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"I was soon relieved of my position. I had an unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean. So now I very accurately translate other people's lies."
Simon Graham describes being a translator in The Last Samurai

It often happens that in international business, politics, or two sides meeting before a battle, that a translator is needed for the two (or more) sides to understand each other. It just as often happens that one side will either intentionally or unintentionally say something insulting, offensive, personally distasteful to someone on the other side, engage in a bit of Cultural Posturing, or make an outright threat that would either sabotage the talks or needlessly aggravate the other side. As the translator what do you do? Do you repeat all that accurately and maybe end any chance of agreement, not to mention possibly pissing off your boss? (Generally not a good idea if you happen to be translating for the Big Bad, by the way.)

No, if you're smart, you choose to do a Tactful Translation, translating the spirit of what was said or is important, while leaving out all the insulting, offensive, or just plain stupid stuff that would only get in the way or complicate things. Odds are that afterward all the sides will go home feeling pleased with themselves or like they really showed those other guys, while only the translator(s) will know just why that whole deal worked out without turning into a bloodbath.

Often winds up looking like a case of Translation: "Yes". May be the job of a Completely Unnecessary Translator.

Examples of Tactful Translation include:

Anime and Manga


 Japan: Go. Away.

Interpreter: It's nice that you have such interesting pursuits, but please pursue them at your own residence.


 Mochi: Get out of my sight! Holy Bitch!

translation: I'm glad you like it.

  • An episode of Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu features a 'negotiation' session between Sousuke, an ex-mujaheddin Child Soldier who tends to speak in Spock Speak, and a Delinquent representing a gang who's kidnapped one of his friends. Sousuke is unable to understand the thug's street jargon and extremely heavy accent, prompting the Student Council President to step in and calmly translate it into Spock Speak. The show then goes on to invert the trope when Sousuke's equally formal reply flies right over the thug's head -- so the Student Council President translates it into a series of crude threats completely deadpan, using the exact same tone of voice he used when doing the formal translation.

 Sousuke: I see. Then please convey this to him, if you would: My military might exceeds yours by an overwhelming margin, so attempts at revenge would be a mere waste of efforts.

Student Council President: Hm. **To thug** Now listen you punk, there is no way you'd beat me. So step off, 'cuz you ain't even got one chance in a billion, you loser bi-atch.

Sousuke: Your language skills are outstanding, your excellency!

Student Council President: Oh, it's nothing, only what I've gleamed in books. I'm... Not certain he'll understand my translation, though...

  • Black Lagoon's Rock tries to do this to the Japanese with whom Balalaika is trying to speak, until she catches on and insists he take fewer creative liberties.
  • In the Basara appendix Kanata Sakaki does this, to hide Shuri's rudeness. We aren’t told what he translates it to, though.

Fan Fiction

  • In the Katawa Shoujo fanfic, Weekend At Hisaos, Hisao ends up doing this for his deaf girlfriend Shizune in a meeting with his old friends when the conversation turns to their respective Student Councils. Statements in brackets are in sign language.


Hisao:[Be nice.]

Shizune: [I am being nice. Still, you, Misha, and I did ten times more work than that, with only the three of us.]

Ryoko: "What's she saying, Hisao?"

Hisao: "Oh. Um. Shizune's saying that our student council was much smaller. It was a lot of hard work."



  • Referenced in Gladiator when the Germanic tribes answer the offer of Maximus' messenger by sending his headless body back to the Romans tied to his horse, while the leader of the tribe appears on a hill, shouting at the Romans and tossing the head of the messenger to the ground.

 Maximus: They say no.

