Translation 8. Fluency in foreign languages. The case of Dr Condoleezza Rice

Three days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s momentary embarrassment about the Reset button on 9 March 2009 (see my brief earlier blog), the official American mistranslation of the name on the diplomatic gift to the Russian Foreign Minister was still garnering media news. Joseph Curl, of The Washington Times (not to be confused with the more prestigious Washington Post) reported, in an article titled ‘State, media ‘button’ lips over Russian gaffe’, that he had tried in vain to get an explanation from the State Department of how such an error could have been made. Towards the end of his article, Curl reports the concern of Roger Aranof (of the organisation Accuracy in Media) that no media representative had asked a question at Press briefings after the unfortunate linguistic gaffe. He quotes Aranof as saying, “If this had happened in the Bush administration, to President Bush in particular or even to Condi Rice, it would have gotten a whole lot more publicity and ridicule by the mainstream media.” To which Curl adds this comment, “Then again, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would likely have caught the mistake – she’s fluent in Russian.” (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/mar/12/state-media-button-lips-over-russian-gaffe/?page=2)

The latter is the latest of hundreds (probably thousands) of echoes in the media and on the Internet of the assertion that Dr Condoleezza Rice (Hillary Clinton’s predecessor as Secretary of State) is “fluent in Russian”, or an “expert in the Russian language”, and speaks French, German and Spanish (at unspecified levels). To my knowledge Rice has neither claimed nor disowned this significant ability. Furthermore, during her recent four years of intense exposure as Secretary of State to the news cameras and microphones at international meetings and official discussions with foreigners, I cannot recall her saying anything on camera in Russian.

Preliminary comment on fluency, in foreign or non-native languages

Simple references to fluency in a foreign language (FL) and the epithet ‘fluent in language X’ are basically vague and subjective judgements. Both words derive from the base meaning of ‘to flow’ (fluid, etc.) They refer to a person’s proficiency in a language, often depending on the linguistic background and proficiency in foreign languages of the person making the judgement. As commonly used to describe people, especially in the Anglophone media and by persons who do not speak or read foreign languages (including many journalists), both terms are very complimentary and tend to imply a high degree of FL proficiency and also tend to relate to proficiency in comprehending and using the spoken FL. However, there are other important fluencies: proficiency in reading and writing. In intellectual and professional life, notably in the academic world, the latter pair of proficiencies are of much more practical and professional use and it is these language aspects which are emphasised on graduate language courses leading to a relevant PhD speciality, for example Russian (or, formerly Soviet) studies. The main foreign language career need of graduates will normally be to read and assess written texts in the foreign language; spoken proficiency is therefore often a minor consideration and tends to be at a lower and more practical conversational level. This is a well known fact of academic life.

Assessing fluency (proficiency) is a much more complex matter. The European Union (or Community) of 27 nations, which conducts so much of its voluminous political and economic business in multiple languages (at astronomical expense), offers a very sophisticated table of degrees of expertise with a (foreign) language. There are 6 grades, from A1 (elementary) to C2 (near native ability). (http://europass.cedefop.europa.eu/LanguageSelfAssessmentGrid/en)

For the specific needs of the U.S. Government, five levels of spoken (S) and reading (R) skills are described in the classification issued by the United States Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department:

2: Limited working proficiency

2S Able to satisfy routine special demands and limited work requirements.

2R Sufficient comprehension to read simple, authentic written material in a form equivalent to usual printing or typescript on familiar subjects.

3: General professional proficiency

3S Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations.

3R Able to read within a normal range of speed and with almost complete comprehension.

4: Advanced professional proficiency

4S Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels.

4R Nearly native ability to read and understand extremely difficult or abstract prose, colloquialisms and slang.

5: Functional native proficiency

5S Speaking proficiency is functionally equivalent to that of a highly articulate well-educated native speaker.

5R Reading proficiency is functionally equivalent to that of the well-educated native reader.

Note: This official document, understandably, does not mention Level one: Elementary proficiency, which could be summarised as basic tourist ability in the foreign language. (http://www.amexdc.com/Pictures/FSI%20Language%20Ratings.pdf )

It should be emphasised that the differences between each of those grades of proficiency are exponential (rather like earthquake grades on the Richter Scale). One does not move up a numerical notch without substantial effort. For example, a Conference Interpreter would need grade 5 proficiency. (The more detailed prescriptions in Chapter 4 of U.S. Aid Handbook 28 (http://www.usaid.gov/policy/ads/handbooks/hb28ch4.pdf) give a better idea of these different skill levels.)

