Lorien explains that "Ahell" means "rapid, continuous fire" in Minbari. There were numerous occasions to throw in a Continuity Nod to this later; alas, the series never does.
    • In season two, the new commanding officer of Babylon 5 is attacked by a Minbari and defends himself with a conveniently-placed weapon. When Sheridan has the assailant at his mercy, he demands surrender—to which the Minbari replies, "Death first." Later on, in a pseudo-legal proceeding, a Minbari witness claims the assailant actually said something that sounds similar ("Deth feherst" or some such) but means "I yield to your authority." This actually turned out to be a complete lie.
  • Arnold Rimmer's Esperanto in at least one episode of Red Dwarf. "Could you send for the hall porter, there appears to be a frog in my bidet."
  • Ugly Betty has an episode where Betty (who has lived in America for her entire life) accompanies her father to visit her family in Mexico. The episode features a Running Gag where Betty tries to say something in Spanish and her father informs her that she just said something embarrassing: "You just said you ate your niece." "You just told them you're pregnant." The funniest part is that what she says are actual, fairly common mistakes among new Spanish speakers.
  • Sheldon's attempts to learn Mandarin in The Big Bang Theory. "Long live concrete?"

"There are many oxen in my bed! Many, many oxen!"
"Don't call the library. Show me your mucus!"

    • It's not stated whether he learned it wrong or was taught it wrong, but either way...
      • The Chinese restaurant owner refers to Howard as the friend 'who thinks he speaks Mandarin', making this a likely case of being taught wrong. Of course, knowing Howard, he probably did this on purpose to screw with Sheldon.

"Your monkey rests inside me."

  • An episode of Star Trek: Voyager had this: "That's very sweet of you, but you just told me the comets are tiresome."
  • In one episode of Monk, Monk is looking for a suspect in a largely non-English-speaking neighborhood. He tries to say something like "Have you seen this woman?" in the local language, but according to the subtitles, it comes out as "Have you seen the sad stick?" He doesn't understand why no one gives him an answer.
  • Scrubs:
    • In a bizarre example, after noting that The Janitor seems afraid of JD's Latina friend Carla, JD wonders how he can use that to his advantage. He then daydreams about Carla standing up to the Janitor for him and telling him to stop picking on JD and to give JD a fruit smoothie everyday. The Janitor then asks in Spanish if JD wants strawberry or banana. Carla responds in Spanish with "Purple tree car with cheese". Janitor grabs Carla's face and rips it off to reveal JD dressed as Carla. JD immediately says "Feliz Navidad!" and runs away. The daydream ends with JD concluding he'll need to learn Spanish.
    • "I have an Eiffel Tower in my pants." "What?" "GRAPEFRUIT!!"
      • Much like Monty Python above, the latter Scrubs example is justified: Turk says he learned a little bit of French, but most of it was intended to help him pick up girls. So the Eiffel Tower in his pants is... that, and the grapefruits are... those.
    • At Carla and Turk's wedding Carla's brother gave The Todd a fake pick-up line in Spanish that apparently meant "I have herpes... just for you."
  • A more direct example from Scrubs: Eliott Reed (who is fluent in German) makes an intentional and dirty mistranslation to get revenge on Dr. Cox. Instead of telling his burly German speaking patient that "You have fluid on your lungs" - he says "Your wife has nice boobs.".
  • Happens during a case involving two Latin dancers in Ally McBeal where John Cage, interrupting the two dancers (who constantly argue in Spanish) sputters out such phrases as 'I want to ride a little pony!' and 'I want a cookie!' to the bemusement of those present.
  • M* A* S* H:
    • This happens to Hawkeye when trying to speak French in "In Love and War".
    • And, of course, there's the famous instance in which Frank Burns, while holding an auction, tries to wish the Korean crowd "peace and prosperity". In response, a man asks, "You wish us all a prostitute?"
    • From another episode: Hawkeye is screaming at a Korean farmer who was trying to work a rice field which had been mined, injuring his daughter.

Hawkeye: Oo-san! Oo-san!
Radar: Sir, you're calling him an umbrella!

    • Also, in "The Chosen People," Hawkeye tries to say, "Your presence is welcome in our camp," to Korean officer Sam Pak, but Pak tells him he actually said, "Your uncle has gas from eating cabbage." Hawkeye tries to say something else in Korean and Pak responds with, "I'm sorry to hear that . . . your uncle with the gas is now pregnant."
    • In the episode "Radar's Report," Father Mulcahy is attempting to calm a wounded North Korean. Radar's voiceover tells us he meant to say "peace and happiness" but was really saying "Your daughter's pregnancy brings much joy to our village."
  • Parker does this in Leverage, while trying to rescue a group of abused Serbian children. She has a phrase book, but what she says is subtitled as:

Parker: Don't be afraid. I will make your tomato shiny. Please come with. Men will sadden you.

She eventually gets the kids to go with her by, after nearly giving up, meekly offering "Haagen-dazs?" Later, she reacts to getting caught by exclaiming, "Oh, shiny tomato!"
  • Long long ago, in I Love Lucy, Lucy was meeting her in-laws the Ricardos of Cuba for the first time. She tries to be polite with a few memorized phrases, but botches the pronunciation. So instead of saying a polite "Thank you" to her father-in-law, she calls him a "fat pig". Hilarity Ensues.
  • The cast of Allo Allo dread the appearance of "That British idiot who thinks he can speak French". While he technically knows the right words, his pronunciation is horrific and he usually comes out with naughty-sounding sentences such as "I was pissing (passing) by your coffee (cafe)". Of course, what's interesting is that this relies on the understanding that although the dialogue is in clear (if accented) English, the characters are actually "speaking"- and understanding- French. And the British policeman's dialogue is attempting to represent how a very bad French speaker would come across to them.
  • In Regenesis, David Sandstrom, while in China, is arrested by soldiers, and tries to tell them "I'm a Canadian citizen". Because he gets the tones wrong, it comes out as "I'm a false personality".
  • In the Angel episode, "Harm's Way", Angel tries to communicate with a demon species that speaks in tongue-clicks, and ends up saying, "Be disemboweled."
    • In another episode, Fred says something to Lorne in his native language that she thinks means "may your words please the gods." Lorne informs us that what she actually just said was "may you orally pleasure the gods."
  • In the Community pilot, Jeff says he's a Spanish tutor in order to impress Britta, and even says a few sentences in Spanish. What he says translates to "I sleep late Spanish, one more hour, do not scratch my car". Not that it matters—Britta doesn't understand a word of it, and just responds with, "I really need a tutor."
  • In one episode of a short-lived NBC sitcom Cafe Americain, set in France, the main character (played by Valerie Bertenelli) was finally given an ultimatum to learn the native language. Her initial attempts were a little less than stellar: An attempt to congratulate a newly engaged couple had her unintentionally claiming to be having an affair with the man; and one attempt to converse with her instructor/UST interest resulted in the memorable phrase "Cheese in my pants makes me happy. Don't you agree?"
  • On Top Gear, presenter James May is given a Romanian phrasebook which has been purposefully mistranslated. When May inevitably gets lost, his attempts to ask directions only confuse the locals.