  • In the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, Hook captures Tigerlily and asks her, (with Smee translating) if she's seen Peter Pan. Tigerlily responds with visible anger and disgust, complete with spitting at Hook. Smee translates this as "She says 'sorry, but no.'"
  • Used by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator here.
  • In the Guy Ritchie film Revolver, there's a scene where Lord John endlessly abuses Macha's men in Cantonese, while the translator expresses this in very to the point and non-offensive words.
  • In Speed, Alan Ruck's character, relaying Keanu's responses via walkie talkie to bomb control, relays a frustrated "Oh, fuck me!" as "Oh darn."
  • In Ip Man, after the titular character's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against ten Japanese black belts, the general, suitably impressed by his skill, gives him his prize of rice and asks him to come again. Ip Man responds by telling the translator that he didn't come for the rice, implying he just came to kick their asses. The translator simply tells the general that Ip Man said he will come again. This is immediately followed up by another example: The general asks for Ip Man's name, and the latter replies that he is 'just a Chinese person', to which the translator tells the general that 'his name is Ip Man'.
  • Brazilian movie "Meu nome Não é Johnny" ("My name isn't Johnny") featured a middle-class guy that ended up in prison due to drug sale and abuse. He knew English, and, as his fellow prisoners had to deal with American prisoners (in none-too-friendly talks), he had to interpret between them and tried to do this. It went downhill when one of the Brazilian inmates remarked he knew what "fuck you" means.
  • Battlefield Earth, The Film of the Book: Terl makes a long threat (which we hear in English), and Jonnie translates as "Try to run, he'll kill us". Terl hangs a lampshade immediately after.
  • Slightly inverted in Fort Apache, in that Cochise calls the Indian agent Meachum "un hombre malvado, que no dice la verdad," which Sergeant Beaufort renders as "a yellow-bellied polecat of dubious antecedents and conjectural progeny."
  • Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels amusingly plays with this trope while combining it with Fun with Subtitles. When one gangster is informing another about infamous Yardie kingpin Rory Breaker his lines (which are in a a deep slang and would be all but incomprehensible in North America) get subtitled. As the character narrates about some poor dumb bastard confronting Rory at a bar, changing the channel Rory was watching and saying "Now fuck off and watch it somewhere else" the subtitles show up with "Please remove yourself from this bar". Just a few seconds later, however, the trope is gleefully inverted, as the narrator tells about how Rory "Walks straight past the jam rolls who are ready for action" and the subtitles translate this as "He walks straight past the arseholes". A couple of seconds after that there is more bickering between Rory and the other guy that involves cursing at each other and it gets translated far more politely than how it was actually said. Enjoy it for yourself here.
  • Early in the 1992 Last of the Mohicans film, there's a bit where Magua, (who is still pretending to be an English ally at the time, but is leading them into an ambush) and Major Heyward get into an argument.

 Duncan: You there, Scout! We must rest soon, the women are tired.

Magua: No, two leagues, better water. We stop there.

Duncan: No, we'll stop in the glade just ahead. When the ladies are rested, we will proceed. Do you understand?

Magua: [speaking Huron] Magua understands that the white man is a dog to his women. When they are tired, he puts down his tomahawk to feed their laziness.

Duncan: [a distinct edge to his voice] Excuse me, what did you say?

Magua: Magua said... I understand English, very well.

  • In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus is unimpressed with Ian's attempt to wish him a happy Easter ("Cheestro Nasty!"), and mutters in Greek, "My people were writing philosophy when your people were still swinging in trees." At Ian's confused look, Toula says, "He likes you."
  • The Last Samurai. Simon Graham is a westerner who has lived as a translator in Japan for quite some time. He briefly describes being let go from the British trade mission because he told the truth instead of lying politely. As he describes it, what he now does instead is "Very accurately translate other people's lies."
  • A more serious use of this trope occurs in The Beast of War (1988), set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet tank commander orders a villager to be placed in front of his tank-track to encourage him to talk. His wife comes running up and is grabbed by the Afghan translator. I can't remember the exact words but it goes something like this:

 Translator (in Pashtu): "Get out of here, woman. This one prefers bullets to words!"

Wife (struggling): "You dirty traitor, tell this Russian pig to let my husband go!"

Translator (in English (Russian)): "Sir, this woman respectfully requests you release her husband."

Tank Commander: "Ask him where the rebels are."

Villager: "Mujahadeen are all around you! They will kill every one of you!"

Translator: "He says he doesn't know."

The tank commander isn't fooled, and drives over the villager.

  • Black Rain. Nick's partner Charlies does this as a Running Gag (e.g. Nick: "I like to be kissed before I'm fucked!" Charlie: "Foreplay") starting with this scene.

 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."

  • Happens at the climax of The Russians Are Coming. One of the sub's officers understands both English and Russian, and so is the de facto translator. When the police chief tells the submarine captain that he is under arrest, and the officer translates, the captain laughs, then starts swearing in Russian. The officer translates this as, "He is very angry...he thinks you're an idiot."
  • Disney's Aladdin. While Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are together in his hideout, Abu is annoyed when Aladdin gives Jasmine his apple.