Bearing in mind those rigorous standards and the increasing dominance of English as the principal international lingua franca, it is not surprising that citizens and officials from English-speaking (‘Anglophone’) countries have had a poor record in foreign language skills, especially in contrast with citizens of European countries. In USA, Secretaries of State, including the present incumbent, Clinton, have tended to follow this convenient pattern of not bothering (and not having to bother) with proficiency in foreign languages (Rice is an exception to this pattern, like her European-American predecessors Albright, Schultz and Kissenger and President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

*

A survey of the available Internet evidence about Dr Rice’s Russian proficiency revealed the following.

Dr Rice’s three university degrees are in political science. In her undergraduate degree, language courses are sometimes mentioned vaguely in biographical comments but the number, type and levels are not specified. I have found no specific reference to “Condy” Rice studying Russian (although she must have done this). In the Wikipedia article on her (which doesn’t mention fluency in Russian), Dr Rice is described as an expert on the Soviet Union (and indeed she served as such under President George H.W. Bush). Also mentioned by wikipedians is her PhD in Political Science written at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (a dissertation focusing on military policy and politics in Czechoslovakia.

In view of all the complimentary references to fluency, the failure to find any concrete facts on Dr Rice’s Russian studies was frustrating. After all, to be fluent in a language, a university course in Russian 101 (and, preferably, 201) would be a good basis, but this is unlikely to get you very far along the path of being proficient enough in the language to converse on social, political and diplomatic themes in international gatherings – although it is also true that, in the social events connected with international meetings, English is the lingua franca – which is part of the reason why many “Anglo” diplomats and politicians do not feel the need to invest considerable effort necessary for attaining fluency in a foreign language. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the interlocutor’s language can create or strengthen empathy between officials of two nationalities. (A very notable recent “Anglo” exception to this rule of thumb is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia, whose fluent command of Mandarin has been recorded several times on TV and radio News and has achieved star status and much kudos for him in China.)

Further Internet searches for specific references to Condoleezza Rice speaking in other tongues, especially Russian, reveal only a few clues, but these are quite useful.

Several parts of the following much-quoted Fox News report on 21 April 2005 (attributed to Associated Press) add pieces to the fluency puzzle. Here Dr Rice is responding to Russian callers’ questions on a Russian radio talkback programme. While it is not clear if the questions are in Russian (or translated for her) or in English, it is patently clear that her monosyllabic ‘ Da’ and ‘ Nyet’ before answering in English do not prove fluency or confidence in Russian. The italicised bracketed […] comments below are my observations on the language proficiency (or fluency) displayed.

“Rice Says in Russian She’ll Run for President” (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,154104,00.html)

“One day you will run for president?” Rice was asked on Ekko Moskvy Radio.

“President, da, da,” Rice readily replied. That, as nearly everyone knows, even if they are not fluent in Russian as Rice is believed to be, means yes. [“believed to be”]

“Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet,” Rice quickly added, taking herself out of the race as fast as she’d gotten into it. [Alternatively, perhaps she had misunderstood the question, if it was asked in Russian. But that possibility would undermine the whole Fox ‘scoop’.]

“The former academic, whose specialty was Soviet studies, is fluent in Russian – usually. Moments before, in response to a series of friendly questions from listeners, Rice had begun her answers by saying “Da”. Her mood was clearly upbeat as she assured one listener, in Russian, that “the United States and the American people respect the great culture of Russia, respect the great people of Russia, and we know that Russia has a very good future ahead of it.”

[Such a platitudinous diplomatic mantra is easy enough to memorise beforehand and even to have written in one’s notes. Russian 101, or 201.]

“She told another listener, in English, “The United States is not an enemy of Russia.”

[This is puzzling because the Russian version would only require minimal Russian 101 level knowledge: five (or six) Russian words for nine English words. Why not make the effort?]

“And when a Russian girl asked how she could become like Condoleezza Rice, she replied in English, “I don’t want to talk about myself.”

[Another easy short sentence delivered in English, when the listener would have been delighted and impressed to hear it in Russian.]

“She did, but only when the caller pressed. I enjoy very much what I do now. I have great friends and family,” Rice said.

[Simple words, requiring little ‘fluency’, but still delivered in English.]

