Lost in fog, or lost in translation?

by Translation Guy on April 21, 2010

Was it communication error that led to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński and many other Polish VIPs in a deadly crash in Smolensk?

Russian aviation laws dictate that, when traveling to a non-international airport, at least one member of a foreign crew should speak Russian. It is unclear whether any of the eight crew members aboard the ill-fated Tupolev-154 spoke the language fluently.

“It made understanding difficult,” the air traffic controller said. “Initially, when the plane followed the normal course, talks with the crew were calm. But pilots did not report [their intentions], although they should have. The controller should not only inform the crew about the situation, but also receive a response about all maneuvers, [and] flight altitude. The pilots did not do this.”

Polish pilots are generally fluent in English. An air traffic controller who preferred to remain anonymous told the Warsaw Business Journal that the English language skills of their Russian counterparts were “notoriously bad.”

The recordings of the final moments of the crash, which will be released on the 22nd, should shed some light on the fog of speculation that surrounds the last moments onboard the aircraft.

If it turns out that flight instructions were lost in translation, the Smolensk flight will join a long list of plane crashes caused by communication error.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a pop-anthropological approach to plane crashes.  In a chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” he describes how some cultures are better at having plane crashes than others.

In a Q&A with Fortune magazine, Gladwell opines:

“Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s… What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

“But Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.”

Personally, I think this power-distance stuff is fantasy.  Cultural differences do lend themselves to statistical measurement, but this power-distance stuff is so crude a measure as to be useless for anything but cartoon criticism.

Mitigated speech ― when a subordinate plays down his or her concerns when communicating with a superior ― is pretty much culturally universal. It lay behind the series of events that lead to the death of 583 people aboard two 747s in the worst air disaster in history at Tenerife airport in 1977.

The crash of an Italian HH-3F in France in 2008 may have been caused by out-and-out translation error. Aviation expert David Cenciotti reported that the inquiry found that the chopper lost a blade due to bad maintenance and an incorrect translation of the aircraft manual. The crew put down when they saw a warning light, but after landing in Dijon for further checks, they continued on because the manuals they were using contained a translation error that lead them down the wrong path to address the problem.

There’s no room for error in the cockpit, since communication failure can ground you all too quickly.


  1. me says:

    Anyone from poland I ever met, was pretty good in understanding and even speaking russian. Because the two languages share a lot of similar vocabulary and russion was THE universal language in the former eastern bloc.

    • Ken says:

      True, I guess, but sounds like these guys didn’t have enough language in common to avoid hitting the trees in the fog. We’ll know more soon.

  2. Jamie Towns says:

    I think there was a conspiracy against President Lech Kaczynski and that the plane crash was not an accident, but a murder.

  3. President Lech Kaczynski was very pro-American and a major promoter of former President George W. Bush’s missile defense plan in Poland, which was opposed by Russia, former Bush administration National Security Council official Jamie Fly said. Conspiracy theories are swirling in Poland, but it seemed the weather/fog was very bad.

  4. Chloe M. says:

    There will be many who see conspiracy. There will be those who call for drastic measures. There will be those who cynically see the opportunity to take advantage of this tragedy for their own political gain. But I think this was an accident. Possibly, as Ken puts it, a translation error…

  5. Matthew says:

    Kaczynski wasn’t popular in Russia, and his death made the politics for that country much easier. They were big issues about Katyn, therefore it’s almost ironic that all these people died on the way to the ceremony of 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

  6. Jayden Scott says:

    The crash wiped out almost half of Poland’s leadership ,some of the country’s highest military and civilian leaders (polish elite!)

    Kaczynski’s plane was 500-700 metres from the runway, and about 20 metres off the ground.
    Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart,

    fell apart?!?!

  7. Samantha says:

    As soon as the crash happens Putin declares it was a pilot error? How does he know? Was he there? Did he investigate? No. Governments do NOT hire pilots that are low-ranked to fly presidents.

  8. Addison says:

    No matter the reason, this is a terrible circumstance and I hope the families are ok.

  9. maybe the fact that 500 billion cubic meters of gas have been discovered in Poland not long ago may shed some light on this. the most obvious implication was that it would make Poland independent from Russia.

  10. Joseph_Tyron says:

    I believe there’s no conspiracy and people is overreacting.

  11. NatalieH says:

    I like this ang;e, language is a huge barrier for pilot communication in general – I’m a pilot, I should know.

  12. David Toast says:

    Incorrect translation of the planes manual? Are you kidding me…someone needs to be held accountable for this…

  13. Mia says:

    Let’s all just use English – end of discussion

  14. Alexis says:

    Lesson: stay awat from Korean Air!

  15. ejaz14357 says:

    I like this ang;e, language is a huge barrier for teaching in general – I’m a teacher, I should know.

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