 Princess: My father's forcing me to get married.

Aladdin: That's...that's awful! [Abu tries to take back the apple] Abu!

Abu: [Chitters and gestures angrily]

Princess: What?

Aladdin: Abu says that...[thinks better of it]...that's not fair.

Abu: [puzzled look]

Princess: [disbelievingly] Oh did he?

Aladdin: Yeah, of course.

  • Averted in Patton; when at the joint celebration with the Russians, Patton is offered a drink. His response? "I won't drink with that Russian son of a bitch." The translator, obviously, states that he cannot say such a thing, but Patton tells him to say it, "word for word." After doing so, the Russian general responds back, "I also think YOU are a son of a bitch." That is something Patton will drink to, one son of a bitch to another.
  • Discussed in The Interpreter. Nicole Kidman's character, an interpreter for the United Nations, states that she must always keep this in mind or risk poisoning international relations. For example, she will always refer to someone as having "gone".
  • In Innerspace, when Jack first tells the lab that Tuck is inside him, they start asking Tuck questions, which he can hear. But, of course, Jack has to repeat Tuck's responses. One lab guy assures Tuck that they will get him out and Tuck replies "You better, you two faced son of a..." and Jack repeats "He says thank you."
  • Much like the Patton example, C3P0 tries to smooth things while working for Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, yet Jabba is impressed and becomes more agreeable when the bounty hunter theatens him with a thermal detonator.
  • In Apollo 13:

 William Pogue, CAPCOM: Aquarius, watch that middle gimbal. We don't want you tumbling off into space.

Jim Lovell: Freddo, inform Houston I'm well aware of the God-damned gimbals!

Fred Haise: [calmly] Roger that, Houston.


 Grandma: (Spanish, subtitled) Hot Stuff can shake his tail feather, but he knows chickenshit about rhythm.

Fran: Grandma wants to teach us.



  • A Soviet joke, that goes like this: an Italian movie has been translated into Russian. The very first scene gives us an angry naked woman lying on the bed and an embarassed naked man who is quickly getting dressed.

 The woman: Castrato! Impotento!

The translator: Go away, I don't love you anymore!



  • The Warlord Chronicles gives us a page quote when the Boisterous Bruiser Saxon warrior king Aelle faces off with a coalition of Briton princes, generals, and warlords. When called upon to surrender and offered mercy, Aelle responds with an incredibly long-winded and detailed set of threats, tortures and torments toward every notable figure on the British side. (Believe it or not, the version on the quote page is much shorter than the full thing). The translator's version is simply "He says no." The trope also gets lampshaded, as right after Derfel translates Aelle's speech, Meurig responds "Surely he said more than that?" The Old Soldier Sagramor, who has been doing this sort of thing for his almost his entire life, just tells Meurig "You don't want to know what he really said."
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, when Daenerys negotiates for an army of Unsullied in Astapor one of the merchants insults her repeatedly and uses lewd and sexist comments towards her, but his slave translates this much more politely. Of course, neither the slave nor the merchant realize at that point that Dany actually does speak their language...
    • In an earlier book by the same author, Windhaven, someone is executed for doing this. She was carrying very rude verbal messages between two places at risk of war, and made them a bit more polite. When her employer found out he had her killed, and though he was removed from his position for insanity shortly thereafter, he was considered within his rights to do so. They take the job of delivering the exact message seriously.
  • A large part of Bren Cameron's job in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner-verse, as the only person authorized by treaty to translate between a human settlement and the government of the other intelligent species on the planet. Even when, as in later books, he's not the only person who can translate, his skill at tact and diplomacy is exceptionally valuable.
  • Comes up in the X Wing Series. Wedge Antilles flies the fake Falcon, Millenium Falsehood with Chewbacca as copilot, but since he doesn't understand the Wookiee, he brings along a translator droid. Chewbacca knows Basic and takes offense to Squeaky not translating the more colorful elements of his speech.
  • The Devil's Dictionary defines an interpreter as "one who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter's advantage for the other to have said".
  • The non-fiction book Smokescreen by Robert Sabbag (about the dope smuggling trade) relates an incident where a Cuban hitman was sent with the protagonist Alan Long to discuss the matter of 2000 pounds of pot that drug boss Jimmy Alvarez believed had been ripped off by Long's friend Lee Carlyle. Carlyle turns up for the meeting drunk and immediately starts jabbing his finger in the hitman's face and screaming insults. Fortunately the hitman does not speak English.