“Rice also acknowledged in her reply, switching to Russian, that the Russian language “is very difficult…. It is difficult to speak without mistakes.”

[More Russian 101– four words: Russkiy yazyk ochen’ trudniy, plus another four words for the important final admission: Trudno govorit’ byez oshibok. Surely it should not be ‘trudno’ for a fluent person.]

“And she proved it a few minutes later by accidentally applying for the job of U.S. president.”

[Maybe. Maybe not. See my comment above on the possible misunderstanding.]

In another report on that same occasion (21 April 2005), which was a golden opportunity to speak directly with the people of Moscow and establish a rapport with them, prior to President Bush’s visit to Moscow in connection with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Condoleezza Rice gave answers to email questions in “a freewheeling, hourlong interview on radio that included the geopolitical and the personal as she tried to reassure listeners that the United States was not working against their country.” At the end of the programme she “ventures briefly into Russian”, says she is out of practice but was still described politely by a listener as speaking “fluently”. [“out of practice”]

(Tyler Marshall and David Holley

In what may be yet another (blunter) European account of the two incidents, supplementary details are added:

“Rice BUSTED. Dr. Fraud can’t speak Russian after all.” (Friday, 22 April 2005 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) (www.guerrillanews.com/forum/thread.php?id=4626)

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried out her rusty Russian in a Moscow radio interview Wednesday, only to get caught out by a question on whether she might run for president. “Da (Yes),” Rice answered in Russian, before realizing her misunderstanding and hastily adding “Nyet” (No) — seven times.

“It’s too complicated to answer!” Rice, in Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin, started out in English. “It is an opportunity for me to come back to Russia, a place I love very much. I love the culture and the language.” “She then switched into Russian, but quickly hit trouble. “Apparently meaning to say that she would like to do her next interview in the language of her host, she chose a verb that sounded more like “to earn money” than the Russian for “to do.”

All the indications in the above exchanges are that Rice is not fluent in spoken Russian, or chose not to be fluent on these occasions even though her rapport with her Russian listeners (and, indirectly, that of the U.S. Government and President, whom she was representing) might have been enhanced.

Decidedly more barbed is the following comment by John H. Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer (1981-2003), who obviously has an axe to grind. In ‘10 Percent Intellectual: The Mind of Condoleezza Rice’, Brown, in a section on Speaking in Tongues, comments:

“An important insight into how well Dr. Rice is able to understand societies distant from American shores is her putative knowledge of foreign languages, which has been hyped no end by her political supporters. “In addition to English, she speaks Russian, French, German, and Spanish,” gushes the Race 4 2008 website, […] Her lack of proficiency with Russian was ridiculed in April 2005 by Pravda (admittedly an anti-U.S. publication) …

“As for Rice’s knowledge of French, which she studied at an early age, she herself admitted in 2006 that while she could understand a conversation with President Jacques Chirac of France in his native tongue, “I can’t speak it, because I was never very good at French.”

The mention of a poor speaking ability may offer an important clue in the Rice case. It is worth repeating that many people (including PhD candidates and graduates) find speaking a foreign language much less vital and more troublesome than reading or understanding it. It is, in fact, not only possible but acceptable for an academic expert on, say, Spanish literature, not to be fluent in spoken Spanish.

At the end of a later interview (12 October 2007), on Russian RTR TV, with Sergei Brilev, also in English, the following exchange takes place following a discussion of aspects of foreign policy and nuclear missiles.

SECRETARY RICE: […] We share great global threats. We share common threats. I was a student of the old relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. We really didn’t have much –

QUESTION: How do you call yourself these days — a Sovietologist?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we’ve dropped that term, clearly. I’m very pleased that I also had firm grounding in the study of Russia. And I think for all of us, we see a tremendous evolution from the time when really about the only thing we had in common with the Soviet Union was we didn’t want to annihilate each other. And so all of our interactions, our military interactions, had that character to them. We had to be suspicious of each other. We were each other’s great enemy. We were each other’s great threat. That isn’t the case today.” [Italics added]

A fluent Russian speaker could have delivered that last important non-technical message in Russian but the interesting thing to note about Rice’s English response here is that, although some might take it for granted that this “study of Russia” included an equally firm grounding in the Russian written and spoken language, Dr Rice chooses not to mention her Russian language studies at all.