May: "These boxes are not all the same size!

    • Also Hammond, when speaking French, says things like 'le grand champignon', when he means the grand champion. 'le grand champignon' is, literally 'the big mushroom'. It gets worse when he says "il y a beaucoup de lapins dans ma pantalon" which means "there are a lot of rabbits in my trousers."
  • Not an unintentional hovercrafting, but in The Wonder Years, Kevin Arnold is sitting in French class daydreaming about a girl he has a crush on. In the fantasy, his love interest spouts off a whole bunch of eloquent, romantic French to Kevin. To which he can only reply 'Do you want some butter?'
  • In Red Dwarf, in the episode "Kryten," Rimmer attempts to speak Esperanto to Kryten and act aloof. He does not understand when Kryten replies, in Esperanto, "You speak Esperanto, Captain Rimmer?"
    • This happens many more times through series one and two.
  • Jokingly played with on the third episode of Benson. The titular character is covering for the president of a fictional country(who happens to be in the hospital recovering from a poisoning attempt that morning.) A government official who thinks he's addressing the actual President tells Benson what he thinks is the saying for "Thank you very much." Benson, not knowing a lick of the real thing, makes it up on the spot that the way the guy just phrased it, "It was an insult to my mother."
  • Subverted on The Kids in The Hall: Scott Thompson's idiot Canadian character walks into a shop where Dave Foley's shopkeep character speaks to him in perfect English. The catch is, he doesn't speak English and memorized those words phonetically, so when Scott asks a question, he can't answer, but continues reciting more unrelated English, which gets Scott angry. Eventually, the speech the shopkeep has memorized finishes with insults and the phrase, "Would you like to fight me?"
  • Occurs on 3rd Rock from the Sun when Mary gives a talk to foreign visitors to the university. Since her editor decided it was easier to just pretend Mary's speech was perfect so she could go drinking, Mary ends up inviting the visitors to her "womanly place," and tells them that "there's room for everyone."
  • This happens a few times in Frasier:
    • In "The Perfect Guy".

Dr. Clint Webber: Who's as lovely as a chicken beak?

    • In another episode, Niles and Frasier attempt to confront Maris' German fencing instructor whom she has been having an affair with. Unfortunately, the man doesn't speak English but Niles' maid does...yet she has a very poor grasp of English, meaning Frasier has to translate what Niles is saying to Spanish so the maid can translate it again to the fencing instructor. Everything seems to be going fine until Frasier mistranslates "You have stolen Niles' wife" as "You have stolen Niles' shoes". For some reason, this infuriates the guy prompting him and Niles to duel preceded by this priceless exchange:

Niles: En garde!
Frasier: Oh great, that's just what we need! A fourth language!

  • Murdock may be The A-Team's resident Omniglot, but his Italian isn't too great. Although the English speaking mooks around him don't know any better and it helps his disguise, it culminates in him asking two men to have his baby.
  • Happens in Andromeda, when Harper tries to say an old Vedran proverb ("A wise man knows his limitations") to Rev but ends up saying, "A fast swimmer keeps no pets." Since Vedran is a made-up language, there is, understandably, no way to verify that. He also tries to brag to Beka that he can speak "Old Earth Gaelic" by stating "Love is my language", unfortunantly he ended up saying "Love is our sandwich".
  • In the JAG episode "Fighting Words," a US Marine tries to say, "Stop or I will shoot," in Arabic during a classroom training session, but according to an Iraqi woman who's helping with the class, he actually said, "Stop or I will release the mice."
  • One Detour in Season 14 of The Amazing Race required teams to listen to customers ordering food in Chinese, then repeat the orders to a chef. It was easy for Tammy and Victor since they spoke the language, but Kisha and Jen had a little difficulty: instead of ordering "New Taste Beef" they ordered "Oil Comes Again to Please the Mouth," and "Golden Pork Spare Ribs" got lost in translation as "Light Competition Red Dishes I've Played Before."
  • In an episode of ER, Pratt thought he was encouraging a pregnant woman to push. Instead he was calling her a whore. Her husband understandably was enraged and she was horrified.
  • In Coronation Street Ken Barlow is trying to teach the dim Raquel to speak French. She tells him that she already knows how to introduce herself, having been taught by a former boyfriend, and continues: "Bonjour, Ken. Je m'appelle Raquel. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" Which means of course "Hello, Ken. My name is Raquel. Would you like to go to bed with me this evening?" Interestingly, no subtitles were displayed on screen, meaning that any viewers who didn't speak French (or recognize the phrase) would not have understood why Ken got that pained expression on his face...
  • An episode of Welcome Back, Kotter reveals that Arnold Horshack's last name translates into "the cattle are dying."
  • On Spin City, Paul claims to be able speak fluent Portuguese. His attempt to bid farewell to the mayor is translated as "My monkey needs a haircut".
  • Done twice on Drop the Dead Donkey, once with Russian (Henry introduces himself as a pregnant cabbage to a Soviet official on a factfinding exchange) and once with Japanese (Damien tells a group of Japanese businessmen to go and have sex with a porcupine).
  • Kenan and Kel had this with the date with Brianna, while Kel was trying to translate his order, the waiter got mad because Kel wanted "to park his truck on his mother's face".
  • On Naturally, Sadie, Magaret runs a Greek newspaper story about Rain through an internet translator. The page she gets back is enitirely My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels.
  • In the first Saturday Night Live sketch, a professor (played by Michael O'Donoghue) teaches a European immigrant (played by John Belushi) several useful English phrases, including "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."
  • The old Skit show All That used to have a skit, "Everyday French with Pierre Escargot", where they taught the viewer how to say nonsensical French phrases:

"Your wallpaper is making my eyebrows explode!"

