BP and Gulf Gnomes

by Translation Guy on June 18, 2010

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.


  1. To my mind, there is another communication issue here. In the current situation, these guys (Hayward and Svanberg) are paid to be hated. They may or may not have played a personal role in corporate misjudgements and lack of care before the catastrophe, but they are now thrown to the media wolves, which duly proceed to tear them limb from limb. Irrespective of the extent of any personal blame, they are the guys to hate.
    It could happen to any of us. If any gaffe with media prominence occurs in any body that we are involved in (translation company, collaborative freelance team, professional organisation, church, sports club etc.), we could be the one taking the heat from the media.
    Mistranslations and mistaken use of register in second-language utterances are merely a sub-set of the great human tendency to miscommunicate.

    • Ken says:

      Victor, I couldn’t have said it better myself, which is I guess why you had to say it.

      When Tony Hayward said he wanted his life back, the critics jumped all over him because he had departed from their script, but I thought it was the first human thing he had said. In the age of the Internet, looks like a bullseye on the backside is the badge of honor worn by all leaders caught with their pants down.

  2. Merv says:

    They better drop a low grade nuke on it and turn the sea bed to glass. This is a grossly negligent epic disaster!

  3. FrogLegs says:

    I am sick of hearing MSM rating BP and Obama on how they are doing during this oil disaster. Those idiots all think this is some kind of a frigging joke to play with and have fun as usual while capitalizing off their senseless, useless, mindless crap. I have been ridiculed by some for saying since day one that this is a disaster of epic proportions and it is becoming more obvious every day yet the games continue.

  4. F0ools gold says:

    This is such a scary scenario; I can only hope that the relief wells will work as they did in 1979 in another part of the Gulf. As it is, the harm is irreparable. It makes my blood boil to think about this happening, day after day, while everyone plays politics as usual. This is much worse than 9/11 in so many ways.

  5. Lucas says:

    Tony Hayward spent his weekend attending a yacht race! Fing guy!

  6. Girl on Raw says:

    I am so disappointed! I voted for Obama and had great hopes he would repair America and the Bush destroyed world order. However he has not come through on anything and has already failed us, the gulf, and the entire world with this still growing oil disaster. The Gulf is screwed and Obama has not stepped up to take charge. Life for those fisherman as they knew it is over.

  7. Church_goer says:

    What a moron!

  8. Of course, it’s all theater, given that neither Tony Hayward’s presence at a yachting event or the Gulf of Mexico will have any bearing on how soon this disaster gets solved. But still, most people would probably prefer to see Hayward flagellate himself publicly for as long as this crisis goes on, rather than give himself a chance to clear his mind.

  9. Gretta says:

    The latest estimate as to the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf in this man made below the ocean oil volcano is 35000 to 60000 barrels per day. That is 2.5 million gallons per day. That is an Exxon Valdez every 4 or 5 days people. This just gets worse and worse every day. They expect this to be under control in August but they will be lucky to have it stopped by Christmas if at all. Don’t forget the million gallons of life killing dispersant mixed in and that this will get into the gulf stream and go around the world causing its destruction.

  10. Georgie says:

    President Obama correctly predicted Biblical times are ahead but we will be victorious as long as all Nations hold together. He is right!

  11. Don’t get too carried away. A British news agency snapped a photo of a guy it believed was Hayward on the yacht that he owns with other investors, but BP would not confirm that it was him.

  12. 9/11 was not the defining moment of our time as we are told,that event has not occurred yet but that moment is coming and soon and it could very well be upon us. A lot of people tell me to get over Bush but the US and the world will never be able to as he upset US and world balance that will forever affect us all.

  13. NewYearMan says:

    Do you understand? Bet the chocolate-covered birds don’t either.

  14. grossY says:

    Righto Ken, Industry experts warned that the out-of-control well will go on spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the next two years or more if all attempts to contain or plug the gusher fail.The estimates, based on new figures supplied by Hayward, suggest the potential environmental and economic devastation would far outstrip the damage done so far by the ruptured well, which has been spewing for 64 days.

  15. Buddy says:

    A t-shirt I once saw in Times Square best sums up my feelings for Tony Hayward.

    Fuck you, you fucking fuck.

  16. He’s the Marie Antoinette of our age. Can we cut his head off now?

  17. Roy says:

    How horrid that he’d have anything to do with water, but I did call that the man would just sail as far away as possible. Jeeze. I didn’t think he’d really do anything as blatantly “screw y’all” as this.

    Sets a new standard to the “Ha, ha. I’m rich…and you’re NOT!”

    There is going to be a terrible, terrible backlash. Oh, right. That’s why they like to rewrite history books.

  18. Aphilipe says:

    Wouldn’t it be fun if a giant Great White Shark, (only black from oil), came along and took a big chunk out of the side of his boat for revenge?

  19. Amanda Ray says:

    This man is an idiot.

    He’s already seen as an elitist peckerhead.

    So his first public appearance post being relieved of day to day spill oversight duties is a glitzy yacht race.

    Also: this is on a SATURDAY, when all the networks are desperate for airtime. Guess what’s the top story? Tony at the yacht race. This newsbunny’s having a field day with it. This will spill into the Sunday talk shows and tumble in the Monday news cycle before it dies.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid man.

  20. Well a large part of Hayward’s net worth must be tied up in BP stock and stock options so he has certainly lost tens of millions on account of this if that is any consolation. And the same must be true for all of the other BP senior executives.

    But with that aside it was disgraceful that he couldn’t answer even the most simple questions presented to him at the congressional hearing. What BP is doing behind the scenes minimize its guilty is completely different from what it is advertising.

    Just like those ubiquitous BP advertisements about clean energy that were all over tv for a few years despite the fact Hayward had completely eliminated BP’s clean energy program.

    And worse still its claim it is putting 20 billion into a recovery fund despite forum shopping for an oil energy judge who will minimize the number of claims that are recovered from that fund.

  21. Doug Hoyns says:

    This is so tone deaf.

  22. Cole says:

    When the GOP excoriated Obama for playing a few rounds of golf and hanging with Bono, my first instinct is to defend my beloved President. But realistically: the Republicans are right. Appearances matter. And going yachting in the North Atlantic while the Gulf fills up with crude is just soooo… dumb. Not that I think Tony has anything to really do with stemming the flow of the oil. But the guy on top needs to appear to be constantly engaged, even if the reality is that no one’s handing him a scuba tank and a socket wrench and sending him to the bottom of the ocean.

  23. Zack says:

    “One day son, this will all be yours”

  24. Carly says:

    At least in Bin Laden has the dignity to hide in a cave

  25. Gwen T says:

    LOL… A cave!

  26. Umsa Shiad says:

    Hopefully an oily pelican won’t divebomb his face and pluck out his eyes.

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