The Language of Diplomacy

by Translation Guy on March 12, 2009
0 comments

Lots of headlines this week on translation gaffs. I find them hilarious and a nice change from that old chestnut about poor branding of the Nova car model in Latin America many years ago (“No va” just “Doesn’t go” en español. Get it?).  The only problem with all these news reports is that all the headlines read “Lost in Translation” ad infinitum.

My favorite was when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the Russians the diplomatic equivalent of the Staples “That was Easy” button. It was supposed to read “Reset” in Russian, but instead was mistranslated as “Overcharge” or “Overload,” which it seems has some bad connotations in Russian.

Secretary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a big laugh over it at the photo op, and Sunday morning I saw Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” saying something to the effect of “this sort of thing happens.”

It didn’t play so well in the Russian media, though. Such carelessness makes Americans look like idiots overseas, and it’s often seen as an insult or a sign of contempt.

Seeing as the list of these US errors goes on and on, I think that perhaps our friends overseas are drawing the correct conclusion.

As the de facto translation service of the United Nations (we are across the street), we’ve done a lot of work translating and interpreting for public policy.  Let me tell you, if we ever made a mistake like that here in NYC, we would get dumped faster than you can say “overcharge.”

There is a sure-fire fix for this, though, which I learned when I worked at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Here’s how it should have been done:

The policy guys provide a brief for professional writers of the target language (in this case, Russian). The writers are not translators; they write the speech, or statement, or press release from scratch in the target language, based on the brief, just the same as if it was written for an English-language audience by professional English writers. Only after the target language copy is completed is it translated back into source language. If the translation creates problems back home, policy guys order up changes, and back and forth, back and forth it goes, until the target language is spot-on for style and policy.

So at the end of the day (or usually just before dawn), it’s just right for the intended audience. If it’s a speech, the text is distributed to the press and to the interpreter, so they have a chance to study it before the speech begins.

This is to make the target language (in this case Russian) the control language (i.e., the official and final meaning), instead of the original language, which is usually the control language.

Okay, this isn’t always possible, and it’s a method used more for public policy communication (PR in diplo-speak) than for matters of state, where communication is carefully scrutinized by multiple parties throughout the process. This is a cool process, and one which the State Department does very, very well.

But this PR stuff is what plays in the press, which influences public opinion, which in turn drives public policy ― which should be treated as important as a treaty.

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