  • Burn Notice's Michael Westen is usually pretty good at foreign languages, making this example all the more hilarious. In one episode he steals some documents from the Pakistani consulate and leaves a written message in Urdu for the chief of security to meet him at a restaurant. The chief comes into the restaurant with the message and says this:

Waseem: (reading the message) "I will be wearing a white shirt and--" See this word here? It's a kind of spicy goat cheese.
Michael: My Urdu's a little rusty. I was trying to say "black pants".
Waseem: Well, at least you got the name of the restaurant right.

  • On Coupling, in the episode "The Girl with Two Breasts", a scene where Jeff misunderstands Hebrew is played twice - the second time with the Hebrew in English, and Jeff's original English as incomprehensible gibberish. This reveals that Jeff has - in place of the girl's name - been repeating the Hebrew word for "breasts" ("Shadayam").
  • In an episode of Suddenly Susan, Vicky demands that Luis teach her just enough Spanish to pick up Latin men. He teaches her to say that she would like to share her STDs.
  • On an episode of The IT Crowd, one of Jen's lies was being fluent in italian. Subtitles of her mumblings showed that she'd be saying things like "I like the smell of my cat" and "spiders" but this wasn't a problem because Moss got her an instant translation program on her laptop, allowing her to cover her lies and pass off as fluent over conference calls, even impressing an italian business mogul (she was very good at pretending, if not at actually understanding). Things go south quickly when Douglas forbids her to bring her laptop to the first face to face meeting with the italian man and her improvised italian is so awful that no subtitles are even needed to see that she's just speaking english words with a pseudo-italian tone and intonation.
    • Including words like "Vienetta", "Fiat Punto" and "Super Mario" as Italian words.

Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • In Over the Hedge, Verne tries to learn to speak Dude, in which complex sentences can be conveyed just by pronouncing "dude" the right way. He never comes close.
  • Candorville: Lemont does this in...let's call it grunt-speak.
  • In The Far Side, an alien misreads a dictionary and accidentally says "Take me to your stove".
  • In Bloom County, Oliver and Milo hack into Pravda and attempt to change the headline to "Gorbachev preaches disarmament! Total! Unilateral!" Somehow, the altered headline ends up reading "Gorbachev sings tractors! Turnip! Buttocks!"
  • Peanuts, Snoopy - as the World War I Flying Ace - misreads his German phrase book and tells Lucy, "Where is the taxi? My uncle is from Wisconsin."

Radio[edit | hide]

  • During a visit to Hong Kong on The Navy Lark, CPO Pertwee buys a phrasebook that seems to consist of nothing but these.
  • The Goon Show would sometimes have Neddie rattle off a rapid fire string of French only for Moriarty to respond at the end "So, the pen of your aunt is the garden, eh?".
    • Or:

Bloodnok: (Interrogating German spy) Achtung! Der bluden der blitz! Rechtung sitz ang, es ist empire grundung!
Spy: Does your wife know this?


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • In Paranoia this trope is referenced by name when discussing Twitchtalk.

Theatre[edit | hide]

  • The Roman comedian Plautus offers us an Older Than Feudalism example. In his early play Poenulus, a would-be interpreter renders a Carthaginian visitor's greetings and protestations into shambolic Latin: the Punic equivalents of "Hi there" and "What are you blithering about?" are interpreted as complaints of a toothache, and an overpowering desire to see circus elephants.


Video Games[edit | hide]

Colonel: I hear it's amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork-- does a raw blink on Hara-Kiri rock. I need scissors! SIXTY-ONE!

  • The plot of Leisure Suit Larry II kicks off when Larry tries to hit on a Spanish-speaking woman with rather poor Spanish resulting in nonsensical phrases... that just happen to be the Spy Speak sign/countersign his Identical Stranger was supposed to use, leaving him with a microfilm containing state secrets and KGB agents on his tail.
    • Larry's Spanish actually makes even less sense than the subtitles would have you believe, to the point of often not even containing real words. It seems the writers share his problem.
    • They were, in many cases, VERY OBVIOUSLY not real words, and just adding another level of silliness for the player.
  • HK droids from Knights of the Old Republic do this intentionally when disguised as protocol droids. If we are to believe HK-47 the results are never pretty. There's a theory that HK-47 deliberately tries to disrupt talks to start a shoot-out.

HK-47: Translation: 98% probability that members of the miniature organic's tribe are being held by Sand People, master. Doubtless he wishes assistance.
Player: And the other two percent?
HK-47: Translation: 2% probability that the miniature organic is simply looking for trouble and needs to be blasted. That may be wishful thinking on my part, master.

  • Ratchet and Clank has the Tyhrraguise in the third game, Up Your Arsenal, which is a disguise that has to be used to infiltrate the enemy base. While wearing the Tyhrraguise costume, making a mistake will create humorous examples such as:

Ratchet: Your sister is a squishy lover.
Ratchet: Would you like to buy a recently used crotchitizer?

"Your boot is full of eels?"

  • Referenced in one of the Portal 2 ARG mp3s in a "Language Learning Laboratory" tape for learning Spanish. Most of the phrases used are about potatoes, and range from odd to strange. "My hovercraft is full of potatoes" is one of the phrases.
  • When Tails attempts to translate Yacker's language in Sonic Colors, it ends up invoking this trope.

