Just as BP efforts to cap the gusher a mile below the Gulf of Mexico have only increased the release of oil, the same can be said about their oily communications effort. BP CEO Tony Hayward, for all his attempts at sincerity (“I want my life back too”), must be the most hated man running the most hated company in America these days. It seems to have finally dawned on BP that using him as chief spokesman was probably just as effective as their efforts to cap the well: catastrophic.
So after the Obama administration’s $20 billion dollar shakedown of BP last Wednesday, it was Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg’s turn to pour some oil on those troubled waters. Svanberg, a Swede fluent in English corporatese, only managed to pour gasoline on the BP PR fire.
“I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies, or greedy companies, don’t care. But that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people.” [See YouTube clip of the event here.]
“Small people” made me think of that line, “I won’t forget the little people,” a jokey American expression used when some formerly little person suddenly has a chance to climb over the other little people to become big. Now, even though it seems like that’s exactly what Svanberg thinks (and I’ll come back to that in a minute), it’s surely not what he intended to say. What was he thinking?
So for insight into the Swedish mind, I called my friend Jesper Sandberg of Sandberg Translation Partners Ltd, only to discover that he was Danish. But he was kind enough to put Swedish linguist Åsa Lindholm on the case. They think that in his off-the-cuff remark, Svanberg was mentally translating the idiomatic Swedish expression “den lilla människan.” This literally means “the small human,” but figuratively speaking, it means “someone who hasn’t got a lot of power” or, more commonly, “ordinary people/the man on the street.”
Crossed idioms are the bane of second-language speakers, and I’d nominate this mental mistranslation fail as the costliest of the decade. (Readers will be happy to know that Svanberg has lost a bundle on his BP stock since he started last year.)
On Thursday, Dagens Nyheter, the largest daily is Sweden, made a more gnome-like translation failure in explaining American nuance to Swedish readers. Translation by Simon below:
“A tiny word can make all the difference between respect and ridicule. Carl-Henrik Svanberg’s choice of the word ‘small’ has given rise to anger and malicious comments. The slip of the tongue has already made its way onto T-shirts: ‘People say that major oil firms don’t care about small people. But we do. We do care about dwarfs.’
“BP chairman Carl-Henrik Svanberg had surely been unaware that almost flawless English would be required to be certain of being able to stand outside the White House and succeed in reaching out to millions of Americans with the tarnished oil firm’s message.
“In a short statement to the press after the meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, Svanberg had intended to say that BP thinks about the little guy, in other words all the ordinary citizens along the Gulf Coast who have been affected by the oil slick. Unfortunately he chose the words ‘small people’ rather than a term such as ‘ordinary people.’ There is a subtle difference, but to American ears it sounded like Svanberg was talking about short people or gnomes.
“It didn’t take long for the blunder to reverberate around the Internet, generating a veritable flood of reactions. Ironic comments have been among the nicer ones. Many people are outraged.”
Svanberg has been criticized for taking a back seat on this and letting Hayward take all the hits. But after that White House performance, can you blame him? Even the President’s silver tongue has only allowed him to dig a presidential-sized hole in his reputation with no translation required.
As Stalin didn’t say, “The death of one pelican is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” It’s tough for even top-notch narcissistic parasites to pretend day after day that they actually care about all of us gnomes, each and every one of us. But is what they say and how they say it even relevant to public reaction? When you catch your neighbor taking a shit in your swimming pool, you are not going to much like what he says, no matter how he says it.
Special thanks to Jesper, Åsa and Simon for their help on this post, and to all you gnomes out there for the pithy comments to come. Please try to stay coherent and not too obscene in your remarks.