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The heroes are talking to someone, like a Ruthless Foreign Gangster or the head of a foreign Mega Corp, and they have to go through a translator to do so. After a few back and forths the foreigner will answer the heroes directly in the language of the work fluently, meaning they like to keep around a Completely Unnecessary Translator. Story wise, this is good to show that they are obviously foreign, what with the Russian/Chinese they were using, and that they are intelligent (dumb characters never pull this off beyond one or two lines in English). Behind the scenes, it's expensive and takes up too much screen time and effort to be plausible for very long.

Common with characters who Majored in Western Hypocrisy. Subverts Tactful Translation, as it turns out at least one person in the conversation knew exactly what the other really said the entire time.

Examples of Completely Unnecessary Translator include:


  • Star Wars: According to Word of God, Jabba the Hutt doesn't actually need an interpreter. He just likes to keep one around as a status symbol, and because he won't condescend to speaking any language but Huttese, though he is able to. The only exception in the novels was when Prince Xizor, head of a criminal empire that could have wiped out Jabba's enterprises in a fit of boredom, demanded he speak Basic. Unsurprisingly, the Hutt complied.
  • In Bananas, the dictator of San Marcos had a (heavily accented) translator when he met with the President of the U. S. -- even though the dictator was American Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen).
  • A variation occurs in Inglourious Basterds; Hans Landa asks a French farmer he is interrogating if they can switch to English during their conversation because his French is so bad and he knows the farmer is also conversant in English. He does this so that he can openly converse about the fact that he knows the man is hiding Jews in the house, supposing (correctly) that they won't understand what is being said.
  • Done in Team America: World Police with Kim Jong-Il and a terrorist wearing a fuzzy pink top hat.
  • In Harold and Kumar Harold's parents speak perfect English, but the translator assumes everything they say in English is Korean gibberish.
  • In The Sum of All Fears, Jack Ryan is brought to Russia and asked to work as a translator. The Russian in question asks Ryan if he's read his dossier. Ryan says he has, and starts listing biographical information about the man. Including the fact that in college, he got his highest grades in English. The Russian drops the act immediately after that.


  • Joseph, of The Bible: While there were probably many people for whom the translator proved indispensable, he had one case where he wasn't technically needed was when Joseph's own brothers showed up. He used the service anyway, as a means of hiding his identity.
  • In Out of the Silent Planet, the Mad Scientist tries to give a colonialist speech to some locals on another world, with the hero as interpreter. This Tactful Translation becomes downright farcical, because the local language can only represent colonialist sentiments, as intents to commit genocide, and incoherently at that.
  • One scene in A Song of Ice and Fire has Dany speaking with a slaver via a little girl slave, who provides a Tactful Translation of the slaver's comments. Dany, who speaks the language translated, alternates between amusement at the slave and disgust at the slaver.
  • Harry Potter: One of the foreign leaders does this to Fudge at the World Cup. His only reason is that watching Fudge mime everything "vos very funny."
  • In The Dresden Files book Changes, The Red King, through his translator, arranges a duel with Dresden. Once Dresden wins, the Red King goes back on his agreement, stating, IN PERFECT ENGLISH "We never even spoke to each other."
    • Harry should have seen it coming (though of course it wouldn't have helped him even if he had). Earlier in the series, Queen Mab speaks through one of her servants, and Harry wonders to himself if she's doing this so she can pull a "I never said that," trick on him later on. Eventually, he learns she's using the "translator" because she's really pissed at Harry, and if she spoke with her own voice, it would kill him, such was her rage.
  • In The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, this is done by Corlath, the Damarian king, to the Homelanders, as a way to buy a bit more time for thought during negotiations.
  • This is a major plot point of Eloise McGraw's Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Mara is a double agent posing as the princess's interpreter -- to a king who speaks her language. She initially convinces him that her role is to preserve his rank, but when he catches her changing his words, she is forced to reveal the truth (or part of it anyway).
  • Played for Laughs in The Marvelous Land of Oz, when Jack Pumpkinhead and the Scarecrow decide since they are from different countries in Oz, they must require a translator, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the conversation until they realize that they are speaking the same language.
  • Used in The Tamuli by at least two rulers, since the time for translation gives them a chance to think about what they're going to say.
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A variation occurs when The Professor Aronnax, Battle Butler Conseil and Idiot Hero Ned Land cannot understand the language used by their captors, every one of them try to talk to them in their respective native languages (French, German and English, respectively). When their captors didn’t react, Aronnax spoke Latin without success. In a second interview, the man that will present himself later as Captain Nemo told them:

