Scenes where there is a confusion of language in othe languages.

I can’t think of a good example right now, but I know I see quite a bit scenes that have a root cause in the fact that 2 English words or idioms sound like each other, which causes confusion. Sometimes the confusion just leads to a quick joke, other times it can have far-reaching plot implications. When translating to languages where such confusion could not possibly occur, what do film-makers generally do, and are there any good examples?

This seems to happen a lot when translating from Japanese to English, if for no reason other than the Japanese love puns. The preferred method for dealing with them is, if at all possible, substituting another phrase or word, even if it means rewriting the whole scene (and possibly later scenes) while keeping the tone and general implication – if not the precise meaning. Bonus points if you can keep it centered around the same general thing (i.e. if the pun is about “parrot” in the original language, you may make it about “bird” or “wings” in the translated language). Some really good translators have been known to pull off really faithful, yet still funny and non-awkward translations by just plain making up words (though obviously this also depends on the general tone of the work being translated too). Obviously this is difficult to do if the word play is heavily dependent on a visual cue.

The next preferred method, if the confusion isn’t plot important and no substitution can be found, is to substitute a different type of joke for the play on words, this keeps the light tone of the scene while sacrificing the faithfulness of the scene. Obviously this doesn’t work if the misunderstanding isn’t a joke. If it’s not a joke and/or plot important, you might be able to get away with just throwing it out and rewriting the dialogue around the limitation, but it’s very easy to fail at that if it’s important.

When that fails, there’s translator notes. Translator notes suck, they basically translate what was said literally and put a footnote on the page (or if it’s a video, put it alongside the subtitles/dialogue) where they say “This is a joke that’s based on a play on words that I can’t translate, allow me to explain why this was funny/makes sense in the original language.” This tends to be the hallmark of poor translators, and unfortunately is quite common in amateur/fan translations. Especially ones that have to translate a lot of text on a tight deadline.

I remember watching Spaceballs in French (or as they call it “La folle histoire de l’espace” = “The Crazy Space Story”). In one scene, the good guys jam the bad guys’ radar by throwing raspberry jam at the radar dish, and then there’s a joke about “giving us the raspberry”. They gave up on the idea of translating those puns and just said “Look, some jam! It’s raspberry!”

I always thought that the French film Noirs et blancs en couleur (Black and White in Color) was a pun on “Noirs and blancs en colère” (Blacks and Whites angry, which is a description of the movie). The English translation of the title uses the literal phrase.

I also had a film encyclopedia in French that said that, after the Virginia Rappe scandal, Fatty Arbuckle made “films educatifs.” The idea that Arbuckle would be making educational films after he was accused of rape* was amusing. The truth was that he was making films for Educational Pictures, a low-rent movie production company that specialized in short comedies.

*He was found not guilty, but in the public mind, he was.

Not a movie, but the translators of the Asterix comics did a great job of keeping the puns alive and/or inserting new ones to take their place.

One example is from the Simpsons episode “Skinner’s Sense of Snow”. The kids get snowed in at school and Bart digs a tunnel to escape, but Principal Skinner confronts him:

Principal Skinner: I know it looks like the path to freedom, but one collapse and: presto! You’ve got a snow casket.
Bart: I was gonna put buttresses in.
Principal Skinner: Gonna, wounna, shounna. Willie, destroy it.

The Portuguese translation (from here, not an official site) is “Ias, querias, devias”, which is just “you would have, you wanted to, you should have.” Loses the joke completely.

I’ll second the Asterix guys, possibly the best, but in writing you have more options.

In film/TV you need to fit the joke not only with the topic at hand but with the timing.
Two examples, one successful the other not quite.

Big Bang Theory
Howard says “in a fowl mood” playing, of course with foul.
In Spanish he says “me siento avestoso”. It’s not a real word, but it mixes “ave” (bird) with “apestoso” (bad-smelling).

Joey want Chandler to remember Thursday. So he says “Monday… one day, Tuesday…two day, Wednesday…what day?, Thursday…the third day.”
They went for the literal transaltion there and except for the stupidity of thinking that Thursday is the third day, the joke loses all its punch without the phonetic play.

This episode of ‘Frasier’ has a delightful scene where there is a ‘broken telephone’ game between Niles speaking only English, Frasier translating to Spanish, Marta translating from Spanish to German and Gunnar speaking only German.

The OP title reminded me of a scene in Cheers. Details fuzzy in memory but here’s the gist:

One character developed a hybrid of a rutabega and a beet. Trying to grow a market for it, experimented with recipes. At one point the character (I forget her name) was offering samples to customers as they entered the bar saying, “beet-abega fajita on a pita?” to which one hurried patron replied “No habla espanol”

In the novel The Galactic Gourmet, the offworld protagonists are puzzled why the locals don’t seem very happy when they are told that their injured people are in the hands of the surgeons and will soon be returned to them. It’s because locals don’t have surgeons and the offworlder’s translation device has been substituting the closest local word: “butcher”, and the locals think the offworlders are essentially telling them “don’t worry, we’ll be serving your friends up for dinner real soon now.”

In a similar vein, the human protagonists in March to the Stars misunderstand what a “Servant of the God” is due to an error in their translators, are puzzled why one of the very tough locals is terrified of the idea, and misunderstand what the locals mean when they say they demand a “servant” from among the humans. As a result they are surrounded when they finally recheck their translator and figure out that “Servant” is a mistranslation for someone who is served, as food in a cannibalistic ritual sacrifice. Serving, not Servant.

I think in Lethal Weapon 4, they have a hard time with Renminbi, the Chinese word for the people’s money.

I think they believe it is an English phrase and can’t parse what it is; however, I don’t remember what they think it might be.

Trying to one up Lucy are they? Not a chance!

There’s the definitive:

“Do not want!”***

Not quite what the OP wants, but I thought it was interesting at the time - when the movie The Accused came out, there was some difficulty in Spanish speaking countries about how the title should be translated, since there is no neutral article, and the whole point of the title in English was the ambiguity about who is being accused.

Gandalf’s difficulty in opening the door to Moria may count; he originally mistranslates “Say ‘friend’, and enter” as “Speak, friend, and enter” and ends up spending time trying to figure out the password instead of just saying “friend”.

In The Pirates of Penzance they start arguing about the pronunciation of “often” and “orphan”.

The Portuguese subtitles are icing on the cake.

It’s a good question; I’m not sure how this is performed in other languages.

Japanese uses both Chinese characters (kanji) and two phonetic systems. It’s possible for the same character to be pronounced a number of different ways, so when necessary you can write the pronunciation phonetically over the kanji. When I was living in Japan I sometimes saw this used in the subtitles of English language movies when there was a pun in the dialogue. My written Japanese is pretty minimal so I normally couldn’t keep up with the subtitles, but I assume this technique at least made it possible to indicate that a pun had occurred even if it didn’t work in translation.

I took a class on classical Greek drama in college, and I remember the Aristophanes comedies we read sometimes had footnotes explaining that the translator had come up with a pun in English to replace an untranslatable Greek pun. The example that sticks in my mind was a drunk character trying to say “Zeus” but slurring it so it sounded like a Greek word for IIRC a wine jug. (It was definitely something wine related.) In the English text it had him saying “juice” instead of “Zeus”, which isn’t hilarious or anything but the two words do sound alike and it’s reasonably close to the original in meaning.

I don’t know if this fits, but, when I saw Downfall, with subtitles, I thought it was interesting that near the end, one of the characters says “les joux son fait”. That’s not German, but French, but they subtitled it as though it were normal German dialogue. Also interesting that the guy chose the French phrase to tell Hitler that the jig is up (not a literal translation but conveys the meaning).