 Carlyle: "You Cuban motherfuckers! You Cuban motherfuckers!"

Hitman (placing a hand on his .38): "What did he say?"

Long (placing his hand firmly on top of the hitman's): "He is telling you of the respect he has for the Cuban people."

Hitman: "I don't think that is what he is saying."

(Continuing stream of abuse from Carlyle)

Long: He understands Jimmy's position, and he fully intends to pay."

Carlyle: "Did you tell him what I just said?"

Long: "Word for word."

(Carlyle storms off. Long smiles reassuringly at the hitman.)

Long: "Bueno!"

  • Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein. One of the Patrolmen is getting annoyed over the amount of time the Venusians are taking to free their rocketship from the mud. Their matriach replies "Tell your daughter (all intelligent Venusians are female, so assume the same of humans) to catch her fish and I shall catch mine". When the Patrolman replies, "All right, keep your shirt on" his companion translates this as "My daughter thanks thee for your advice."
  • Funnily subverted in The Dresden Files. In Changes, Dresden meets the Red King, who does not speak English. An unfortunate vamp is called to translate, and tries to do a tactful translation. She gets smacked by the Red King, and while he can't speak the local language, Dresden can get the gist that he's telling the poor girl "Translate it the way he says it, damn it."
  • Ephraim Kishon once did this for a fight between one of his Hungarian relatives and a shopkeeper. He did it so well that they made peace. At the end, he thought he should try the same thing with the USA and the Soviet Union.
  • The title character in Mara Daughter of the Nile tries to do this when the first meeting between the king and the foreign princess he is betrothed to doesn't go so well. Unfortunately for Mara, she forgot that the king also speaks Babylonian.

Live Action TV

  • Used in a Spike Milligan sketch where Milligan, as David Attenborough, explores the primitive Cockney tribes of London. A Cockney taxi driver rattles off a series of complaints about his customers in perfectly understandable English, which Milligan/Attenborough's interpreter translates as "The gods are angry".
  • In Lost there's a scene in which Sayid is translating questions and responses between an American sergeant and a countryman of his. When his countryman's responses do nothing but tell Sayid to kill every American soldier in the room holding them captive, Sayid translates this as "He doesn't know."
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Dagger of the Mind", after Spock relates the state and warning of a seemingly mentally ill patient to Kirk via communicator, the nearby Dr. Noelle says, "Well, that's foolish!" Her being further away, Spock doesn't hear all of the comment and asks Kirk to repeat it, prompting him to say, "Tell McCoy the technical expert he sent along with me insists that any concern is... unjustified."
  • Melinda from Ghost Whisperer tends to carefully reinterpret what the dead are really saying.
  • In the Crusade episode The Needs Of Earth, an alien leader's translator explains to Captain Gideon that their leaders deliberately avoid learning other languages in order to avoid compromises to their moral and intellectual purity. The following exchange ensues:

 Gideon: Really? [pause] Tell your boss he's an ass.

(translator whispers in leader's ear)

Translator: I told him you were honored and deeply humbled to have a being of such high moral character aboard your ship.

Gideon: Do you do this a lot? Lie to protect his ego?

Translator: All the time. It's politics....and self preservation.

  • Magnificently averted in Boardwalk Empire, where a Jewish criminal with a bad gunshot wound is brought to interrogation in a dentist's office. He insults the federal agent interrogating him in Yiddish - both the mother of the dentist's patient and the agent's deputy speak it, and provide a comically tactless translation.

 Middle aged Jewish woman: He says you should fuck your grandmother... with your faggot penis!

Agent Sebso: Little faggot penis.

  • The West Wing averts this regarding the deaf pollster Joey Lucas, whose translators always say exactly what she signs. Her (well, her translator's) first line involved calling Josh an "unmitigated jackass". It also lead to a few funny moments.

 Joey (through Kenny): Joshua Lyman, you have the cutest little butt in professional politics.

Josh: Kenny, that really better have been her talking.