Tails: Okay, he said his name is 'Talks-a-lot' and he's from a faraway soda and where flowers water them with dances. (Note that he did actually say "and where", that wasn't a typo)
Tails: They are either being used for their mystical powers by an evil man, or to make underwear to be worn by salad.

  • Referencing the Monty Python example above, World of Warcraft has an "Orcish / Common Dictionary" and "Common / Orcish Dictionary" which translate "KEK" and "BUR" (LOL) as "An aggressively passionate mating call."
  • A rare serious example comes from Apollo Justice in case 3. A witness who speaks borigeneese is trying to testify. She says that she has came across a "Small Window." However, we find out later that she's talking about a vent. She had been crawling through the ventilation system for a magic trick


Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Panthera gives us Onca's interest in mango fucking and boiling flowers. Justified that she's only been practicing the language for a few hours at best.
  • In Dominic Deegan, the main character's father Donovan is hilariously inept with the orcish language; while he presumably thinks he's speaking greetings and profound things, he's really spouting nonsense, such as "My landmass erupts with kittens." He also has a very fancy title:

Donovan: What's so funny? Is "bringer of peace and joy" laughable?
Melna: No... but that's not what "Kulka Sheendo Dak" means. That's "Kilka Shiendo Dak".
Donovan: Then what does my orc name mean?
Melna: Um... it means "Little Pink Man In Pink".
Donovan: They lied to me.

    • Recently an orc has been introduced with the same problem speaking Callanian. Apparently he learned from Donovan.
      • It gets worse. The orc in question was under the impression that the Callanian phrase for "hello" was "Be afraid! I am very dangerous and I am going to kill you!".
        • Hey, that's a valid form of greeting!
    • As it turns out, He's been faking it the whole time. Everyone is simply gobsmacked when he recites an orcish saying perfectly.
      • And why has he been faking it for twenty years?

Donovan: I'm a bard. Why do I do anything? Because it's funny.

      • It could also be seen as Obfuscating Stupidity, though it does bring up some questions of why he kept up with it even when his life was in danger from it, such as when he was captured and nearly killed by Outrage Chief.
  • In Daisy Owl, at one point Steve is introduced to his long-lost family. His inability to speak Bear makes it seem like he's choking.
  • Used in this Darths and Droids strip, with the exact same line.
  • Kyo'nne of Drowtales claims that she can speak Halme (the local human dialect) and teaches a few lines to Vaelia when she has to sneak into a Halme settlement, where it's then shown that this is the case with her.
  • A real-life version referenced in Scandinavia and The World: according to the Danish writer, the Danish phrase "That's a major downer" can, if not pronounced carefully, come out as "That's the master negro". She had fun with this in a strip about Obama visiting Copenhagen.
  • One Achewood strip involves Ray attempting to learn German from pornography. The results are...interesting.
  • In Sluggy Freelance, Torg and his Portuguese-speaking alternative universe counterpart try to communicate using a translation book. At first, there's an inverted version where Torg interprets Portuguese-Torg's phrases as weird non sequiturs (without noticing anything odd about it). Then they actually try to speak each others' languages with the help of the book:

Torg: "No, I'm afraid I don't have any raspberry-swirl ice cream... or as you would say: 'Às segundas-feiras sou um sapato!'" (On Mondays I am a shoe)
Alt-Torg: (angrily swipes the book to himself and flips through it) "Are.... you... a... a... embezzle?"
Torg: "Embezzle? Embezzle means to steal from a company or boss! I'm a freelance web designer, so I don't have a boss! Why?"
Bun-bun: "The word is pronounced 'imbecile'."
Alt-Torg: "Ahh!"

  • Incubus in Blip wasn't very deft with ancient tongues.
  • In Girls with Slingshots, Chris starts learning American Sign Language so he can communicate with his new girlfriend Melody other than by texting. In one strip she signs by cupping her hand into a "c" and motioning from throat to stomach. He blushes and begins to take off his shirt. Then, noticing her blushing as well, he says, "Oh wait, that means you're hungry," to which she signs "Yes yes yes." Although the joke is clear on its own from both their reactions, the specific mistake Chris made is that making the cupped-hand throat-to-stomach motion once means "I'm hungry," whereas doing it repeatedly means "I'm horny."


Web Original[edit | hide]

  • Red vs. Blue: Donut is revealed at the end of Season 3 to be able to speak some Spanish. In Season 4, it's revealed that it was only a couple years of high school Spanish, and he apparently wasn't a great student:

Donut: "¡Yo comio un lapiz!" ("I ate a pencil!")

    • Don't forget that Lopez' Spanish is all Babelfish, so very little of it makes any sense whatsoever. Plus he apparently mixes up French and Spanish.

Lopez: Ok, hombre! Au revoir.

    • O'Malley asks Lopez how to instruct his Spanish-speaking robot army to "hurry up". Lopez instead tricks him into telling them that he likes to sniff his own butt, among other things:

O'Malley: "¡Soy un pendejo morado y me gusta tomar aceite!" ("I am a purple jerk and like to drink motor oil!")... "That was rather long to mean 'hurry up'."
Lopez: "Es una lengua muy poetica." ("It's a very poetic language.")

  • Rob says this verbatim in epsidoe four of Unforgotten Realms (only in the "classic" series and not the new one) when Mike asks what he was saying in Wolf-Language. It Makes Sense in Context
  • Eugene Mirman - Secret agent: "Je m'appelle Eugene. Mon fromage est rouge. Shhhhh. Ma casa est ta voiture." ("My name is Eugene. My cheese is red. Shhhhh. My house is your car."). Later supplemented by some vocalisations that are translated only as "Hna ha hun ha?".
  • Babelfish. Type anything reasonable and cycle it through five or so languages, being sure to include at least one Asian language. (Or automate the process here.) Retranslate into your native language of choice. Hilarity Ensues.
  • In one of the Charlie the Unicorn animations, the pink and the blue Unicorn suddenly start speaking Russian, literally saying "My hovercraft is full of eels."
  • On this episode of Sailor Moon Abridged by megami33 it's heavily used by the professional ice skaters. While actually many of the German sentences they say make sense - despite having a terribly wrong pronunciation - some don't. In one scene the male skater says "Wollen sie Geschlecht mit mir haben?" which actually means "Do you wanna have sex (= gender) with me?" It's quite obvious that the word to be used should be Sex or (rather formally) Geschlechtsverkehr, either of which would mean sexual act.
  • In I'm a Marvel And I'm a DC, having the languages of Spanish and Portuguese zapped into his brain, Green Goblin threatens the Joker with a foreign phrase that even he doesn't understand. It translates into "What a nice dress. May I try it on?"


