Posted tagged ‘foreign languages in international diplomacy’

Mistranslation 7. U.S. Expertise in the Russian Language

9 March 2009

Hectares of print and cubic metres of ether have already been filled by reports of Hillary Clinton’s staffers’ gaffe in mistranslating into Russian the word for ‘Reset’, on a mechanical button which the U.S. Secretary of State publicly presented to her opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, as a symbolic gesture of , well, ‘glaznost’, perhaps, between the two nations. (Geneva, 6 March 2009)

As she presented Lavrov with the tiny box, Clinton made a self-conscious remark typical of public speakers (especially “Anglos”) who know little of foreign languages and are constantly dealing directly with foreign dignitaries who speak perfect English: “We [!] worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Since the word printed on the button was Peregruzka, Lavrov replied, gently: “No. You got it wrong. … This means ‘overcharge.’” [ Or ‘overload’] The Russian Foreign Minister went on to explain that the word needed was Perezagruzka. With a nervous throaty guffaw, Secretary Clinton instantly delivered her ‘spin’, both evasive and aggressive: “Well, we won’t let you do that to us, I promise.” The incident ended very amicably indeed.

(See, for example:

(For the record and for language buffs, both of those words are derived from the basic Russian noun gruz, which means load or weight.)

In one blog on this mistranslation, I read the acerbic comment that although George W. was frequently pilloried for his less than perfect command of English, he had at least chosen as Secretary of State a person who was an expert in the Russian language. This set me thinking, and then searching. Hundreds (probably thousands) of Internet articles on Dr Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, repeat over and over again that she is “fluent in Russian”, an “expert in the Russian language”, and speaks French, German and Spanish (level unspecified). And yet with her 4 years of exposure to the news cameras and microphones at international meetings and official discussions with foreigners, I cannot recall ever having heard her say anything on camera in Russian. Since this may be because I haven’t been paying much attention to this peripatetic lady, I delved a little deeper, especially into her biography.

The extensive results of my delving are worth sharing in a separate  article.  Just posted.