 ...After some moments of silence, which not one of us dreamed of breaking, "Gentlemen," said he, in a calm and penetrating voice, "I speak French, English, German, and Latin equally well. I could, therefore, have answered you at our first interview, but I wished to know you first, then to reflect…”

  • In The Hunt for Red October, when Mancuso, Jonesy, and Ryan have finally managed to get on the titular submarine, the Americans and the Soviets just look at each other. Ramius notices Mancuso's prominently displayed sidearm and mentions it to his Number Two in Russian (fearing Mancuso is the "Buckaroo" type he'd been worried about), causing Ryan to chuckle, as he known Russian. Ramius questions him for a bit in Russian, then switches to fluent English. At least one other Soviet officer speaks English.

Live Action TV

  • Lost - The leader of the people at the temple speaks English, he just doesn't like doing it, necessitating a translator.
  • This was done in The West Wing they had to find someone who spoke an obscure language so they found a Cook who spoke it and Portuguese and had some translate the Portuguese, only to find out the guy spoke perfect English.
    • Also occurred in a US-China summit. The Chinese Premier spoke perfect English but all official meeting was conducted with a translator as per the usual diplomatic protocol. Switching language for anything more than pleasantries could be interpreted an act of subservience, and would lead to a loss of diplomatic face.
  • On Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip the investor from Macau pretended not to speak English, having his daughter or wife translate. He just likes messing with people.
  • In Stargate SG-1, when the Russian general was first introduced he came with a Tactful Translator. When Daniel Jackson revealed he understood everything the general was saying, the General then revealed he was fluent in English anyway.
  • Subverted in an episode of Yes Minister. Bernard is organising a funeral where the Prime Minister will have to speak to the leaders of foreign nations. He has to quickly clarify that translators won't be needed when the Prime Minister meets the leaders of certain nations - the English speaking ones. He then has to clarify again that this does include America.

Video Games

  • Taken to ridiculous extremes in Sam and Max Freelance Police: Abe Lincoln Must Die! The buffonish president at the beginning of the game confuses Sam and Max for translators, and needs them for some diplomacy. The diplomat in question is Whizzer, who can't speak any language except English! But the president insists that he can't understand a word Whizzer says, forcing Sam to help (or, as it's Sam and Max we're talking about here, deliberately mistranslate entirely to achieve his own goals.)
  • Strong Bads Cool Game for Attractive People includes a bizarre version of this. Strong Bad speaks English. Strong Mad, though hardly articulate, speaks English. Yet Strong Bad insists on using The Cheat, who doesn't speak English at all, to translate between them in Strong Badia the Free.

Visual Novels

  • Apollo Justice Ace Attorney: Lamirior pretends to need an interpreter even though she speaks English, as part of her "exotic singer" stage persona. She really does need his help for other languages, however.
    • Later, Machi Tobaye plays with the trope. He does know English, much to the surprise of several characters (including Lamorir), but not all that well.
  • Early in Shizune's route of Katawa Shoujo, Hisao learns sign language, but is hesitant to tell Shizune or use it to talk to her until he is able to use it well. He has Misha translate, despite her being fully aware that he is learning sign language. Unbeknownst to him, Misha has already told Shizune that Hisao is learning sign language.


  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja the narrator performs this service for the readers, translating Spanish words that don't need translation e.g. "senor", or in one panel translating "policia" as police... and providing a separate footnote for each of the four times he says it that page.