Western Animation[edit | hide]

"Ouch! The broccoli is on the roof."
"Happy to you log pony."

Judge: No es culpable (Not guilty).
Peggy: Oh god, I'm going to jail!!!

  • From the Darkstalkers cartoon: "All hail the imperial... Pudding! There are lizards in my pants!"
    • This is spoken by an anthropomorphic sphynx with an irish accent as he ascends in to the sky. What.
  • From The Weekenders: Whenever Tish's mother tries to say an English phrase, it comes out with all similar-sounding words instead, leaving the three non-Tish protagonists to mull over what she meant before Tish "translates".
  • The second installment of the post-Soviet Russian Captain Pronin cartoons runs into this—it's mostly set in America, and has Pronin fighting the Mafia, and so we get such lines as "This is your money. Give me a smoking!"
  • In the Men in Black cartoon:
    • In one episode, Agent J is required to learn some of an alien language to effectively masquerade as a member of that species, and puts too much stress on a single syllable, causing nearby aliens to laugh. Agent K informs him that he just turned "hello" into "Hello, sailor!"
    • It happens with aliens too, as seen with the Emperor Worm when he visits Earth; he claims to have learned English from "Books on tapeworm," and greets humans with things like, "Good aftershave from my big, big bottom!". The only phrase of English he can speak properly is "I am large and in charge."
  • In the Dexter's Laboratory episode "Got Your Goat", Dee-Dee and Dexter travel to the jungles of Central America searching for the Chupacabra. They encounter some angry locals who accuse them of being poachers, but Dee-Dee thinks they're asking if she and Dexter are thirsty. She tries to respond yes, and ends up babbling "I enjoy hamburgers and trousers, but I prefer green balloons!" in Spanish.
  • Time Squad has: "My name is Silly Suzy and I am wearing rubber underpants."
  • When Krusty is running for Congress on The Simpsons he adresses a gathering of Hispanic voters in Spanish, only for Bumblebee Man to tell him that he just promised to vomit on their mother's grave.
  • While most extraterrestrials on the show speak perfect English (though sometimes in strange intonations, like the Mooninites or Austrian accents, like Oglethorp the Plutonian), in Aqua Teen Hunger Force in the episode called Super Spore, a mouthless alien entity uses a proboscis to hijack Shake's body to speak. His native language is bastardized Japanese, but in the episode he's learning English from tapes that Carl has. He then begins spouting phrases "Shut up bitch! I need mustache ride for me lawyer." Frylock's Japanese isn't any better however...

Frylock: "Slippery breath inside banjo melted. Runny smoky."
Travis: "Uh, sure. Okay."
Frylock: "Thank you. Uh, that is, suck it. Suck it dry."

  • The Secret Saturdays. In "Into the Mouth of Darkness", Drew is less than impressed by Doc's grasp of Arabic:

Drew: "You do realise that you just promised to buy him new butter?"

  • There's an episode of Whats With Andy where Andy pretends to be his cousin from Quebec. In order to prove it, Lori asks him to say "You just won the Stanley Cup" in French; instead he says "Your ears are as big as the Stanley Cup."
  • In an episode of Garfield and Friends, Jon tries to order in French and gets served a pair of soft boiled athletic shoes. In another episode he ends up ordering the name of the chef. Both times he has to deal with French Jerk waiters.
  • The mom from Eek! The Cat is often shown repeating absurd phrases from language learning tapes.

Mom: "Your axe hand is swift, stewardess."

  • Mark's early attempts at speaking manbird in Ugly Americans, as it's an extremely tonal language consisting almost entirely of variations on "Suck my balls!"
  • When Fang attempts to speak monkey while on an island of monkeys who look like her in Dave the Barbarian:

Fang: "Which point me you to water in pants?"

  • Scooby Doo: When Mystery, Inc. go to Italy, Fred continually manages to misread his perfectly legitimate phrasebook, causing him to do things like requesting to rent a car that can outrace a flying hamster and ordering a potted plant at a restaurant.

Miscellaneous[edit | hide]

  • The Onion: "Area Man unsure if Southerner is looking for 'Pawn Shop' or 'Porn Shop.'"


Real Life Examples[edit | hide]

Arabic[edit | hide]

  • The story is told of an ambassador to an Arabic country, whose wife stood in the bazaar one day shouting "God bless you" (or so she thought) to passers-by. Unfortunately, in Arabic only a very slight difference in pronunciation distinguishes "bless" from "bugger"...


Chinese[edit | hide]