Newspaper Comics

  • This was the original purpose of Honey Huan in Doonesbury. When Duke Harris was the American ambassador to China, she was assigned as his translator and "softened" most of his speeches into something more diplomatic. She sometimes did this while translating Chinese officials to him as well.
    • Best example is during the first Duke's speech to a Chinese audience. Part of the translation is:

  Honey Huan: "Now is saying a joke. This is the climax... here is the punchline... laugh."

  • In one Bloom County strip, Steve Dallas dictates a letter to a deadbeat (and evidently quite violent) client who has yet to pay his legal fees. Opus, who's taking the dictation, changes it from a profanity-laced tirade to a gentle reminder.

 Steve: PS: Have you strangled your wife yet, psycho-brain?

Opus (writing): PS: Give Mary Lou a hug for me!

  • Inverted in Corporal Kev, which ran only in the U.S. military's newspaper Stars and Stripes in the early 1980s, when Kev is picked to translate for a joint exercise between American and French tank troops.

 American officer: Introduce me and tell him I'm looking forward to the exercise!

Kev (supposedly in French): He says you're a wimp and your tanks are junk...

French officer (supposedly in French): Tell him I am shocked at this outburst!

Kev: He says you have a face like a goat, and your men play with dolls!

As the two officers growl at each other, nose to nose, Kev thinks, "I'm gonna enjoy this!"


Video Games

  • The deaf/mute Shizune from Katawa Shoujo naturally needs everything translated for her, using either her best friend Misha or the protagonist Hisao. Both generally translate accurately except in the case of Shizune's Arch Enemy Lilly, where Hisao is frequently guilty of trying to avert a fight between the two women by giving hilariously inaccurate translations (which fool neither of them).
    • Lilly, however, is fooled once in Shizune's route, when Hisao translates one of Shizune's sarcastic comments into something completely different. He questions how ethical it is to do that, but they get through the fishing trip without fighting, which pleases him.

 Lilly: I have no idea how to fish.

Shizune: (signing) [How magnanimous of you, Lilly.]

Hisao: Shizune says you should at least try. It might turn out to be fun.

Lilly: Very well. Akira, how do you use this?




Real Life

  • Many business and political affairs only get resolved because the translators know how to soothe out what they're translating, or merely how to adapt it to different cultural sensitivities.
    • It works like that in text, as well. For tact or not, a good translator sometimes attains a better text than the original.
    • Tactful translations are downright vital when translating between low context cultures (the U.S.) where language is more literal and high context cultures (for example, Japan) where language is much more nuanced based on situation, context, and social standing. A simple question or request, without further elaboration, might be seen as unspeakably blunt or insultingly evasive. For example, here's how one of these might go:

 American foreman: Look, boss, it's gonna be damn near impossible to meet this deadline without more men!

Translator: Smith-san, with respect, suggests that despite his most earnest efforts, the deadline may not be met on time and humbly requests additional manpower to meet the company's goals.

Japanese manager: With regret, we must decline the request, but believe that with additional determination, it would be possible to meet our goals. The extra effort devoted to this task will certainly not go unrewarded.

Translator: No can do, but there's pizza and ice cream (or, perhaps, a bonus) in it for you if you do the job.

  • There's also a joke floating around that inverts this trope:
    • A gangster takes a translator to visit the shop of a man, whose brother has just died. He had taken money from the gangster and hid it away somewhere - and the gangster assumed he had told his only living relative, his brother. But the brother only spoke Italian, you see, which is why a translator was needed.

      When the two got to the shop, the gangster asks the translator to translate everything exactly - so he does. "Do you know where your brother hid our money?", the gangster asks, and the man answers "No." This goes on for a while, the translator pausing to make sure he has everything correct before he translates. Eventually, getting fed-up, the gangster pulls out his gun and snarls. "Listen, if you don't tell me where that money is, I'll shoot you in the head!" The translator tells the man this, who confesses; it's in the back-yard of his house, beneath the apple tree, and the gangster can have it back; he doesn't need it!

      The translator pauses, and says, "He says you don't have the balls to shoot him, boss."
  • A bit of office humor involves a miserable idea which gets lousy feedback among the workers ("It is a crock of shit, and it stinketh!") slowly being transmuted by tactful translation up the corporate ladder, until the CEO hears nothing but praise and declares it to be good. Thus the plan becomes policy; or to put it another way, shit happens.