More closely relevant to Rice’s observed behaviour are the reported statements of Glenn Kessler (a Washington Post political columnist) at the launch of his 2007 biography of Rice (The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy). Kessler, who covered many of Rice’s foreign visits and had sometimes flown in the same plane, mentions her once-weekly classes with a State Department Russian interpreter. (This indicates an imprecise level or type of Russian competence. Was the tuition in Russian conversation or was it devoted to the comprehension and translation of written texts?)

Kessler is also reported here as revealing the following ‘gossipy’ detail about a conversation held during a closed meeting between Rice and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel: “‘In their private meeting, Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker who had trained as a physical chemist in the former East Germany, teasingly tested Rice’s rusty Russian,’ he writes [in his biography], citing Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s ambassador to London who formerly was Germany’s ambassador to the U.S.” If we assume Ambassador Ischinger’s account of the incident to be true, it would indicate to linguists (but not necessarily to those who are not familiar with levels of competence in languages) that the Russians and others were aware that Rice was not fluent in spoken Russian. Such a level would not enable her to talk confidently and interestingly to her official Russian interlocutors, nor to understand them on highly technical diplomatic and political topics. (The above assertions are taken from a 7 September 2007 report by the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA Novosti) on Kessler’s book launch speech)

There is some circumstantial Internet and media evidence that Russians have long been aware of Rice’s lack of fluency with their language and, perhaps, of her sensibility about this topic. It may even have become a private ‘in’ joke for them. For example, consider the end of the Moscow U.S. Embassy’s transcript of a wide-ranging interview in English with Dr Rice in Moscow, on the Russian TV station NTV, on 20 April 2005. (The same date as the previous three radio accounts!)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Madame Secretary, it’s widely known that you speak fluent Russian.

SECRETARY RICE: [In Russian.] (Laughter.)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Do you ever use it when talking to Russian officials, and does it help you?

SECRETARY RICE: [In Russian.]

MR. PIVOVAROV: Do you use it in talks with Mr. Putin?

SECRETARY RICE: [In Russian.] (Laughter.)

MR. PIVOVAROV: Last question. You already met with our channel last time when you were in Moscow one year ago; and when my colleague asked you maybe you could play something on the piano, you said, next time probably. Is this the time, Madame Secretary?

SECRETARY RICE: Next time. (Laughter.) [In Russian.]

MR. PIVOVAROV: Madame Secretary, thank you very much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. (end transcript)

Mr Alexei Pivovarov’s sudden change of topic may not be entirely innocent. Dr Rice’s unrecorded replies in Russian to simple questions which invite basically Yes/No answers are unlikely to prove the sort of fluency for which she is constantly lauded in the Western media. Quality of accent would be clear, but that is easier to acquire than fluency in a language. In fact, her answers to the four questions could quite easily have been along the following Russian 101 lines. Such basic responses in any language are always greatly appreciated by speakers of the ‘foreign’ language, who are only too happy to praise the foreign speaker, just for making the effort.

Da. Ya znayu. (Yes, I know.)

Nyet. Eto nye nuzhno. (No. It isn’t necessary.) OR: Inogda. Da. (Sometimes. Yes.)

Konechno! (Of course!)

V sleduyushchiy raz. (‘Next Time’ – which was her instinctive first reply, in English.)

[These imaginary answers were composed with my elementary knowledge of spoken Russian, somewhere within the FSI’s Grade 1.]

So, was Dr Condoleezza Rice really fluent in the Russian language as well as being an undoubted expert in Russian and Soviet affairs? On the basis of the pieces of evidence presented above, mainly from the media, and her own diffident remarks and repeated hesitancy to speak ‘fluent’ Russian on Russian radio and TV, a reasonable estimate might place Condoleezza Rice’s proficiency in spoken Russian not much higher than Grade 1 (with a possible Grade 2 Reading ability) on the U.S. FSI scale (or its equivalent on the European Union scale). On the other hand, the impression given to the public by the barrage of media and official accolades of her ‘fluency in Russian’ (for the sophisticated needs of someone in her position) is that Rice’s proficiency was equivalent to the more demanding Grade 3 of the Foreign Service Institute scale, the one described as ‘General professional proficiency’ .

Since Dr Rice herself appears to make no claims of fluency in the Russian language, could this conundrum be the result of over-zealous Public Relations work by Dr Rice’s assistants and spin doctors?

(A later comment is available here.)

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