What’s So Funny? The Hilarious (and Serious) Repercussions of Mistranslations


What happens when a native speaker communicates in or translates into another language… and no one knows what he/she is saying?

Imagine being able to say anything to anyone with no repercussions. Foreign language speakers frequently find themselves isolated from peers with whom to converse, which may be challenging at times–but also, perhaps, liberating. When captured on film, these scenarios prove to be quite entertaining.

There Are No Subtitles!

Salon Magazine once researched the production of several films in which directors vaguely instructed foreign actors to “say something” in their native tongue, leaning on their own (and their assumed audience’s) ignorance of a different culture to lend a scene some sense of “authenticity.”

When films have chosen to use foreign language as a sort of auditory scenery, actors subsequently used their relegation to, essentially, an ethnic prop, as an opportunity to go very much off script–often with hilarious results.

In Zulu (1964), the director asked a film extra to speak in the Zulu tongue while enthusiastically worshipping his king. Audience members who understand Zulu crack up at the intended dramatic moment, as the actor prostrates himself in front of the king and basically exclaims “Kiss my behind.”

Very similarly, in some Westerns, Native American actors working as extras, when instructed to speak their native languages, also take advantage to make jokes or even complain about the director–much to the enjoyment of Native American audiences.

At times, languages are used completely out of context with no explanation. In Erik the Viking (1989), the oarsman taskmaster yells at the other oarsmen, for no clear reason, in Japanese. This translation of what is actually being said is from TV Tropes:

Row! Row! You incomprehensible, horizontal-eyed, Western trouser-wearers! Eurgh! You all look the same to me! How I abominate your milk drinking and your lack of ancestor-worship, and your failure to eat your lunch out of little boxes! SILENCE! Unceremonious rice-pudding eaters! How I despise your lack of subtlety and your joined-up writing! You, who have never committed ritual suicide in your lives!

While many filmmakers embrace this kind of improvisational comedy and surrender some control, others may demand adherence to the exact wording of their script. In this case, the director must provide phrases for the actors to translate into his/her native language.

Directors guarantee the most control by learning the language, or at the very least some target phrases. As any leader would recognize, there is no substitute for being able to, quite literally, speak the language. Effective work requires clear and honest communication and learning to speak the same tongue is an irrefutable benefit to any production.

Outside the Entertainment Industry

In the film industry, “interpreters and translators” sometimes take certain liberties. The ramifications of doing so are relatively small, especially with less widely spoken languages.

However, outside of entertainment and, specifically in politics, even a small linguistic difference can completely change an entire conversation. An imperfect translation, intended or not, can have major consequences.

In treaties, mistranslations and misinterpretations have historically led to disaster. According to New Zealand History, in an 1840 treaty between the British and the Maoris, interpreters translated “sovereignty” as “kawanatanga” or “governance,” and “properties” as “taonga” or “treasures.” The Maoris misunderstood key points of the agreement and ultimately forfeited more than they intended.

Another notorious slip-up occurred in a 1970 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. Sato promised to “look into [an] issue,” but the Japanese phrase, when translated literally, only communicates a vague effort to “try his best.” The misunderstanding soured relations between the two countries.

While translators and their work are more closely monitored now, linguistic fraud still takes place. At a recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the sign language interpreter did not speak sign language at all and nonsensically mimed with his hands for the duration of the event.

The Telegraph reports how this caused an immediate scandal and is a particularly poignant example of how someone can abuse the translation of a less widely spoken language for dubious purposes.

Even the best and most reliable interpreter in the world is no substitute for the guaranteed security and satisfaction of a direct conversation. Everyone might not be able to speak every language, but seizing an opportunity to learn how to speak and comprehend the world in more than just one native tongue can be nothing but lucrative. Contact Us to take control by signing up for a tutor or taking a Language Level Test in a language you know to see how you’re getting along.