Western Animation

  • Kim Possible: the Japanese toy designer Nakasumi always communicates with Kim and Ron via his assistant, Miss Kyoko. It is eventually revealed that he speaks perfect English but just likes whispering into a pretty woman's ear.
  • In Frisky Dingo, ancient Chinese sweatshop worker Old Spice is eventually revealed to speak English after entire episodes of only communicating in Chinese and having Xander Crews (who knew he spoke English) translate for him. This only came to light after Killface insulted Old Spice's "car" (Crews misheard Old Spice, who was actually talking about his wife) and Crews berated him. "What does it matter what I say about his bloody car?" "Well, he speaks English!" "...You speak English?" "Yes!"

Real Life

  • Fidel Castro is fully conversant in English but always has a translator present in his interviews.
  • The inversion is fairly common in actual diplomacy. Not speaking a foreigner's language, even if you know it, is often a point of pride for state leaders, and as a result end up using translators even though they're not actually required. For instance, Angela Merkel certainly speaks English, but when she holds a press conference with Barack Obama or David Cameron, you can be damn sure that she will have a translator and speak in German . In private, this trope is played straight.
    • Once invoked by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at one meeting of the European Union Council of Ministers: after calling the meeting to order, he basically said, "OK, everybody here speaks English. Take off those silly headphones and let's get to business."
    • This can also be for reasons of accuracy and media. For instance, German TV will likely show parts of their head of state's visit to the US, and they don't want to have to translate back for the German public. Also, translators being well trained, may be able to translate faster and more accurately than a politician who speaks a second language.
      • Also, statements at a press conference are official statements where every nuance can turn out to be important and the subject of thorough interpretation in the media and elsewhere, so unless politicians are very competent and confident expressing themselves in a second language, it is simply common sense to use a translator. A welcome side-effect is that having the question translated first gives a person more time to consider the answer.
    • Spain has three languages spoken in some regions (As well as Spanish in the whole country, of course). Figureheads and important people of those regions will use their regional languages as much as possible, even though they know Spanish.
      • However, this extends to things such as restaurants having nearly a dozen dialects in their menus, because Spanish isn't agreed upon by everyone, and some would say was forced on them. Notably, some Catalans want to secede due to legitimate cultural differences, showing that this goes beyond trivial or unnecessary.
    • Shown in The Special Relationship biopic, Michael Sheen's Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister. His advisor tells him that the French President Jacques Chirac is on the line to congratulate him. Even though Chirac knows English, the advisor tells Blair that he'll probably speak French as a political statement. In response, Blair, who knows French, replies in English.
    • As mentioned in The West Wing example above, this is also done for the benefit of political sovereignty; while the representatives of two nations with different official languages might speak each other's language perfectly well, it can seem like an act of subservience for one party to use the other party's native tongue, so sticking to their official languages keeps things neutral.
  • Like the diplomatic examples, translators are often used by people appearing in judicial courts or other official settings. They may be fluent enough to get by day-to-day usage in their non-native language, but worry that it's not enough for legal or other specialised usage.
  • This trope hit Sergio Aragones at least once. Aragones had been booked for a convention in Texas, but the con staff took the running gags of Aragones' inability to speak English from his comics (especially Groo the Wanderer) as the truth. [1] They hired an interpreter to translate for Aragones without realizing that he spoke very good English. However, Aragones felt bad about the interpteter going home unpaid, and so he played along, letting the translator field questions, interpreting them into Spanish for Aragones, who would reply in Spanish for the translator to relay to the congoers.


  1. it was at one point Truth in Television, with "one point" being "up until the mid-'60s" -- when Aragones emigrated from Spain with his family they first settled in Mexico, before deciding to try his luck in America as a cartoonist. Along the way, he had not had an opportunkty to be proficient in English. At MAD, he at first tried to enlist Antonio Prohias (of Spy vs. Spy) to translate for him, but the Cuban-born Prohias was even less proficient in English than Aragones, and Aragones at times ended up having to try to translate for Prohias. However, by the '70s, he was conversant in English.
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