  • Bill Clinton was once giving a speech to a Chinese crowd. He opened by saying "hello" in Chinese, ni(2) hao(3). Unfortunately, he pronounced it ni(4) hao(4), coming up with "you are barking". Nobody had the heart to correct him.
  • Linguist David Moser illustrates this trope with an anecdote about practicing his Chinese with some Chinese friends. "I want to go to sleep now", due to tiredness and bad intonation, became "I stand by where the elephant urinates."
  • Another joke also illustrates this, where a speaker is announcing a plentiful harvest. First he tries to say the food is enough [for everyone] to eat (gòu chi le), but due to dialectal differences, he says that the food was eaten by dogs (gǒu chi le). Then he tries to say "everybody go eat a big bowl [of food]" (da jia dou chi ge da wan ba) but ends up saying "everybody here is a big dumb bastard" (da jia dou shi ge da wang ba).
  • This also applies to idioms and synonyms; cue running joke in certain circles where a young man recently returned to China eats a meal with relatives he hasn't seen in decades. At the end of the meal he stands up and says "Wo man le." It literally means "I'm full", but full as in physically filled, generally used for inanimate objects. (The proper way to say it is "Wo bao le.") Everyone sitting with him cracked up.
  • Before an official translated occured, Chinese venders chose random ideographs which pronounced phonetically sounded more or less like "Coca-Cola" but resulted in gems like "Bite the Wax Tadpole" and "female horse dipped in wax" (which does sound like something you might encounter in traditional Chinese medicine). The official Chinese name for Coca-Cola now doesn't sound exactly like "Coca-Cola," but it has the advantage of meaning "tasty and fun."
  • Another urban legend tells of how, after mistranslating the phrase "finger lickin' good," KFC ended up advertising its chicken as resulting in the eater biting his own fingers off.
  • A third urban legend tells of Pepsi-Cola accidentally translating their slogan, "Come alive! You're the Pepsi Generation!" as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."
    • May even have got a Shout-Out in Mass Effect 2 where a vending machine says "Tupari! Brings your ancestors back from the grave!"
  • Many Mandarin Chinese speakers not yet familiar with the language may make a mistake when ordering a fried egg. The proper name is "jian dan". However, as the word for "deep-fry" is "zha", the customer may inadvertently order "zha dan", or a "bomb". Which, in a food-related context, is one way to refer to Scotch eggs.
  • The Chinese ideogram for the concept of "dry" or "dried" also has a less polite slang meaning and is sometimes mistranslated into English as "fuck."
  • Former Canadian politician Jack Layton (RIP) told a story about having dinner with his future mother-in-law, who came from Hong Kong. He tried to say, "Thank you for the good food," in Cantonese, but he used the wrong tone and accidentally said, "Thank you for the good sex." Fortunately, his future mother-in-law was amused rather than offended.
  • One of the reasons Christianity didnt become big in China was because Jesus' name sounded like the Chinese term for some dish involving roasted pig. Christians became the butt of jokes depicting them worshipers of Roasted Pigs all throughout Christianity's history in China.


Croatian[edit | hide]

  • In 2007, opera singer Tony Henry was invited to sing the Croatian National Anthem at Wembley. Henry, who does not speak Croatian, still managed to do a pretty good rendition. Unfortunately, he changed a single letter in the line "Mila kuda si planina" singing instead "Mila kura si planina". The Croatian line means "My dear, how we love your mountains." Mr. Henry's version means "My dear, my penis is like a mountain."


Dutch[edit | hide]

  • There is a story or joke about a Dutch horsebreeder conversing with an Englishman where she uses the Dutch word for breeding (fokken) and then mistakes the Englishman's "pardon" for the dutch word for horses ("paarden").

Englishman: So what is it you do?
Dutchwoman: I fok horses.
Englishman: Pardon?
Dutchwoman: Yes, paarden.

    • Justified, as both fokken and fucking have the same, Germanic stem in both meaning and grammar (see ficken in German).
  • Napoleon's brother Louis was appointed King of Holland. Hoping to connect to his new people, he tried to introduce himself in Dutch. Unfortunately, he got his pronunciation muddled and called himself their "konijn" ("rabbit"), rather than "koning" ("king").


English[edit | hide]

  • Engrish is pretty much the epitome of this trope. Many of the problems from the fact that, in Japan, English looks cool and interesting, so fashion designers tend to use random English words for the sake of fashion. In those cases, it's common to use curse words and other dirty phrases. Some clothing tends to be plastered with the word "fuck" and it's seen as nothing, and one infamous t-shirt had the phrase "Spread Beaver, exposing the vaginal area". One ad for Bubble Tea says "The joy of sucking on balls". In China, this is common on public buildings, though normally these are close translations that just have different connotations here. Common ones include flesh in place of meat and cock instead of chicken; others might say things like "Carefully Fall Down", "Baby on Road", or "Don't Touch Yourself, Please Let Us Help You." Engrish can be found all through-out Asia, South America, and even Europe.
  • "English As She Is Spoke", a So Bad It's Good Portuguese-to-English phrase book, has a few of these. See The Other Wiki.
  • The infamous comments of Madam Ngo Dinh Nhu, describing the Buddhist self-immolations in South Vietnam as "barbecues", may be an example of this. According to historian Warren Carroll, Madame Nhu overheard American journalists using the word "barbecue" to describe the incidents, and, not being familiar with English and therefore, not realizing that the word was an Unusual Dysphemism, used it in a national broadcast, provoking worldwide outrage. (Although one must question the authenticity of this explanation, given the other offensive things Madame Nhu had said, before and since.)
  • A college student had gone to a Hebrew-speaking high school. Apparently, the Hebrew word for water buffalo is slang for a thoughtless, rowdy person. And the sorority girls outside his dorm were being thoughtless and rowdy. They took it as a racial slur when he said "Shut up, you water buffalo!"


Estonian[edit | hide]

  • When the Soviet Union occupied Estonia during WWII, they started a wide range of propaganda publications all over the country. As Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, closely related to Finnish and unrelated to the Indo-European languages such as Russian[1] the Russians often didn't quite know what they were doing. For example, in the Estonian town of "Tapa", they started a newspaper called "Tapa Kommunist", which could mean "The Tapa Communist". However, "tapa" in Estonian is also the imperative form of "to kill" (as it is in Finnish - see below), meaning that Estonians, who were at the time engaged in guerilla warfare against Soviet troops, read the newspaper's title as "Kill the Communist". When the Russians became aware of this, they decided to rename the newspaper, and using an Estonian dictionary came up with the name "Tapa Edasi", meaning "Tapa Forward". However, "edasi" in Estonian not only means forward, but also onward, making this new headline mean something along the lines of "Keep on Killing".


Filipino[edit | hide]

  • The word "Tae" appears in many words and names in the Korean language, but in the Philippines (specifically, the dominant Tagalog local dialect), "tae" means "feces/shit." Initially this was met by a fit of giggles among Filipinos but ever since Korean Dramas bought more of Korean culture to the Philippines, the joke ran off its course.


