Tuesday, August 11, 2009


No, not Scarlett Johansson. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State.

For the second time in only six months, Secretary Clinton has gotten herself lost in translation. It’s embarrassing and worse – it’s a sign of real incompetence and a serious lack of attention to detail. Plus, it defeats the very idea of diplomacy.

In March, when she was still brand new on the job, Secy. Clinton visited Russia. The purpose of her Russian trip was to “reset” relations between the two great powers. She said that – not me. And that’s just fine. Nothing wrong with that as a diplomatic objective. As a symbolic gesture in that direction she gave the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, a gimmick gift. It was a button – a red button somewhat reminiscent perhaps of a nuclear launch button – only this one said, in English beneath the button - “RESET.” Just above the button was supposed to be the same word in Russian. That’s what they thought anyway. This official present, from the United States Secretary of State, used the wrong Russian word for “reset.”

Foreign Minister Levrov looked at the gift and promptly told Secretary Clinton that the Russian word she used was incorrect. It was actually the Russian word for “overcharge” as in paying too much. What Mrs. Clinton had actually done was tell the Russians that while we were “resetting” our approach to them, they would find this new diplomacy very costly. Not exactly what she had in mind.

Mr. Levrov, thankfully, spoke perfect English and did not require the services of a translator to notice this error or to realize it was a mistake. Secy. Clinton, like all her predecessors, spoke no Russian at all. Her attempt at humor had been undercut at best and turned into a diplomatic disaster at worst by whoever had been entrusted with the translation. The moment, naturally, was ruined. Lost in translation.

Another such moment was ruined yesterday in Congo in West Africa when Secretary Clinton – who also speaks zero French – thought an African student had asked her a question about her husband, President Bill Clinton, when in fact he had not – he had asked about the current President, Mr. Obama, not the former one. As Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton is the spokesperson for the current President and therefore such a question was perfectly in order and completely appropriate. However, since the Secretary received a bad translation, she ended up losing her composure and scolding the student for asking about husband. If you’ve seen the video, you know she also ripped her translation earphones from her ears and was thus unable to hear if the translator made the proper correction. We can hear the student trying to do that, but he was not speaking English so how could we expect Mrs. Clinton to understand? Instead, she blew her cool.

“My husband is not the Secretary of State,” she angrily barked. “I am.”

It was embarrassing… again. Lost in translation.

The fact that Americans, especially those in sensitive international positions, rarely if ever speak any language except English is not a new development and translation problems, as a result, are also not new.

Remember Khrushchev’s famous 1956 rant in the UN General Assembly, “We will bury you!” He didn’t really say that. Instead he used a very familiar Russian idiom, one any Russian would have recognized, as “We will outlive you!” Under the circumstances of the Cold War and the superpower nuclear standoff, that’s a pretty big difference. Lost in translation.

When President John F. Kennedy made his stirring speech in defense of West Germany's Berlin – he too was mistranslated. He did not shout out, with gallant defiance, “I am a Berliner!” He did not signal his oneness with the adoring German crowd. That’s not what he said at all. The proper German translation would have been – “I am a jelly doughnut!” Forget the American media myth. That’s the truth. You could look it up. Good thing he wasn't in Hamburg. Lost in translation.

Or, how about President Jimmy Carter’s faux paus in December 1977 when he arrived on a State Visit to Poland. Carter had wanted to say, “I am excited to be here in Poland.” But of course, he spoke not a word of Polish. He relied totally upon his translator. Rather than bring along a Polish language expert from the State Department – assuming we had one – President Carter gave the Polish translator job to the young son of a family friend. I’m not kidding. He really did. Yes, he did.

So, in his Polish airport arrival remarks, the President of the United States said – according to the correct Polish translation – that he was so “excited” to be in Poland he stood before them with an erection, a hard-on, a woody of diplomatic proportions. It was all in the choice of Polish words for “excited.” Lost in translation.

American business has no better record than do our diplomats or Presidents. General Motors was unable to sell its Buick LaCrosse sedan in Quebec, Canada because the French word “LaCrosse” was commonly used in that French-speaking province by young men to signify their desire to jerk-off. Buick scampered to withdraw the brand from showrooms across Quebec, but not until it had been lost in translation.

Similarly, the corporation selling the toothbrush substitute, Waterpik, tried to market it in Denmark with devastating effect. Why? The Danish translation they employed was Vandpik, a literal choice of the Danish word for water – vand – together with their own pik. Unfortunately for them, to the Danes the word vandpik referred to the kind of erection men commonly have when they first wakeup in the morning. It was very funny – to the Danes – but they didn’t run out and buy the product. They were not eager to put the Vandpik in their mouths. Lost in translation.

Perhaps you’ve seen the nerdy Frank Perdue who serves as the ad spokesman for his family’s chicken business. The company slogan was “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” They banked on the rough-edged slogan and the high nerd-quality of Mr. Perdue to produce the necessary irony. Worked just fine where consumers spoke English. But, in Mexico irony has a different name and the translation that appeared on their television and on billboards across the Mexican landscape said, “It takes a hard man to get a chicken aroused.” Lost in translation.

Perhaps the most arrogant of all such examples is the Nike television ad – shown here the United States – in which a bunch of Sambura tribesmen from Kenya are shown running in the Kenyan hills – as the Kenyans are world famous for – all of them wearing Nike running shoes. As the group of Kenyans runs past the cameras, one of the runners shouts out something in his native language. Nike left that piece of audio in the TV spot they ran on American television. What did the African runner yell out? “I do not like these shoes,” he said. “Give me my own shoes!” Nike, of course, figured no one seeing the ad here in the USA would ever know what the man really said. Lost, more like vanished, in translation.

Our Secretary of State – currently Hillary Rodham Clinton – has an obligation to get it right. She is traveling around the world representing us. The least she can do is make sure she brings along an adequate translator. Otherwise, American diplomacy and – in this instance – her own personal dignity gets lost in translation.

1 comment:

chie said...

I'm guessing it only gets worse when language barriers come into play as well. It's rather easy to fall into the trap of exacerbating the pitfalls of the trade itself by trying to get the linguistic side of it handled in-house by staff who aren't trained linguists.
It might look like an unnecessary cost increase at first glance, but I'd always recommend using language professionals for English translation , the risk you run without them is sure to cost you much more in the end.