Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lost in Translation

Politico reports on a snafu perpetrated by the staff of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a recent meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The Obama Administration has continued to pursue the theme of "reset" in their approach to Russo-American relations. Clinton gave Lavrov a "reset button", with a Russian translation. A cute idea, but her aides mistranslated the word. Lavrov reportedly laughed it off, and it's only considered a major issue in the hypercritical atmosphere of Washington.

But I'm reminded of a much more embarrassing gaffe by a previous Democratic administration. During Jimmy Carter's arrival speech when he visited Poland in December 1977, he spoke of wanting to get to know the Polish people. Well, his translator used the wrong word for "know", one that denoted carnal knowledge, rather than merely personal acquaintance.

That would have been an awkward situation in any country. But in light of the fact that the Germans, the Russians, and others, had repeatedly taken the action Carter described against Poland (figuratively speaking) throughout history, it got the president off to a bad start.

Toward the end of his first year in office, Carter had started to develop a reputation for incompetence. His budget director had resigned amid a scandal. He showed a remarkable degree of difficulty in getting his legislation through a Congress in which his party had large majorities in both houses. The mistake in Poland added a bit more fuel to the fire, as Carter slid downhill toward his eventual reelection defeat in 1980.

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