German[edit | hide]

  • "Ich bin ein Berliner!" This famous line was spoken by John F. Kennedy to express solidarity with the people of Berlin during the Cold War. A common urban legend states that the real phrase should be "Ich bin Berliner," but with the indefinite article ein added, it became "I am a jelly donut" (Berliner being a type of donut originating in Berlin).[2]
    • Which shows less than perfect understanding of German grammar since in this context the presence or absence of the indefinite article doesn't actually make that sort of difference.[3] "Ich bin Berliner" translates to "I am a 100% genuine, bona fide Berliner." "Ich bin ein Berliner" means "I am a particular Berliner" or "I am one of many Berliners."
    • It's also worth noting that the kind of jelly donut known as 'Berliner' in other parts of Germany is usually called 'Pfannkuchen' (literally pancake, and used in that sense elsewhere for extra confusion) in and around Berlin itself. For more detail, see this page on the Other Wiki.
    • You could do the same thing with a few other German words, for instance an "Amerikaner" is a type of sugar-coated pastry, an "Engländer" is an adjustable spanner, a "Kanadier" is a type of canoe, a "Pariser" (Parisian) is a slang word for a condom, and a "Römer" (Roman) is a type of wine-glass. Here as well as in interpreting "Ich bin ein Berliner" as "I am a jelly donut" you have to desperately ignore context; it is rather like saying the phrase "I am proud to be (an) American" really means "I am proud to be a type of steam locomotive or salad dressing".
  • In what may be an urban legend, a cautionary tale is told to GIs learning German. A young serviceman is in a German bar trying to pick up a lovely young lady. Trying his best to impress her, he says, "Ich möchte dich heute nackt sehen." He gets a drink in his face and spends the rest of the night alone and/or humiliated. What he was trying to say was, "Ich möchte dich heute Nacht sehen," or "I would like to see you tonight." What he said was, "I would like to see you naked." (The "ch" in "Nacht" is the guttural sound of "loch" in Scottish English and Scots.) Note that the "ch" sound in "ich" is not the same sound as in "Nacht". (German speakers distinguish the two by referring to those sounds as "ach laut" ("oh sound") for the sound that was botched here and "ich laut" ("I sound") for the one that seems to have been been pulled off at least well enough to not sound like something else.)


Hebrew[edit | hide]

  • During the Six-Day War, an Egyptian propaganda broadcaster made a small mistake in the plural form of "front" ("Hazitot"), and ended up announcing that "Our forces are advancing on all bras" ("Haziot"). He was considered a ripe source of amusement by the civilian population.


Inuit[edit | hide]

  • The capital of Nunavut, the Inuit-majority territory in the Canadian Arctic, is called Iqaluit (roughly eek-kah-loo-eet), "many fish." It is fairly frequently misspelled Iqualuit (ee-koo-ah-loo-eet) -- including in one case in a press release by the office of the Prime Minister—which unfortunately means "unclean buttocks."


Japanese[edit | hide]

  • There's a story (possibly apocryphal) of a Christian missionary, who thought he had said "we must take up our crosses and follow Christ" during a sermon, which caused laughter amongst the congregation. He'd apparently fallen afoul of the differing inflection problem, and was informed that while everyone knew what he meant, what he'd actually said was "we must pull up our pants and follow Christ".
  • A similar story tells about a pastor who wanted to say "Jesus rid us of our sins", but instead of "sin" (tsumi), he said "wife" (tsuma). Apparently all the men started clapping...
  • Heroes' Japanese-language scenes provide several examples:
    • Masi Oka once said that while filming a scene in the first season of with George Takei, Takei's line in Japanese was (paraphrasing) "I am proud of your progress (shinpo)" that Oka misheard as "I am proud of your dick (chinpo)".
    • As Takei notes in the DVD commentary of one episode, every time Hiro says Nathan's name, it sounds rather like onē-san, which is Japanese for "big sister".
  • It's not uncommon for weeaboos to mispronounce "kawaii" (kah-wah-ee) as "kowai" (kah-why/koh-why) meaning "scary".


Klingon[edit | hide]

  • Yes, under "Real Life". Who knows if it's actually true, but...
    • From this article about the production of a Klingon-language opera:

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – DaHjaj 'oH Qaq jaj vaD bI'reS. No, your screen is not broken -- that, for the uninitiated, is how one says "Today is a good day for opera" in Klingon.

    • And then in the comments:

I don't know who Reuters got to do their translation, but {DaHjaj 'oH Qaq jaj vaD bI'reS} means more like 'The beginning of a flexible day acts falsely honorable it today [sic].'


Polish[edit | hide]

  • For a big speech in Poland, President Jimmy Carter's staff engaged a translator who rendered Carter's "I left Washington" as "I abandoned Washington", and "I love the Polish people" as "I desire the Polish people carnally". As soon as the mistake was discovered, the translator was fired posthaste.[4]


Rumanian[edit | hide]

  • Sports journalist Michael Green once accompanied a British rugby side on an unprecedented tour of Ceaucescu's Romania, where rugby was and remains a big sport. He recalls that a very senior man from the English Rugby Union had to respond to a speech from his Romanian counterpart, and was fretting over not knowing any of his hosts' language. Then he had a brainwave: at least he could get the words for "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" from whatever was written on the local lavatory doors. He did this, and was gratified at the smiles and the round of applause his speech got, culminating in a standing ovation. Afterwards, the president of the Romanian Rugby Federation said to him that it had been a wonderful speech, Sir Richard, but whatever in the world possessed you to begin it with "Urinals and Water Closets"?


Russian[edit | hide]

  • Russian jokes about the Chinese frequently feature use of the syllable hui, which appears in both languages. In Chinese it is used in several innocent words. In Russian it roughly means "dick". Hilarity Ensues.
    • A new Chinese ambassador is to meet Gromyko. When the latter enters, the Chinese presents himself: "Shǔi Hui!" Gromyko, unperturbed, retorts "Shui sam!" The surprised Chinese asks: "And where is Gromyko?" (The pun is that "shui hui!" (a mock Chinese name) means "chew a dick!" in Russian and "shui sam" means "chew [it] yourself").
  • There is at least one website for teaching Russian that has this trope's name as one of the phrases taught.


Sign Language[edit | hide]

  • Adam Hills has had fun with this, as did a stewardess who has enjoyed his earlier fun with sign language. Sort of.
  • One comedian tells a story that he once choked in a restaurant, and began to flail his arms. He accidentally proposed to a deaf lady.
    • A similar thing happened in a sketch on The State, except the waiter brought a year's supply of radishes in a wheelbarrow.
  • A religion teacher for the deaf once confused the signs "to feed" and "to eat"—in telling the story of the feeding of the five thousand.
    • This same teacher, in trying to sign "water", made the sign with the wrong hand, instead signing "beer". When her audience was incredulous, she dug herself deeper, trying to sign that we need water to live, that our bodies are made mostly of water, and that the oceans are filled with water (only she kept signing "beer" instead of "water").


Spanish[edit | hide]

  • Spanish lesson time.

"Yo tengo quince años." - I am fifteen years old.
"Yo tengo quince anos." - I have fifteen anuses.

    • There's a story of a guy new to Spanish who wondered why, every time he asked a kid their age, the kid would burst out laughing and answer, "Uno" (one).
    • In the 1990s, there was an ad on the back of a magazine for Amazon.com's Spanish-language site, depicting the book cover "Cien anos de soledad", illustrating the common Web 1.0 problem of websites that don't take accent marks seriously.
    • Until recently, the US government funded a digital ticker in Cuba that would display pro-American propaganda. The problem: the ticker had no Ñ. When the sign scrolled through the Gettysburg Address in Spanish, it made the same mistake.
    • It Gets Worse: in Portuguese, ano/anos DOES mean year/years.
  • Supposedly, when the pope visited Miami, one enterprising person printed up t-shirts. Unfortunately, instead of "I saw the Pope" (el Papa), the shirts said "I saw the potato" (la papa).
  • The Spanish word for "pregnant" sounds a lot like "embarrass". One pen company supposedly ran into this problem when an advertising campaign in Mexico claimed that their pens would not leak in your pocket and get you pregnant.
    • Better yet: A lady went on a mission trip to Mexico (or somewhere). As she was wrapping up her work with the local church, they threw a dinner. At the dinner the pastor of the Mexican church made a long speech thanking her. When it was her turn to speak, she stood up and attempted to make a statement about how excessive the thanks were. What she actually said was, "Ahora el pastor me ha hizo embarazada." (translation: "Now the pastor has made me pregnant."
  • The Spanish word for "question" also sounds a lot like "pregnant." At least one high school Spanish book uses this in an extended gag dialogue to illustrate the dangers of false cognates.
  • There's an urban legend that Chevrolet (and their foreign counterparts) apparently came up against quite an issue when they attempted to market the Nova in Hispanic markets since "no va" means "doesn't go". In actuality, a Spanish speaker wouldn't read "Nova" as "no va", any more than an English speaker would read "notable" as "no table". Especially since "nova" is clearly related to 'nueva', meaning "new".
    • On the other hand, Chevrolet's decision to use the name "Nova" in _English_ speaking countries is interesting when one considers that "nova" in English means "massive explosion".
  • A somewhat more egregious example of this is the Mitsubishi Pajero which, despite its name coming from an Argentinian cat, had to have its name changed to Montero in Spanish speaking countries since pajero can also mean wanker.
  • Studio Ghibli ran into trouble while marketing Laputa: Castle in the Sky in Spanish-speaking countries. "La puta" means "the prostitute" and the name was likely deliberately chosen as satire when Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels. Not a word you want to find in the children's section, at any rate.
    • This is why Spanish children versions of the book (those that actually bother to tell what happened after Liliput, that is) change the floating island's name to "Lupata".
  • There is a section in New Mexico which in the original Spanish is "Peña blanca" or "White Rock". This has been Anglicized into "Pena blanca". This one change in letter means the section is now technically named "White Sorrow".
  • A smaller example is Gorillaz song 'El Manana', 'El Mañana' (The Tomorrow). It has no awkward Spanish meaning, however it just sounds silly, not to mention the fact that it was done so because their keyboard had no 'ñ'.
  • An Arabic Christian Orthodox bishop who had just been assigned to Chile (and his command of Spanish was still a bit lacking) gave his first sermon during his first mass in the country. He kept saying that a life of virtue would lead every man to "la libertad del pecado" ("freedom to sin") instead of "la liberación del pecado" ("freedom from sin").


Vietnamese[edit | hide]

  • A platoon of American soldiers were looking for their transport to take them back to base and asked a local man where the convey could be found. The man pointed to a hill and told them to go over the next hill where they found, instead of their convoy, an elephant grazing in a field. They went back to ask the man again and he pointed to the same hill where they'd found the elephant. Turns out that due to tonal differences, "Where is the convoy?" can be translated to "Where's the elephant?".


Welsh[edit | hide]

  • Swansea council wanted to divert heavy lorries along another route near an ASDA supermarket and being in Wales the road sign had to be bilingual. They e-mailed their translation department asking for the Welsh equivalent of the instruction 'No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only' and when the reply came back they created the sign and set it in place. Unfortunately the reply actually meant 'I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated'. See the sign here.
  1. Aside from Finnish and Estonian, chances are if a language is European, it's Indo-European. The Germanic languages (such as English, German, Dutch, and Swedish), Romance languages (such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian), and Celtic languages (the most common being Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh)
  2. The supposed error is similar to the English phrases, "I am Danish" vs. "I am a Danish".
  3. "Ich bin ein Berliner" could be read as a reference to jelly donuts (but only if you wanted to deliberately misconstrue it). Saying "Ich bin Berliner" could not.
  4. it turned out that the translator excelled in translating written Polish, but didn't have experience with translating spoken Polish at full speed